Monday 2nd November 2020
The government has been compelled to extend quarantine curfews as COVID-19 is ripping through the country in what looks like an unceasing wave. Perhaps, it may have to resort to much more stringent measures to curb the spread of the virus in spite of the socio-economic costs they will entail. Several other countries have also chosen to do so, unable to beat the virus.
Three key health officials engaged in the country’s battle against COVID-19, in an interview with Derana TV, over the weekend, discussed the current pandemic situation here, the steps the health authorities, the military, the police et al had taken to curb the transmission of the virus, facilities available at the state-run health institutions and what needed to be done to break the back of the problem. They were Health Secretary Maj. Gen. Dr. Sanjeewa Munasinghe, Director General of Health Services Dr. Asela Gunawardena and Dr. Samantha Ginige of the Epidemiology Unit of the Health Ministry. Moderator was Chathura Alwis. The discussion was very insightful. Insisting that the pandemic was still at the cluster stage, the three doctors stressed the need for an all-out effort to prevent it reaching the community transmission level. They sounded reassuring and stated that the national healthcare system was not overwhelmed, and it was ready to face any eventuality.
The current wave of infections has made institutional quarantine an uphill task. The success of home quarantine hinges on public cooperation, which is sadly lacking in this country if how people behaved in the virus-hit Atolugama, etc., some moons ago, is any indication. A large number of people are reported to have left the Western Province to avoid the curfew currently in force there to prevent infections from fanning out to other areas. Hence, the health authorities prefer institutional quarantine, which is far more effective yet very expensive. However, the country will be left with no alternative but to place suspected COVID-19 patients under self-quarantine if push comes to shove. There’s the rub.
Thankfully, the ICUs are far from overwhelmed, according to the Director General of Health. But the situation is likely to change for the worse sooner than expected. The number of infections has already exceeded 10,000 and is expected to rise exponentially within the next few weeks. The country has only 641 hospitals with 84,728 beds (3.9 beds per 1,000 persons), according to the Medical Statistics Unit, and most of them were overflowing with patients even before the COVID-19 outbreak. They usually have patients lying under beds and in corridors. There are only 91 medical officers per 100,000 persons (or one medical officer per 1,099 persons). The number of nurses per 100,000 persons is about 212. These numbers are not sufficient. Frontline health workers are burnt out, and some of them have even contracted COVID-19. Those serving in the hospitals where COVID-19 patients are treated have not seen their families for weeks. How bad the situation will be in the event of a community transmission of the virus is not difficult to imagine.
The most important take-away from the aforesaid television discussion was that Sri Lanka has benefited tremendously from its free healthcare system, which, however, has not found favour with the international lending institutions. Healthcare accounts for only 5.92% of the total government expenditure, according to the latest Health Ministry statistics. What would have befallen the country if there had not been a well-established public healthcare system is anybody’s guess. Among the critics of the free healthcare system are some captains of industry. They do not seem to have realised that the state investment in free healthcare has helped keep the cost of production low.
The instrumentality of public healthcare systems in the battle against coronavirus has not only had great appeal the world over but also shown that government expenditure on healthcare has to be increased. In the US, President Donald Trump has made an election pledge to make the COVID-19 vaccine available to all Americans free of charge! A few years ago, whoever would have thought that the GOP, which went all out to scrap Obamacare, would have to make such a promise?
It is hoped that Sri Lanka will minimise waste, curtail expenditure on mega projects, which can wait, and make more budgetary allocations for the health sector. Unfortunately, health does not seem to figure very high on the government’s agenda if what is reported of the next Budget to be presented to Parliament is anything to go by. Lessons learnt during crises must not be forgotten.
Noble effort, and roadblocks
Monday 8th August, 2022
The past few days have seen a surge in efforts to form an all-party government. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has so far held a spate of meetings with other political leaders and civil society activists on the matter, but nothing definitive has come of them. They are not likely to reach a consensus any time soon.
Almost all stakeholders have so far met the President, who has given them a patient hearing and agreed to take their views on board. They have spoken well of the proposed national government and said they are sanguine about the prospects of it becoming a reality. But politicians are those who do not mean what they say and vice versa, and their minds are too elusive for anyone to get inside. All of them have expressed willingness to form a unity government because the people are asking them to make a concerted effort to save the economy, but what they have up their sleeves is anyone’s guess.
The task of roping in politicians to do anything good for the public is more difficult than that of keeping frogs in a lidless container, as they say. If an all-party administration is to be set up to restore politico-social stability and help repair the economy, every stakeholder will have to make a genuine effort. But as for collective action, our political leaders only pay lip service to the national interest; they do just as the seven proverbial wayfarers who agreed to put a fistful of rice each into a pot to make some porridge, but cheated and had to settle for hot water for dinner.
President Wickremesinghe has evinced a keen interest in making all parties represented in Parliament partners in governance, and his efforts are to be commended. But the ground reality is such that the task of forming an all-party administration is beyond the President’s power, for he has only a single MP on his side. Therefore, even if the SJB, the SLFP, the TNA, the SLPP dissidents, etc., are genuinely desirous of forming a national government, they and the President will have a massive hurdle to clear in their path; the SLPP leadership is not well-disposed towards the idea of all-party government because such an arrangement will lead to the loosening of its grip on power.
The SLPP is trying every trick in the book to cling on to power, recover lost ground and be fighting fit politically in time for the next election. It is obviously ready to go to any extent to safeguard its interests. The Rajapaksas have demonstrated that they know more than one way to shoe a horse. The Aragalaya succeeded in ousting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and pressuring Mahinda Rajapaksa to step down as the Prime Minister, but it has been swings and roundabouts for the anti-government protesters; the Rajapaksa family continues to control the government.
A few moons ago, the Basil Rajapaksa faction of the SLPP was accused of scuttling the then President Rajapaksa’s efforts to set up an all-party government. It serves the interests of the Rajapaksa family to have two persons heavily dependent on the SLPP for their political survival as the President and the Prime Minister, besides a Cabinet consisting of SLPP members and some crossovers.
Powerful as President Wickremesinghe is constitutionally, the fact remains that in reality he is only a big fish in Basil’s pond. The same goes for Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena. He who controls the party that has a majority in Parliament is more powerful than both the President and the Prime Minister. Basil can pull the rug out from under both the President and the Prime Minister, at will. So, it is highly unlikely that they will resort to anything that is not to Basil’s liking. It will be interesting to see the effect of ongoing efforts to form an all-party government on the SLPP’s group dynamics.
Meanwhile, what the country needs is an interim, all-party government with a timeframe for an early general election, and not the continuation of the current dispensation with the participation of some more parties.
Where are we headed?
Where the country is headed remains very much in the air as this is being written. The frightening fuel queues remain a fact of life although there was some respite after the QR code became effective from last week. The long lines have by no means evaporated and it is obvious to the simplest mind that whatever scheme is enforced – be it the last digit of the registration number for a small entitlement on specific days of the week or the newest method now in operation – the fuel must come in for the distribution to continue. And for that we must find the dollars to pay for the shipments as and when they come in. Therein lies the rub. Having run down our reserves to zero there is no sign of the bridging finance that was hoped for to tide over until an arrangement with the IMF is finalized hopefully sooner than later. However what is in force today is more equitable than what prevailed previously in that distribution is fairer.
The gas supply situation seems to be assured for the next couple of months. But gas, like fuel. also cannot be purchased for printed rupees. While the gas queues are now gone, when they will reappear is anybody’s guess. We have a new president and his maiden policy statement delivered last week was welcomed by many quarters. It was several decades ago that British economist Joan Robinson said that people in then Ceylon were used to eating the fruit before the tree was planted. The president used a similar idiom talking about his 25-year plan saying he wouldn’t be around when the tree he is planting begins to bear. Whether Mr. Wickremesinghe, now 73-years old, plans to seek a new term after serving out the balance tenure of the former president is not clear. In any case that’s all pie in the sky. He’s first got to make almost instant delivery on many fronts and external factors control that ability. His policy statement suggested confidence but whether this is misplaced or not remains to be seen.
Obviously an all party government, which the former president also sought to form, is still proving elusive although some support appears to have been won. GR eventually ended up with a new prime minister from the zero-scoring UNP replacing his discredited brother before fleeing the country and installing Ranil Wickremesinghe as acting president. That the UNP did not win a single seat at the last parliamentary election and gained its solitary representation via the National List on the basis of its all- island poll did not really mean that the greens were totally wiped out. What the election result demonstrated was that Sajith Premadasa with his new Samagi Jana Balavegaya polled those votes that would otherwise have gone to the UNP if the party remained intact. The majority of the UNP’s previous MPs preferred Sajith’s leadership to Ranil’s. While Wickremesinghe conceded the losing presidential election slot to Premadasa in 2019, he clung on to the party leadership and that resulted in the break-up leading to disaster.
The new president right now is busy trying to secure as much support as he can from parties already represented in parliament for a broad based government. National Freedom Front leader Wimal Weerawansa, never a friend of Wickremesinghe or the UNP, last week voted for the State of Emergency saying that the near anarchy that prevailed in recent weeks cannot be allowed to continue. He is most probably wide open for a ministry in the Wickremesinghe government. Many others too are knocking at the door and the numbers game will ensure that some of them will be admitted. This has for too long been the state of play in this so-called Democratic Socialist Republic. The present administration is clearly going to abjectly fail in ensuring that the new government will be confined to a competent cabinet of around a dozen ministers. It is not even likely that the best available talent in the incumbent parliament, leave alone expertise from outside, is going to be drawn into the effort to get the country out of the present mess. The promised executive committee system, giving a role to all MPs in the business of running the government, is poor compensation.
It is said that politics is the art of the possible. Given the scramble for political plums it has proved impossible during the past many decades to confine the cabinet to a reasonable number. The political will to so is sadly lacking. Already a convict carrying a suspended sentence for extortion is in the cabinet. A minister asked by GR to step down following a bribery solicitation complaint has been reappointed following lightening swift clearance by a government appointed committee. There is no public confidence in such whitewashes. The people have no confidence whatever in lukewarm prosecutions that have resulted in a spate of acquittals. While promises of stamping out corruption are a dime a dozen delivery has been totally lacking.
Saturday 6th August 2022
President Ranil Wickremesinghe and SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa were scheduled to meet yesterday for talks on an all-party government. The SJB is in a dilemma. It is faced with the prospect of losing more MPs to the UNP, which is emerging stronger unexpectedly. Some SJB MPs have already broken ranks, and speculation is rife that several others are likely to follow suit soon. This is a worrisome proposition for the SJB, which is divided on the proposed power sharing arrangement, which some of its MPs are openly speaking in favour of.
The SJB contemptuously rejected the idea of a unity government when it was first mooted following the appointment of Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister in May. It continued to demand a snap general election, insisting that it would not wield power without a popular mandate. It seems to have softened its stand if its willingness to talk with the President on the proposed unity government is any indication.
Premadasa has reportedly said he will quit politics if undue influence is exerted on his MPs to join the all-party government to be formed. It is doubtful whether the SJB MPs who are being wooed by the UNP will give a tinker’s cuss about such threats of political self-harm, as it were; they will defect if they are convinced that they can further their interests by returning to the UNP’s fold. After all, most of the SJB MPs are ex-UNPers.
Premadasa is in the current predicament thanks to his indecisiveness. He must be regretting his refusal to accept the offer of premiership following the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister, in May. He made a volte face when President Rajapaksa moved to appoint Wickremesinghe the PM, but he missed the bus.
President Wickremesinghe has said he will revive the UNP. So, he will have to shore up the UNP support base and vote bank; he will go all out to win over the UNPers who joined the SJB. Some members of the SLFP and the SLPP are also likely to join the UNP if the President succeeds in living up to the people’s expectations and revitalising his party.
Wickremesinghe has been a victim of crossovers. He had a significant number of his MPs joining the UPFA government, in 2005, following the election of Mahinda Rajapaksa as the President. Some of his MPs also crossed over in 2010, when President Rajapaksa was re-elected.
Wickremesinghe has also used crossovers to bring down governments. The Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga government fell in 2001 because about 16 of her MPs joined the UNP, and among them was her trusted lieutenant S. B. Dissanayake, who was the General Secretary of the SLFP at the time. The second Mahinda Rajapaksa government (2010-2015) looked rock-solid with a two-thirds majority in Parliament; the UNP was extremely weak due to crossovers and internal disputes, but Wickremesinghe sprang a huge surprise by causing a rift in the Rajapaksa administration. SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena defected together with more than a dozen UPFA MPs, and defeated Rajapaksa in the presidential race. Thus, it may be seen that Wickremesinghe is a veteran in the game of crossovers, and the SJB’s fears are not unfounded.
Perhaps, SJB Leader Premadasa could learn from former President Sirisena how to prevent a possible disintegration of his party. Sirisena blundered by antagonising a section of the SLFP, which he took over after securing the presidency in 2015. His hostility led to a split in the SLFP and the birth of the SLPP, but thereafter he acted tactfully. He joined forces with the Rajapaksas to prevent many other SLFPers from crossing over to the SLPP to contest the last general election (2020). He knew he would be left with only two or three parliamentary seats if he did not do so. He made a virtue of necessity by making the SLFP part of the SLPP coalition. He ran with the Rajapaksas and hunted with the Opposition. He might do so again as regards the proposed all-party government, for some of his MPs are likely to join it. Premadasa is apparently left with no alternative but to do a Sirisena.
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