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Editorial

Virus, health, and budget

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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.

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Editorial

Ministerial barks

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Monday 30th November, 2020

Wildlife Officers are protesting against a recent unfortunate incident, in Polonnaruwa, where State Minister of Wildlife Protection Forest Resource Development Wimalaweera Dissanayake had conniptions, when they refused to follow his order that villagers be allowed to graze their cattle inside a wildlife sanctuary. He was shown on television yelling at the officers menacingly in full view of the public. What he was forcing the officers to do was to violate the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. Thankfully, he failed in his endeavour, and his despicable action must be condemned unreservedly.

Minister Wimalaweera and his bosses should realise that forests, wildlife sanctuaries, rivers, lakes, etc., do not belong to the people who live near them, and politicians have no right to bend laws and regulations in place to protect such national assets, to score political points. Wimalaweera is not alone in trying to gain political mileage at the expense of the environment.

At the beginning of this year, State Minister Sanath Nishantha made a public display of his ignorance of ecology and other such matters, during an argument with a female forest officer named Devani Jayathilaka, who courageously opposed a government move to clear a mangrove forest for the construction of a playground. She pointed out that mangroves were essential to ensure that the people got enough oxygen and maintain the ecological balance of the environment. Defending his decision to build the playground, the Minister demanded to know whether oxygen could be ‘eaten’.

Rishad Bathiudeen, responsible for destroying forests, is also a creation of the present-day leaders, who allowed him to launch his deforestation drive about a decade ago. The yahapalana government also gave him a free hand. The Kallaru forest reserve has suffered irreparable damage, as a result.

The climate emergency has taken its toll on the entire world, and Sri Lanka is among the worst affected countries. Its ill-effects are already felt here; we have been experiencing extreme weather events. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, MP, revealed in Parliament, on Thursday, that Sri Lanka’s water table was receding fast, and called upon the government to adopt remedial measures. One of the main purposes of the huge reservoirs built by the Sri Lankan kings in ancient times was to increase the ground water levels, thus, facilitating the cultivation of crops and the natural growth of forests, which help retain ground water. Those kings also conserved forests, the value of which they had realised.

The present-day leaders consider themselves the reincarnations of the great kings who built reservoirs and conserved the environment, but we think they may have been lumberjacks in their previous births, given their callous disregard for forests, wildlife and water resources. They have, in their wisdom, removed the ‘other state forests’ from the purview of the Forest Department and brought them under the District and Divisional Secretaries so that they could be utilised for cultivation purposes. There is absolutely no need to clear these forests for growing food as enough cultivable lands are available elsewhere, and some of them have been abandoned. On the other hand, if the colossal postharvest losses are curtailed, most locally produced food items will not be in short supply, and the need for exploiting more land for agriculture and adding more agrochemicals to the environment can be obviated.

The government has set up a storage complex in Dambulla to help onion farmers, we are told. That is a baby step in the right direction; there is a pressing need for many more such facilities to prevent vegetables, etc., from going to waste during bumper harvests and in extraordinary situations like the current national health emergency which has affected the food distribution network.

Budget 2021 has unveiled a grand plan to increase the country’s forest cover ‘by using the lands available on both sides of the roads, in schools, government and private offices, and urban environments ….’ (Those who prepared the budget have mistaken the ‘tree cover’ for the ‘forest cover’.) Welcome as these measures may be, what the government must do immediately is to take action to conserve the existing forest cover as a national priority. The close canopy forest cover is disappearing rapidly; it decreased from about 69% in 1900 to about 22% by 2000, according to studies conducted with the help of the UN. It does not make any sense to allow the ‘other state forests’ to be cleared while trees are planted in urban spaces, etc.

The government should listen to the protesting Wildlife Officers, and allow them to carry out their duties and functions, free from political interference. It should also heed the grave concerns expressed by the Forest Officers and environmentalists about deforestation. Most of all, it had better keep its barking ministers on a tight leash. They must be made to keep their dirty hands off forest reserves, wildlife sanctuaries and other such environmentally sensitive areas.

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Editorial

A different case

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Lasantha Wickrematunge’s daughter, Ahimsa, and four others have written last week to Attorney General Dappula de Livera appealing to “protect the life” of former CID Director Shani Abeysekera held in a military-run facility for covid-19 infected persons, having contracted the virus while in remand custody. There is no escaping the fact that our overcrowded prisons, literally bursting at the seams for many years, are a hotbed of covid with both prisoners and officials highly vulnerable to infection. All those who have signed the appeal to the AG are victims of grave and violent crimes under the laws of this country. While Lasantha Wickrematunge, an outspoken editor who had courageously courted death by hitting out at the high and mighty, was brutally clubbed to death in broad daylight in a high security zone, the others say their kin had been abducted and “disappeared.”

What the AG can or will do to protect a now interdicted senior policeman remains an open question. The authorities are very well aware that jailed or detained law enforcers are under grave risk in prison where they are at the mercy of hardened criminals who cannot bear the sight of a cop. In fact, Abeysekera was accorded personal security by the state until November last year when he was removed from the CID. Such arrangements are made on the basis of threat assessments made by specialists in the subject who would have had little difficulty in determining that he was at high risk given the work he was doing. Following his removal from the CID this security was withdrawn and he was interdicted without a charge sheet, according to the appeal now before the AG. What is stated there is easily verifiable.

Persons subject to investigations, including high profile politicians in office, will have many axes to grind against policemen who either investigated or supervised the investigations of matters involving them. Thus it was a matter of no surprise that Abeysekara was removed from his high profile position and subsequently harassed, if not persecuted, after the change of government. Many persons in office have accused him by name of framing them. How true or not such allegations are remain to be established. But there is no escaping the reality that there had been political direction on who was or was not investigated. A high-powered committee is alleged to have operated from ‘Temple Trees’ determining priorities and direction of investigations. Much has been made of the fact that former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran accused of involvement in the bond scam was allowed to return to Singapore, where he is a citizen, without let or hindrance. He has since been out of reach.

That some are more equal than others is a fact of life in this country. How many persons of importance or wealth including politicians, either convicted or in custody, have spent time in the Merchant’s Ward of the National Hospital or in the Prison Hospital? Even people convicted or murder and sentenced to death who had been (or should have been) in Death Row have been beneficiaries of such privileges. Former President Maithripala Sirisena pardoned the young man found guilty of murdering his girlfriend’s sister at the Royal Park apartment complex towards the end of his term. He provided justifications for this act of clemency that many found lame. The beneficiary, conscious no doubt of the possibility of the wheel turning left the country and, as far as we know, had not returned since. It is well known that privileged persons in jail are handled with kid gloves and accorded semi-luxury facilities. We do not know whether there are arrangements in jails for the safety of vulnerable convicts or suspects (eg. policemen) even under special circumstances. With the best will in the world, these would be hard to provide under present congested conditions in prisons.

Bloodhounds set on political opponents are massively vulnerable following changes of government, and Abeysekara probably belongs to that category. It is now nearly 12 years since Lasantha Wicrematunge was bumped off by a group widely believed to be a state-connected hit squad. While some suspects have been identified and bailed, no indictments have been served up to now. His daughter and the other signatories to the letter sent to the AG say that after years of stonewalling, “Abeysekara was one of the few impartial police officers who had the courage to seek justice for our families.” They have also said in their letter “If every public servant has the backbone, integrity and conviction of Mr. Abeysekara, our loved ones would still be alive today. By doing his job and seeking justice for those we lost, Mr. Abeysekara’s own life is now in danger. We owe a debt of honour to speak on his behalf.”

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa had said in parliament as this is being written that Abeysekara should be moved to the Infectious Diseases Hospital on humanitarian grounds. It has been reported that his family too have been in contact with the Human Rights Commission regarding his welfare. We hope that the concerned authorities would take note of what has been urged and treat this police officer who has been both highly praised and strongly condemned with due consideration. Who he investigated is not relevant in this context. Travails of investigators, such as he, would be a deterrent to other law enforcers performing their duties without fear or favour especially in sensitive cases. The worst case scenario for most cops properly doing their jobs and rubbing politicos on the wrong side would be a transfer. But this case is different.

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Editorial

Name that evil foreign power!

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Saturday 28th November, 2020

Mystery surrounds some vital aspects of the Easter Sunday attacks although those who carried them out have been identified and their confederates arrested. That a group of National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) terrorists, led by Zahran Hashim, carried out a series of suicide bombings, on 21 April 2019, is known to one and all, but who actually handled them has not yet been found out. The police have confirmed that the NTJ had planned a second wave of attacks on places of Buddhist worship and the Kandy Dalada Perahera. So, if Zahran had been the real terror mastermind, he would not have chosen to die in the first wave of terror without waiting to ensure that his outfit would be able to carry out the second wave of bombings, as we argued in a previous column. Former DIG CID Ravi Seneviratne, has recently told the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, probing the Easter Sunday carnage, that someone handled Zahran, and he had to be traced if threats to Sri Lanka’s national security are be neutralised effectively.

Now, no less a person than Maithripala Sirisena, who was the President, at the time of the Easter Sunday attacks, has confirmed that there was a foreign hand behind the carnage. On Wednesday, testifying before the PCoI probing the Easter Sunday terror, he declared that there had been a foreign power behind the terror attacks. All information about the terrorist bombings at issue was available to him as the President and Minister of Defence, and his statement must, therefore, be based on credible intelligence. He should name the foreign power; not only the Sri Lankan public but also the whole world have a right to know what that evil force is. It may be responsible for terror strikes in other parts of the world as well.

On an earlier occasion, Leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and former Justice Minister, Rauff Hakeem, made a similar statement before the PCoI. He said the NTJ and its leader Zahran were only pawns, and there had been a hidden hand behind the Easter Sunday attacks, which, he said, had been aimed at destabilising the country. Asked by the commission to name names, he did so in camera.

Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjtih, however, was the first to state, in public, that the Easter Sunday attacks had been part of an ‘international conspiracy’ to destabilise the country. He said so, in July 2019, addressing a congregation at the Katuwapitiya St. Sebastian’s Church, where as many as 118 people had been killed by an NTJ bomber only three months back.

SLPP MP Mahinda Samarasinghe revealed, in Parliament, the other day, that during the closing stages of Eelam war IV, a foreign power had sought to remove Prabhakaran to safety, and one of its ships had been waiting in international waters, for the mission. He said the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa had not given permission for the vessel to enter the Sri Lankan waters. He should have named the country.

Foreign powers move resolutions against Sri Lanka on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations, but the Sri Lankan politicians lack the courage to name and shame the countries that tried to save terrorists and were behind the Easter Sunday bombings, according to them.

Now that former President Sirisena has revealed that there was a foreign involvement in the Easter Sunday bombings, Sri Lanka must seek international assistance to trace the terror mastermind. The UN could be of help in this regard. First of all, let Sirisena be urged to name the foreign power concerned. Having pathetically failed to prevent the Easter Sunday terror strikes, despite intelligence warnings, he should, at least, make public information about the perpetrators of the attacks. He must do so for the sake of the families of those who died on his watch as the President. On the other hand, the act of suppressing information about a crime is a punishable offence.

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