Waltzing with the virus
Saturday 28th August, 2021
The extension of the countrywide lockdown until 06 Sept. came as no surprise. There was no alternative. The daily count of infections is edging up, and so is the death toll, which has crossed 200. However, it is too early to gauge the impact of the ongoing lockdown on the spread of the pandemic and the fatality rate. What we are currently reaping is what we sowed collectively before the commencement of the lockdown. Whether we have at least behaved responsibly while the country is closed will be seen in a few days when the infection and fatality figures are announced. The costly preventive measures currently in place to curb the runaway transmission of the virus will yield the desired results only if the quarantine curfew is strictly enforced, but lockdowns and curfews cannot go on indefinitely.
What is gained during lockdowns by way of pandemic control is lost in next to no time when the country is reopened. The virus makes a comeback, causing infections and fatalities to rise, and necessitating another lockdown. This has been our experience, but, sadly, lessons have gone unlearnt.
The triumph of the virus has been mostly due to lack of public cooperation with the health authorities to contain it. The government has botched up its pandemic prevention programme save its vaccination drive, which is impressive. The announcement of the current lockdown, last Friday, itself gave a turbo boost to the transmission of the virus; the moment it was made, people threw caution to the wind and started stocking up. There was a buying frenzy. The government also does not look serious about having the quarantine curfew enforced strictly if the sheer number of people and vehicles on roads is any indication. The quarantine laws have apparently gone the same way as the ban on walking on railroads. But the people cannot lay the blame for the ever worsening health crisis solely at the government’s door while they themselves are flouting the quarantine laws with gay abandon, and waltzing with the virus.
Sate Minister Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle—who would have been the current Health Minister if she had dropped out of school, instead of studying hard to become a medical specialist, taken to politics earlier in life, and mastered the art of bootlicking—has told the people a home truth whether or not they are in the mood for a blast of harsh reality. She has said the lockdown will not yield the desired results unless the public resolves to abide by the health regulations and acts accordingly. If the people care to cover their mouths and noses, maintain physical distancing, wash or sanitise their hands regularly and avoid crowds, with the government ramping up the vaccination drive, there will be no need to close the country, from time to time, at an enormous socio-economic cost.
Meanwhile, some health sector trade unions have accused the government of having reduced Covid-19 testing drastically during the lockdown. The task of controlling the pandemic cannot be accomplished without reliable data, and this is why testing has to be stepped up while the country is closed so that health experts could get a clear picture of the situation. The state-run health institutions are capable of conducting as many as 100,000 tests a day, we are told. Why the Health Department does not move at full throttle to do so defies comprehension. Or, at least, the Rapid Antigen Test kits must be made available freely like pulse-oximeters, glucometers, etc., for home testing, as in other countries
Unless we redouble our efforts, as one, to beat the virus while the country is closed, the costly lockdown will end up being as futile as a ceasefire with a terrorist group.
‘Narcan’ and franchise
Friday 31st March, 2023
Some good news has thankfully emanated from the US amidst media reports full of gloom and doom. America is known as the land of opportunity, and with reason. Unfortunately, the US has opportunities presenting themselves to the good, the bad and the ugly alike. It therefore has its share of social evils including the extremely high incidence of gun violence, especially school shootings and the ever-increasing drug abuse.
The good news is that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) yesterday approved the sale of Narcan or opioid-overdose-reversing Naloxone nasal spray over the counter. This drug is expected to help save many lives being lost the world over daily due to overdoses of drugs such as heroin and fentanyl. The news of the FDA approval for Narcan broke while we were watching the unfolding drama at the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC), and thinking of the most effective antidote to the abuse of power, which has become as much a menace as narcotics in this country.
Narcotics, especially hell dust, and political power may look chalk and cheese or apples and oranges, but a close examination thereof, especially their ill-effects, will reveal some striking similarities between them. Both are highly addictive; they stupefy the addicts thereto and even drive them to mindless violence. It is extremely difficult to stop savouring power and chasing the dragon, and when addicts go cold turkey, they develop withdrawal symptoms and become aggressive and pose a danger to everyone around.
The political version of Narcan, in a manner of speaking, is the people’s franchise, which has the potential to counterbalance the abuse of power that is driving the grandees of the incumbent Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe dispensation to resort to coercion to suppress democratic dissent, crush labour struggles, dispose of national assets, and compass their politico-economic ends.
What the striking trade unions have adduced in support of their industrial action is the proposed restructuring of the CPC. Restructuring and divestiture are interchangeable to all intents and purposes in this country. The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government has not cared to obtain the views of other stakeholders, much less secure their concurrence, as regards the restructuring of the CPC, and is all out to railroad them into toeing its line. It is doing exactly the opposite of what the SLPP undertook to do and obtained two popular mandates for—one in 2019 and the other in 2020.
One of the main planks of the SLPP’s presidential and parliamentary election platforms was its much-avowed antipathy towards the divestiture of public assets. Condemning the privatisation by the UNP-led Yahapalana government of vital public ventures, the SLPP vowed to terminate the divestiture of the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and other such public assets. But its leaders have unabashedly joined President Ranil Wickremesinghe, a defeated candidate, whom they themselves elevated to the highest position in the country, after his entry to Parliament via the National List, in holding a fire sale of SOEs, having bankrupted the country. They have demonstrated that they are followers of Machiavelli, according to whom “the promise given was a necessity of the past; the word broken is a necessity of the present.” What they are practising is the very antithesis of their election manifestos, and therefore their administration is devoid of legitimacy, which is a prerequisite for the imprimatur of political respectability and public acceptance. This fact has become evident from the outcome of a recent opinion survey, according to which the government’s approval rating has plummeted to an appalling 10 percent!
Those who fear or disregard the will of the public and delay or do away with elections are not fit to govern a country. Needless to say, they must not be allowed to commit a nation to long-term bilateral or multilateral agreements that will affect generations to come. The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe regime must hold a general election and ask for a popular mandate for the implementation of its economic programme or hold a referendum thereon. This is something the so-called international community, which claims to promote democracy and good governance, should take cognisance of. If its much-advertised concern about democracy is genuine, it ought to tie aid and trade concessions such as GSP Plus to the conduct of free and fair elections in the recipient countries.
What with the SLPP-UNP combine’s determination to delay the local government polls and carry out its economic programme sans public approval, the Opposition ought to up the ante and bring pressure to bear on the government to hold a general election. But this is a tall order for a bunch of lily-livered politicians who float like bees and sting like butterflies, so to speak.
Get TUs around table
Thursday 30th March, 2023
Long lines of vehicles began to form near filling stations on Wednesday owing to a continuous strike launched by the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) trade unions, but the government managed to bring the situation under control and buy time by announcing a fuel price reduction with effect from midnight yesterday; many people decided to wait until today to avail themselves of the weekly fuel quota. The problem however is likely to persist unless the government succeeds in restoring fuel supplies preferably by negotiating with the warring trade unions.
Petroleum workers have downed tools over what they call a sinister move to privatise the CPC. The government is determined to go ahead with its restructuring programme, which is widely considered a euphemism for divestiture, while insisting that the trade unions’ claim is baseless. The Cabinet has already decided to allow three foreign companies to import, store, distribute and retail petroleum products for a period of 20 years. The CPC’s monopoly is fast becoming a thing of the past.
The CPC unions are demanding that the government abandon its restructuring plan, which is an IMF condition. The government is resorting to strong-arm tactics to crush the strike. It has called in the police and the military and declared the CPC premises out of bounds for the striking unions. Saman Rathnapriya, Director General of Trade Unions to President Ranil Wickremesinghe, has taken on the striking unions, which claim that the CPC is making huge profits and therefore must not be privatised. He is supposed to negotiate with trade unions and bring about rapprochement, but he has, in his wisdom, chosen to ride roughshod over them. Interestingly, in trying to pooh-pooh the claim that the CPC is a profit-making venture, Rathnapriya has said it is earning profits by jacking up the prices of its products.
It is popularly said in this country that even if one’s mouth lies, one’s tongue doesn’t. Rathnapriya has admitted, albeit unwittingly, that the government keeps fuel prices unreasonably high to maximise profit while the public is struggling to make ends meet! This exploitative policy is against the founding principles of the CPC, which was set up to serve the interests of the public. The CPC mission statement says, inter alia, that it strives ‘to be a market leader by procuring and supplying petroleum and related products at competitive prices’. One of the main allegations against all multinationals is that they are bent on profit maximisation at the expense of their customers. Sadly, the ‘homegrown’ CPC has failed to be different if the unconscionably high prices of its products are any indication. Perhaps, this is the reason why the petroleum sector trade unions have not succeeded in drumming up enough public support for their struggle. This however does not mean that the people approve of the haphazard disposal of state assets.
There are arguments for and against the restructuring of the CPC. The proponents thereof claim that if the petroleum market is made competitive with more companies being allowed to enter it, benefits will accrue to consumers from competition. But the problem is that there is no such thing as perfect competition in this world; moneybags collude to protect their own interests at the expense of consumers. The advocates of dirigisme or state monopoly over products and services argue that the public benefits from the state involvement in the provision of essential commodities and services, and the CPC must retain its monopolistic status to ensure the country’s energy sovereignty, which is an integral part of national security. If multinationals are allowed to dominate power and energy sectors, they will be able to hold the country to ransom, the critics of the government’s restructuring programme have warned. These arguments are tenable to some extent, but the fact remains that all state-owned enterprises (SOEs), save a few, have become huge liabilities that provide sinecures to the supporters of the government in power and bleed the state coffers dry. Most of these outfits have outlived their purpose and become anachronisms. It is being claimed in some quarters that they need to be restructured, but the baby must not be thrown out with the bathwater. Equally, questions are being raised about the bona fides of some of the foreign companies that are planning to enter the local petroleum market. They are thought to be fronts for some local politicians and their kith and kin. One can only hope that the government will try to clear these doubts and suspicions.
The supporters of the government’s divestiture project argue that when D. S. Senanayake was the Prime Minister, there were no SOEs as such, but the country was prosperous. This is a cleverly masked non sequitur. It was a different era. The British had just left and there were surplus funds; more importantly, waste and corruption were unheard of, and political leaders were statespersons driven by altruism. The country achieved progress in those days mostly because it was free from the likes of the present-day politicians, and its wealth was safe; the wealthy who took to politics ran the risk of being reduced to penury unlike today.
Politicians of every hue and their cronies have ruined the SOEs, which are in the red. Now, they are trying to blame these outfits for the country’s economic woes in a bid to justify the ongoing fire sale of state ventures, some of which are profitable and have even helped lessen the state’s dependence on taxes to a considerable extent much to the benefit of the public.
The government must not try to bulldoze its way through. It must negotiate with the striking CPC unions and try to arrive at a compromise formula. After all, its leaders have a history of negotiating with even the LTTE despite the latter’s savage terror campaign to divide the country, don’t they?
Wednesday 29th March, 2023
Former President Maithripala Sirisena has requested the public to help him pay compensation for his lapses to prevent the Easter Sunday terror attacks in 2019. The Supreme Court (SC) has ordered him to pay Rs. 100 million as compensation. He would have the public believe that there are only three months left for him to carry out the SC order, and he will have to go to jail if he fails to do so. Whether anyone will be so stupid as to part with his or her money in a bid to prevent a politician from going to jail remains to be seen. What made Sirisena think that the discerning public will spend their hard-earned money to deny themselves the pleasure of seeing a political leader behind bars?
Sirisena is trying to make himself out to be so poor that he cannot raise Rs. 100 million! It is doubtful whether he will succeed in his endeavour. His has been a rags-to-riches story, and the same goes for all other Sri Lankan politicians. The people who enabled them to achieve success in life are still in rags, struggling to keep the wolf from the door!
Sirisena is one of the politicians who have mastered the art of pulling the wool over the eyes of the unsuspecting public. He took the masses for a right royal ride and achieved his presidential dream in 2015. He did so by shedding copious tears for the victims of the Rajapaksa misrule and promising to usher in good governance and throw the members of the Medamulana clan behind bars for their crimes, but a few years after securing the presidency, he unashamedly closed ranks with his betes noires and cocked a snook at the public. He famously used a cheap ballpoint pen to sign papers at his induction ceremony in January 2015 but did not scruple to allocate public funds with a generous hand for refurbishing a palatial state-owned house with a view to occupying it in retirement. Thankfully, his plan seems to have gone pear-shaped. He was more airborne than ‘chairborne’ as the President, and it will be interesting to know how much his numerous whirlybird rides and foreign travel cost the state coffers.
It is his abject failure to ensure public security, in his capacity as the President and Minister of Defence, that the SC has asked Sirisena to pay compensation for, and why on earth should the people help him? Sri Lankans, no doubt, deserve punishment for having elected failed politicians as their leaders over the years but, in our book, the suffering they are undergoing due to their country’s bankruptcy could be considered their comeuppance and no other punishment is required.
Gone are the days when the rich died poor in politics in this country after spending all their money for the good of the public. Today, the indigent and their families amass colossal amounts of wealth thanks to politics. None of the prodigal scions of the present-day political families have any discernible sources of income but are living the life of Riley, sporting expensive designer wear, moving about in flashy vehicles and having fairytale weddings while the children of the ordinary public are undergoing untold hardships and being tear-gassed and baton-charged for trying to win their rights.
A presidential election costs the candidates of the main political parties billions of rupees. How did Sirisena, who claims to be in penury, raise funds for his presidential election campaign? His younger brother, Dudley, is one of those who helped him financially.
Dudley is a member of the Rice Millers’ Mafia, which has earned notoriety for exploiting farmers and consumers alike with impunity. He would not have been able to achieve success without Sirisena’s backing. There are many others whom Sirisena helped in numerous ways; he even granted a presidential pardon to a convicted murderer on death row. It is up to them to provide him with necessary funds to pay compensation in keeping with the SC order, if he is really in need of money.
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