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Editorial

Waltzing with the virus

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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.



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Editorial

Singer and different UN tune

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Friday 17th September, 2021

State Minister Lohan Ratwatte’s violent behaviour inside two prisons has drawn widespread condemnation from the civilised world—and rightly so. The government has stooped so low as to shield him, and in so doing it has brought not only itself but also the entire country into disrepute.

Popular actor turned politician Ranjan Ramanayake, given to making a melodrama out of everything in life, is serving a jail term for having said something that the judiciary deemed an affront to its dignity; he lost his parliamentary seat as a result. But Ratwatte, who forcibly entered two prisons and held some Tamil prisoners at gunpoint in one of them, on Sunday, is moving about freely, and, worse, remains a State Minister. The least the government can do by way of damage control is to sack Ratwatte and ensure that he will be arrested and prosecuted without further delay, as we argued yesterday. With the likes of him within its ministerial ranks, the government needs no enemies.

Meanwhile, no sooner had Ratwatte’s despicable behaviour come to light than the UN pontificated to Sri Lanka on the need to look after prisoners. UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka, Hanaa Singer-Hamdy said that it was the duty of the State to protect the rights of prisoners. “In our work on prison reform and drug rehabilitation, UN Sri Lanka works to strengthen capacities to uphold the rights of all those in custody and condemns any ill-treatment of prisoners,” Singer tweeted on Wednesday. One cannot but agree with her. The state of Sri Lanka is duty bound to protect all prisoners.

If only the UN had shown the same concern for its own workers taken prisoner by the LTTE. At the height of the Vanni war in 2007, the LTTE abducted two UN workers, accusing them of having helped the Tamil civilians flee the areas under its control. The captives were kept in a dungeon, badly beaten and questioned. The UN chose to keep the incident under wraps, and held clandestine talks with the LTTE to secure the release of the victims, but in vain. On 20 April 2007, we reported the capture of the UN workers. The LTTE again held a group of UN personnel and their families as part of its human shield in the Vanni, but the UN did not condemn the outfit or call upon the big powers to intervene to pressure the LTTE to release them. So much for the UN’s concern for human rights and the safety of prisoners! This kind of duplicity on the part of the UN and the world powers has stood in the way of the global efforts being made to protect human rights.

What Minister Ratwatte is reported to have done in the Anuradhapura Prison on Sunday is an act of terrorism. No civilised person can condone such brutality. Similarly, all acts of terrorism must be condemned unreservedly if human rights are to be protected. The TNA is also out for Ratwatte’s scalp. It has every right to do so, and the government must heed its concerns about the Tamil prisoners, whose safety must be ensured. But the TNA owes an apology to the Sri Lankan public for having defended the LTTE and acted as the outfit’s mouthpiece in Parliament as well as elsewhere despite its heinous crimes against civilians. The TNA, which is currently on a crusade to defend human rights, has not even condemned the LTTE for assassinating its own leaders, child abductions, civilian massacres, political killings, running illegal prisons, and the violent suppression of dissent, among other things.

Let it be repeated that the government must strip Ratwatte of his ministerial post immediately, make him face the full force of the law and ensure that the SLPP takes disciplinary action against him. It must also stop fielding murder suspects at elections, accommodating killers in Parliament, pardoning convicted murderers and appointing those who should be behind bars as ministers.

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Editorial

Arrest them!

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Thursday 16th September, 2021

Lohan Ratwatte is reported to have resigned as the State Minister of Prison Management & Prisoners’ Rehabilitation over two separate incidents where he and a group of persons, described as his friends, forced themselves into two prisons and threatened some inmates and made a nuisance of themselves to the prison officers. He, however, will continue to function as the Sate Minister of Gem, Jewellery related Industries. (A gem of a minister!)

It is a criminal offence to enter prisons forcibly, brandish firearms and threaten inmates. The government must explain why Ratwatte and others who were with him at the time of the incidents, have not been arrested, yet. The SLPP leaders came to power, promising to uphold the rule of law and ensure public security. Now, people are not safe even inside heavily-guarded prisons!

Legal action must also be taken against the officers of the Anuradhapura and Welikada Prisons for their inaction. They should have prevented the State Minister from entering their institutions allegedly under the influence of liquor and running amok. The fact that Ratwatte was the State Minster in charge of prisons at the time was no reason for them to allow him in, and let him run around in a frenzied state. Shame on them! How would the brave prison officers have reacted if an ordinary person had tried to gain unauthorised entry into a state pen? He would have been beaten to a bloody pulp.

A few months ago, the government lost no time in having an irate young driver arrested and hauled up before courts for tooting and encouraging others to do likewise in protest against the closing of a road in Colombo to make room for a foreign dignitary, at night. It also orders the police to arrest protesters for violating quarantine laws. So, there is no way it can justify its failure to have the unruly State Minister and his gang arrested.

Crush Health Mafia!

Some Health Ministry officials who take vital decisions on Covid-19 testing and allied matters are doctors working at private hospitals, and therefore there is a conflict of interest on their part, we are told. So, how can the Health Ministry be expected to make the optimal use of its medical laboratories to test inbound passengers at the BIA?

The government would have us believe that it has embarked on a mission to tame the Rice Mafia. The Consumer Affairs Authority has been conducting raids purportedly to achieve this objective. But the Health Mafia preying on the pandemic-hit people, and causing staggering losses to the state coffers, enjoys the freedom to do as it pleases. President of the College of Medical Laboratory Science (CMLS) Ravi Kumudesh has told this newspaper that some high-ranking Health Ministry officials are benefiting from a racket involving private medical laboratories and quarantine centres, but the government has taken no action against them.

The CMLS has rubbished Deputy Director General of Health Services Dr. Hemantha Herath’s claim that the state sector is not equipped to test all those arriving here from overseas. Its personnel were capable of carrying out that task if given a free hand, the CMLS has said, stressing that the number of Covid-19 tests conducted daily could be increased to 100,000 easily with the existing resources if the Health Ministry is willing to do so. Other countries are encouraging home testing by making available Rapid Antigen Test kits at reasonable prices, but the Sri Lankan government has created a situation where its cronies are thriving on testing, the CMLS alleges.

The CMLS informs us that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered the Health Ministry to purchase 30 rapid PCR machines to ramp up testing, but some officials halved that number arbitrarily. They have overridden a presidential order with impunity! They must be really powerful!

The CMLS ought to lodge a complaint with the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption against the Health Ministry officials who are preventing the state-run medical laboratories from functioning at optimal capacity to line their pockets.

The Health Department has the capacity to conduct as many as 4,500 tests a day on inbound tourists and issue reports within 90 minutes, but some officials have prevented the state-run lab at the BIA from receiving samples, which are sent to private hospitals, the CMLS has said. Strangely, the government has chosen to ignore these very serious allegations, making one wonder whether its members are also benefiting from the testing and quarantine rackets.

If the ruling party politicians and cronies are not involved in the health scams, the government should be able to order a probe into the allegations at issue.

This is something that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should take note of because the blame for the testing and quarantine rackets is laid at his door while the crooked health officials are laughing all the way to the bank together with their corrupt chums.

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Editorial

Donations tainted with politics

Published

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Wednesday 15th September, 2021

The Chinese Embassy in Colombo is reported to have handed over a consignment of medical equipment to the UNP for distribution among the state-run hospitals. China has made the donation at the request of UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, we are told. It defies comprehension why any foreign government should hand over medical equipment, meant for the Sri Lankan public, to local political parties instead of the Health Ministry. As a popular Sri Lankan saying goes, why should a donkey be entrusted with a task that is best left to a dog?

What are the criteria that China adopts in determining the eligibility of Sri Lankan political parties to handle some of its donations to Sri Lankans? There are 70 registered political parties in this country, and 15 of them are represented in Parliament. What if all of them, or the ones with parliamentary representation, ask for medical equipment from the Chinese government to be handed over to the government hospitals and gain some political mileage? Will China oblige? If not, why? Is it that kissing goes by favour? (China got a port from a UNP-led government, didn’t it?)

China has been looking after Sri Lankan politicians very well, as is public knowledge, and therefore does not have to do anything more for them. It offers junkets even to the local government members. But for the pandemic, by now, all the MPs and most local councillors would have been to China on pilgrimage. Even the most vociferous critics of China in Parliament have no qualms about benefiting from the Chinese largesse.

Political parties should not be allowed to gain political mileage from donations that come from the people of other countries to their Sri Lankan counterparts. It is an affront to the kind-hearted foreigners for their donations to be tainted with partisan politics at this end. When foreign governments make donations through local political parties, they are seen to be helping further the agendas of the latter. Is it fair for foreign governments to use their taxpayers’ money for such purposes?

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Politicians!

JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, MP, is raking Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa over the coals for having asked the government to hold a snap election. Those who call for elections while people are dying of Covid-19 need psychiatric care, Dissanayake has declared. True, there is absolutely no need for an election at this juncture, and the country’s top priority should be fighting the pandemic, and everything else can wait. But Premadasa should not be singled out for criticism; all politicians see opportunities in crises. If the present-day leaders had been in the Opposition today, they would also have asked for an election; they made the most of a national security crisis in 2019 to floor the yahapalana government and capture power.

The JVP is not acting out of principle when it opposes Premadasa’s call for polls; it is scared of facing elections. It, however, has a history of trying to topple a government while the country was in a bigger crisis. It joined forces with others in a bid to defeat the Rajapaksa administration’s budgets in 2007 and 2008 while the country’s war against the LTTE was raging. Had they succeeded in their endeavour, the government would have fallen, and an election would have had to be held; Prabhakaran would have been given ample time to have international pressure ratcheted up on Sri Lanka to halt or abandon military operations against the LTTE; the armed forces, too, would have been greatly demoralised in such a situation.

In this country, politicians think of everything in terms of elections. It is said that a politician thinks of the next election; a statesman of the next generation. Sri Lanka’s biggest problem is that it has not had statespersons.

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