Friday 8th January, 2021
The hurly-burly’s done, and the battle’s lost and won, in the US. The Congress has certified Joe Biden as the next US President. America has got a decent leader. What we witnessed on Wednesday was a Dickensian paradox. It was a sad day for the US; the American democracy came under attack in an unprecedented manner. It was also a happy day for the US, for its democracy demonstrated its resilience.
Mobocracy. Insurrection. Terrorism. These were some of the terms the western media and irate US politicians used to describe Wednesday’s protest in Washington, DC, where angry Trump supporters laid siege to the Capitol, the sanctum sanctorum of US democracy while a joint congressional session was in progress to certify Biden’s win. Clashes that ensued between the protesters and the police left four persons dead and several others injured.
Thankfully, the mobs could not deter the Congress from carrying out its constitutional duty. President Donald Trump made a virtue of necessity; he assured that there would be an orderly transition on 20 January, when Biden will be sworn in as the 46th US President. One, however, cannot be so optimistic as to say all’s well that ends well. The United States is divided perhaps as never before. Rancour is bubbling forth from political fissures at all levels of the American polity. Biden has undertaken to help his beloved country heal fast. Let him be wished good luck.
There had been some interesting arguments both for and against some Republicans’ objections to the certification of the electoral votes in the Congress by the time all hell broke loose and the Capitol floor had to be evacuated. The proponents of those forceful arguments and equally effective counterarguments were very articulate yet obviously prejudiced. One camp summarily dismissed the allegations of vote rigging as baseless claims by a desperate loser and his frustrated backers; no room should be left for the image of the US to be tarnished, they said, maintaining that Trump’s allegations would only cause the American public to lose their faith in their election system. Others, who backed Trump, claimed they were also patriots and their allegations had to be probed if the US democracy was to be safeguarded; that was the way to restore the people’s faith in the election system, they held. Both sides had points.
The general consensus is that Biden won fairly and squarely, and Trump is behaving like a bear with a sore head, unable to stomach his humiliating defeat. But the question is whether the incumbent US President’s claim that there were election frauds should go uninvestigated.
The US went to war when President George W. Bush claimed that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and the only way to save the world was to bomb Iraq back to the Stone Age. So, it is puzzling why the Congress did not order a probe, based on the incumbent President’s claim that the 2020 presidential election was marred by malpractices.
Doubts are bound to linger about the alleged polls frauds despite the Congressional certification of the presidential election outcome. The Congress goes by majority decisions, and the judiciary by what is placed before it. The only way to get at the truth and put the matter to rest would have been for the Congress to appoint an ad hoc committee, as demanded by the pro-Trump Republicans, to conduct an emergency audit of the results in the disputed states. Such action would have helped clear doubts in the minds of not only Americans but also their counterparts elsewhere about the aforesaid allegations.
The reaction of the western media to the Capitol siege was interesting. Their much-flaunted objectivity fell by the wayside. They let their emotions get the better of them, bemoaning the siege. Some news anchors even called protesters idiots and faulted the National Guard for not rushing in to abort what they called a coup. True, the desecration of the Capitol was despicable, but what we saw on Wednesday was not a coup as such. Some countries have experienced far worse situations, which the US was instrumental in engineering. Several such incidents come to mind; one being the CIA-backed coup in Chile in 1973. It is good that the US and its allies have realised that assault on democracy hurts!
No quick fix
That there is no quick fix to the globally raging Covid-19 pandemic is now all too clear. Countries worldwide seek to protect their populations as best as they could by inoculating them with vaccines hurriedly developed in some of the best scientific laboratories in the world. Billions of dollars have been poured into this research effort, thankfully marked by some significant successes, and the vaccination process is ongoing in most parts of the world including this small backwater called Sri Lanka. But the global supply of vaccine falls far short of demand and how this gap is to be bridged is a yet unanswered question.
However, it is very well known that untapped manufacturing capacity is available in many parts of the world. How such capacity can be harnessed to meet the crying need of humanity is not rocket science. The heart of the problem lies in the reluctance, nay unwillingness, of the world of commerce to share the research gains already made in an equitable manner and relax patents to enable maximum utilization of available manufacturing capacity, particularly in the Indian subcontinent, to break the back of if not significantly dent this problem that continues to confront mankind.
The global pharmaceutical industry, throughout its long history, has poured vast funds and resources, both material and human, to develop wide ranges of medicines to treat and protect living beings – human and animal – from the many illnesses that have always been a part of life. Many notable successes, ranging from penicillin to the various drugs and medicines that have defeated numerous scourges that have confronted humanity over the course of history, have marked this effort. It is well known that when new drugs are developed, their manufacturers recover the huge investments made in the research and development efforts to achieve the various outcomes, in pricing the various products they market. These are patent protected and such patents, most often ironclad, are zealously protected.
Unarguably, industry must be permitted to recover investments made in developing products and processes benefiting humanity. But this can, and often does, lead to profiteering and unjustifiable ripoffs of consumers. However that be, the immediate problem confronting the whole world is to find ways and means of relaxing the various patents and devices in force to maximize the production and availability of supplies of vaccines to fight the pandemic. It has been reported that the new head of the World Trade Organization has joined calls for pharmaceutical companies to share their coronavirus vaccine know-how and technology more broadly in the developing world. Whether this will happen or not, and the profit motive will remain the overriding consideration as has always happened in the past, remains to be seen.
The Associated. Press (AP), one of the world’s biggest news agencies, a non-profit organization owned by newspapers and broadcasters in the U.S., recently reported its findings in three continents that established pharmaceutical manufacturers could start producing hundreds of millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines at short notice if they only had the necessary blueprints and know-how to get started. But that knowledge belongs to the large pharmaceutical companies that have produced the first three vaccines authorized in many countries both in the developed and developing world including Sri Lanka. These vaccines now in use in countries that include Britain, the European Union, and the U.S. are products of Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca. Responses from the patent holders to requests to enable more broad based manufacture, are awaited.
The WHO which is supplying countries in need, including our own, with free vaccine to inoculate a proportion of their population, has called on manufacturers to share their know-bow to “dramatically increase global supply” to stop the virus before it mutates into deadlier forms. This issue must be obviously looked at from a non-commercial perspective. The vaccine was not developed utilizing only private resources. Billions of dollars of taxpayer funds, largely from the U.S. and European countries, were injected into the R&D efforts of pharmaceutical manufacturers to develop now patented vaccines. Such money came out of the pockets of ordinary people in some of the world’s richer countries. There is no debate that the benefits of such efforts must also be shared with people in poorer countries.
These vaccines were developed at unprecedented speed after the disease, first seen in China and thereafter in many parts of the globe, spread like wildfire worldwide. However, sharing the knowledge discovered has unfortunately not happened as speedily. Although contracts and licensing deals are being negotiated with producers on individual case-by-case basis on the logic that the intellectual property of the vaccine developers must be protected, manufacturing capacity worldwide is not being boosted at the needed pace. All over the world, the supply of coranavirus vaccines is falling short of demand. Much of the limited supplies that are available are going to rich countries. The AP report said that nearly 80 percent of the vaccine thus far administered had been used in just 10 countries. WHO is on record saying that more than 210 countries and territories with 2.5 billion people have not received a single shot by the end of last month.
The shortcomings in getting the urgently needed results of boosting the supply and distribution of the vaccine to parts of the world most in need have been highlighted ad infinitum. Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS recently said that “what we are seeing today is a stampede, a survival of the fittest approach, where those with the deepest pockets, with the sharpest elbows, grabbing what is there and leaving others to die.” The AP report said that governments and health experts have offered two potential solutions to the vaccine shortage. One, supported by WHO is a ‘patent pool’ modeled on a platform set up to fight HIV, tuberculosis and hepatitis. The other is is to suspend intellectual property rights during the pandemic. But no progress in either direction is visible.
When ignorance kills
Saturday 6th March, 2021
Superstition can be dangerous when taken to an extreme. A female exorcist who mercilessly caned a nine-year-old girl in a bid to ‘expel an evil spirit’, thereby, causing her death, in Delgoda, and the victim’s mother have been remanded. They are not alone in resorting to occult practices that have survived in spite of scientific and technological advancements during the last several centuries; humans have failed to overcome their atavistic fears.
The Sri Lanka College of Psychiatrists (SLCP) has, in a statement published in this newspaper today, condemned the aforesaid incident, and scientifically explained the phenomena that crafty exorcists use to fleece the public. “These individuals who repeatedly go into trance and possession states should be referred for psychiatric assessments, following which they may be referred for psychiatric or psychological treatments. Today, every district in Sri Lanka has a general psychiatry and child psychiatry clinic that can investigate these abnormal behaviours and deliver treatment.” The SLCP has rightly said acts such as beating children to ‘expel evil spirits’ are an anachronism from the Stone Age. But it is doubtful whether the good doctors will be able to knock any sense into those with a Stone Age mindset.
Sri Lanka is said to be home to several great religions, but superstition apparently remains the prominent religion of feeble minds, and one wonders whether it even receives state patronage albeit unofficially. A few weeks ago, we saw a shaman being received by the Speaker, a group of ministers and some Opposition MPs at the parliament complex, where he distributed some herbal concoction touted as a cure for COVID-19. Even some doctors and scientists leapt to his defence when he came under fire for duping the public by claiming that a goddess had revealed the ‘cure’. Worse, a national university went so far as to grant ethical clearance for his product! Among the promoters of his potion was no less a person than the Health Minister, who contracted COVID-19 despite having ingested the concoction and performing what may be called a pot-dropping ritual to neutralise coronavirus.
It is generally thought that only crazy dictators such as Papa Doc, Baby Doc, Bokassa and Idi Amin let witchcraft take precedence over statecraft. Papa Doc of Haiti publicly cast a voodoo spell on the then US President John F. Kennedy, claiming that the latter would not live long. The assassination of Kennedy, which obviously had nothing to do with voodoo, helped the Haitian dictator frighten his people into submission even more effectively; his son Baby Doc followed suit. (The duo’s ascent to power would not have been possible without US backing!) There are, however, other countries where occultism holds sway, Sri Lanka being a case in point.
Influence that seers exert on superstitious politicians and even parliamentary affairs came to light during a vote of condolence on former Speaker W. J. M. Lokubandara in Parliament, the other day. SJB MP Lakshman Kiriella boasted that in 2004 the then UNP-led Opposition had enlisted the support of an astrologer to have Lokubandara elected Speaker though the UNP did not have a majority in the House. The JHU, which had fallen out with the Kumaratunga government, would have backed Lokubandara anyway, and stars certainly had nothing to do with his election as the Speaker.
The 2015 regime change occurred because the Rajapaksa government followed astrological advice and opted for a snap presidential election. Political leaders’ dependency on occult practitioners was clearly seen in the early 1990s, when a group of UNP rebels joined forces with the Opposition to move an impeachment motion against the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who did not leave any stone unturned in his efforts to defeat his enemies. The Opposition MPs said that the President had hired a famous kattadiya, who had some charmed oil applied on their seats to make them switch their allegiance to him. Not to be outdone, they took phials of lard oil into the House and applied it on their seats to neutralise the effect of the President’s oil!
A fish is said to rot from the head down. When political leaders and some scientists promote the occult, it is well-nigh impossible to rid the country of superstitious beliefs and practices that cause harm to the public. Perhaps, it is these irresponsible characters who deserve caning.
Judges in the dock
Friday 5th March, 2021
Judges do not take kindly to utterances that amount to contempt of court. They go all out to make the offenders concerned regret having made such statements. This, we have seen both here and overseas. But there are situations where judges themselves get into hot water for their unguarded remarks that irk the public beyond measure. Chief Justice of India Sharad Arvind Bobde is under heavy fire for having asked an accused rapist if the latter would marry his victim, a schoolgirl, to avoid jail. Bobde’s suggestion is a textbook example of adding insult to injury.
Women’s rights activists in India have launched a signature campaign, urging Chief Justice Bobde to resign. Their protest is gathering momentum, and consternation is understandable; India has a very high rate of rape. They accuse their Chief Justice of having proposed something that is tantamount to condemning the victim to a lifetime of rape at the hands of her tormentor.
One cannot but agree with the protesting Indian women. It is doubtful whether any rape victim in her proper senses will ever want to spend the rest of her life with her tormentor. As for the aforesaid Indian girl, her rapist even threatened to burn her alive and kill her brother if she made a complaint against him. How can a girl live with such a monster? If the desperado had been allowed to get away with his brutal crime by marrying the victim, that would have set a very bad precedent. Such leniency would have rendered Indian women even more vulnerable. That would also have sent the wrong message to desperate men that they can marry women they dream of simply by sexually assaulting them!
What the Indian CJ should be asked is how he would have reacted if the victim had been his own daughter; would he have accepted the rapist as his son-in-law?
Callous disregard for rape victims’ feelings is apparently universal. It is reported from even supposedly enlightened societies that pride themselves on respecting women’s rights. CJ Bobde’s predicament reminds us of a Canadian Federal Judge—Robin Camp—who had to resign in 2017 for having asked a 19-year-old rape victim why she had not kept her legs together to prevent rape. Adding insult to injury, he told her ‘sex and pain sometimes go together.’ What a revelation!
Instances of rape victims suffering many indignities at the hands of lawyers abound in this country so much so that many girls and women, who suffer sexual assault, choose to suffer in silence. Unfortunately, this issue has gone unaddressed much to the benefit of rapists.
The female lawmakers in the current Parliament have sunk their political differences and come forward to safeguard the rights of Sri Lankan women, we are told. They have reportedly requested the Speaker to appoint a special Select Committee to address gender-based offences against women. Female local government members have also launched a similar initiative. They complain of harassment in their councils, where their male counterparts do not even allow them to speak freely. These female politicians can rest assured that they have the unstinted support of all right-thinking citizens. After all, women account for more than one half the country’s population. It is they who toil in factories, on estates and in West Asian deserts to help keep the national economy afloat. At least 50 percent of seats in Parliament, the Provincial Councils and the local government institutions should be allocated for women.
The members of the women’s caucus in Parliament ought to campaign for ensuring that women who become victims of rape, etc., are treated humanely in courts. Ideally, there should be separate courts to hear such cases. They are sure to have the ear of Justice Minister Ali Sabry, who has evinced a keen interest in giving the existing legal system a radical shake-up. They will also be able to convince President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa of the pressing need to hear rape cases expeditiously with the rights of the victims being protected.
We hope that the brave Indian women who have taken on their CJ will succeed in their endeavour.
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