by Krishantha Prasad Cooray
Next week’s presidential election in the United States of America has become a remarkable event on the world stage. It has exposed the dark underbelly of the American political system and left us all wondering whether America, the world’s oldest modern democracy, is indeed still a democracy at all?
Four years ago, America fell to a strongman. Donald Trump took the national stage with masterful control of the media, hijacking a democratic system, bypassing the traditional scrutiny of presidential candidates by hiding his tax returns, silencing people with non-disclosure agreements and controlling the narrative about his political opponent.
By the measure of an election in any normal democracy, he failed, garnering 2,868,686 fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, a margin of 2.23%. To put that margin in a context that Sri Lankans would understand, Ranil Wickremasinghe lost the 2005 presidential election in Sri Lanka by a narrower margin of only 1.86%. However, under the American system, it is the combination of states you win in the Electoral College that counts, not the number of votes, and Donald Trump became president as a result.
For decades, the battle for the right to vote has been a feature of American politics. Politicians and judges they have appointed frequently succeed in preventing minority groups, young voters or others from voting, and have found ways to have their ballots excluded from the final tally. On more than one occasion, the politicized American Supreme Court has sided with these efforts, further divorcing the American political system from what we in Sri Lanka understand as democracy.
Indeed, we can take pride in our own system. For all the political turmoil that our country has suffered in 72 years as an independent democracy, no one barring the LTTE has ever tried to deny the franchise to any Sri Lankan constituency or to prevent them from voting. More importantly, it would be unthinkable for Sri Lankan courts to even entertain a case seeking to deny the vote to any group of Sri Lankans.
But what is still unthinkable in little Sri Lanka is now the stated path to victory for Donald Trump’s re-election in America. A president who came to power on a technicality is now seeking to unleash a torrent of technicalities to cling on to power. His acolytes are sabotaging the postal service to scuttle the postal vote, rushing to courts across the country to seek rulings preventing votes from being counted, shutting down polling places in urban areas to make it more difficult for poor people to vote, and adopting a flurry of similar strategies not to increase their own vote count, but to reduce the number of votes counted for their opponent.
To those of us who treasure democracy and the institutions that defend it, there is solace to be found in the fact that Donald Trump is the first incumbent American President running for reelection who has not been endorsed by living former Presidents in his own party. Lifelong institutionalists in his Republican party, from former Speaker Paul Ryan to the late Senator John McCain, disavowed him. McCain went so far as to request that Trump not be allowed to attend his funeral.
Hundreds of retired senior military, intelligence and law enforcement officials in America have spoken out not just to oppose Donald Trump but to warn that his re-election would pose a grave threat to the national security and integrity of the United States of America.
What America has seen in the last four years is that when strongmen bluster their way into high office on a façade of glitzy propaganda and magical promises, the reality is that they will spend their time in office making excuses as to why they could not get anything done, and insisting that the only way they can deliver what they promised is if they are allowed more time in office. Meanwhile, they chafe at the democratic and institutional safeguards designed to ensure that our rulers are accountable to their people and serve at their mercy.
With Trump’s failure to deliver on his promises, and his catastrophic handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is reason to hope that his defeat will make way for healing America and making its institutions stronger than they were before Trump began his assault. There is a lot of healing to be done.
Ever since World War II, America has marketed itself as the poster-child for democracy on the world stage, even though the fairness of its electoral system has lagged objectively behind those of several other established democracies like Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland and the Scandinavian states.
Despite America’s wide inequalities, it is the country’s evolution that is most romantic. Before being elected President, as an opponent of slavery, Abraham Lincoln explained that America’s Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed that all men are equal, was not a statement of fact but an aspiration to strive for. The concept of equality, Lincoln said, is one that must be “constantly looked to, constantly laboured for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colours, everywhere.”
Indeed, the American tradition has been to own up to its country’s dark history and aspire to do better. Whether slavery, the treatment of native Americans or other ethnic and religious minorities, the country has openly and gradually strived to evolve into a less racist and xenophobic, and more inclusive and equal nation, all under the glaring eye of one of the most searing and merciless news media environments in the world.
America’s claim to moral authority around the world has come from reconciling its roots in inequality, slavery and other heinous crimes, owning up to them, accepting its present shortcomings, and actively striving to grow with its founding values, while espousing those same values abroad. Democracies that have shared those values or even overtaken America in their implementation have found in the USA a strong and staunch ally who will stand up to autocratic bullying.
This is why Trump’s rejection, deriding and snubbing of democratically elected leaders, and his embracing and enabling of dictators and autocrats, and his encouragement of human rights abuses in his own country and overseas have struck such a serious blow to fragile democracies everywhere. The ideologies of countries like Russia and China depend on people losing faith in the idea of democracy and a free press. They could have no greater champion than an American president who insists American elections are rigged and boasts that he helped a foreign prince get away with murdering and disemboweling a journalist.
So when Mike Pompeo came to Sri Lanka, winked that democracies should stick together, and warned that the Chinese Communist Party is preying on Sri Lanka, his words would ring less hollow if his own party were not so feverishly dismantling and delegitimizing the concept of franchise in his own country. Indeed, he would sound more sincere if President Trump had not just months ago been impeached for “preying” on the democratically elected leaders of Ukraine.
Sri Lanka cannot be credibly lectured on human rights and democracy by a country whose government has for the last four years institutionalized the oppression of minorities, forcibly separated refugees from their children, and laboured to engineer the arrest of journalists and jailing of political opponents. When Trump speaks of autocrats like Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong Un, he betrays a frustrated envy of these strongmen and how simply they can silence and dispatch their political opponents.
These weaknesses in Trump and his lack of character are the primary reason he is on track to garner far fewer votes than his opponent, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. Unlike Trump, whose manicured public image propelled him to fame on a campaign of fear, hate and race-baiting, Joe Biden is someone who has long been known to Americans and the world.
As a leader on the world stage, Biden has championed support for independent institutions in emerging democracies, especially in making judiciaries independent and distancing law enforcement activities from political pressures. All the while, he has made no secret of the fact that he believes his own country has a long way to go in making its own established institutions more inclusive, fair and just.
There is little doubt that Biden will garner more votes this Tuesday, but his opponent has made no secret of his plan to win through an assault on the franchise more akin to those adopted by leaders of failed states than the President of the world’s largest democracy. He has even tarred the independence of the courts, making no secret of his motives when stacking the Supreme Court with judges he believes will deliver him the presidency a second time.
Dictators, strongmen and autocrats around the world are also watching. In a world where such people cling to power not through overt fascism but by putting on the thinnest guise of democracy, it is mana from heaven for them to see an American President boast of rigging the US Supreme Court to stay in power. If Trump succeeds, they will only be inspired and emboldened to employ similar strategies to stifle the democratic will of their own people. If they see one candidate win millions more votes in America, only to have their victory overturned by a politically stacked court, they will see a blueprint for how they too can cling to power until the end of their days.
When George W. Bush was declared president in 2000 by the Supreme Court stopping the counting of votes in Florida, three key lawyers on his legal team were John Roberts, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. All three are now Justices on the US Supreme Court, who may soon be asked to choose whether the next President of their country will be their “party man” or the man who won the most votes.
Those Republicans in America who seek to use a politicized Supreme Court to prioritize keeping Trump in power over the founding principles of their nation would do well to examine the events that led to the founding and rise of their own political party. The Republican party in America came together after 1854 by bringing together a growing number of American politicians whose opposition to slavery left them without a party that reflected their political ideology.
As the party and its philosophy garnered traction and it became clearer that a clear majority of Americans were opposed to slavery, it was the opportunistic president James Buchanan and politically motivated Chief Justice Roger Taney who colluded to deliver a 7-2 judgment of the Supreme Court that declared that those of African descent were sub-human and thus must be treated as property all across the United States.
The barbarism of this move and its aftermath played no small role in the election of the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, in 1860. The question of freedom and who deserved to be free so charged American politics that his opponents tried to kill him before he took office, and soon drove the United States into a civil war. That war was won by those who stood on the principle that freedom and equality were the inalienable rights of all human beings. The world in the 1860s was not remotely as interconnected as it is today. The telephone had not yet been invented, and news traveled across the world no faster than a ship could sail the sea.
Today, the eyes of the world are on the American voters and American institutions. Dictators, strongmen and autocrats around the world have had an easy time of the last four years, finding their actions more legitimized by the United States than chastised, while journalists, rights advocates and those who stand for the rule of law have often found themselves isolated in every corner of the world.
If a Biden electoral victory is suppressed by discounting votes and overruling the will of the American people, the path will be cleared for every ruler who seeks to govern without the consent of those they govern to follow America’s example, and craft policies and institutions that cement their power. Such counties will then join America as politically apartheid states, democracies only in name.
Teaching for job market and ‘liberating the whole person’ during Covid-19 pandemic
by Liyanage Amarakeerthi
(This is based on a short presentation made at a promotion interview at the University of Peradeniya on November 19th, 2020. Author thanks Professors KNO Dharmadasa, Wimal Wijayarathne and OG Dayarathna Banda, Dean/Arts who encouraged him to publish this speech.)
At universities, we are busy teaching online. It is heartbreaking to find many students lack required facilities. Teaching on Zoom, for example, takes smart phones and personal computers for granted. We have to assume that Internet access is as ubiquitous as air, but reality is otherwise. Attendance at live Zoom classes can be as low as 40 percent in the Faculty of Arts, where students from underprivileged backgrounds account for the majority. Therefore, we need to record our lectures and make them available through other means. I myself have WhatsApp groups for all my classes to transmit important course content with a minimal cost. The university and the faculty take admirable care with extremely limited resources to make sure that no student is left behind. But the situation is far from satisfactory.
In addition to Corona, our political authorities routinely tell us that what we teach at the faculties of arts has become irrelevant and obsolete. They regularly ask us to produce employable graduates. Recently, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was seen in a video clip telling a graduate that she should have studied ‘something technical.’ While it is wrong to produce an endless number of external graduates merely with degree certificates to wave at media cameras at the Lipton Circus, learning something ‘technical’ signifies a poor understanding of university education.
I want to reflect on the true meaning of education at the faculties of Arts. At our faculties we teach courses in the humanities and the social sciences. As a scholar in literature and language, I am at the most pressured end of the spectrum: Learning literature is the most removed from ‘something technical.’ Therefore, we, the humanities scholars at universities, routinely have to justify what we are doing in teaching and research. There reflections are made in that context.
Vision of the founding fathers
The founding fathers of the University of Ceylon, never imagined that future scholars in the Humanities would have to face the particular challenge mentioned above. In the inaugural address of the Ceylon University movement Ponnambalam Arunachalam, the President of the movement, had elaborate plans for a university of our own. Out of 13 professorships they had imagined to create in the University of Ceylon, eight were for the humanities. They wanted professorships for vernacular languages such as Sinhala and Tamil, and when the university was established, in 1942, the curriculum had considerable focus on local language and traditions. Indeed, there were professorships for natural sciences, and many science-based subjects were to enter within the first decade of the university.
In addition, those founding fathers had much larger and grander ideals for education; here are the words of Arunachalam:
“University will be a powerful instrument for forming character, for giving us men and women armed with reason and self-control, braced by knowledge, clothed with steadfastness and courage and inspired by public spirit and public virtue.” “A Plea for a Ceylon University” (A. T. Alwis. Peradeniya: The Founding of a University).
Those beautifully profound words demonstrate that Arunachalam’s vision for education was much more than teaching ‘something technical.’
In order to rediscover the true meaning of the Humanities education, one may look into what is meant by the liberal arts in contemporary international universities. ‘Liberal arts’ is a bit more inclusive than what we call ‘arts subjects’ since they include natural sciences, basic mathematics and the like. A rich liberal arts degree programme exposes students to a wide range of subjects––languages, literature, philosophy, religion, natural sciences, mathematics, Fine Arts, citizenship education, social sciences (at least key concepts of them) and so on. Since there is nothing strictly prohibited from the domain of liberal arts, one could add numerous other things to the curriculum.
The word ‘liberal’ in liberal arts a loaded one. It includes knowledge required to liberate human beings from socio-cultural bonds they are trapped in producing hierarchy, inequality and injustice. Rousseau famously claimed that chains binding human beings were human-made’ and the hammers to break them were also made in earth not in heaven. A high quality education in liberal arts should help us see those chains and to forge the hammers that can break them. In other words, liberal arts teach us the significance of working towards a just society. For that goal, there are many sources of wisdom. Unlike political parties and rigid ideologues, universities believe that there are multiple ways to reach that goal. That goal may be always at the horizon resisting our reaching it. Still, a society that has given up on that goal is perhaps so much poor even with endless affluence. Teaching liberal arts at universities is one important way societies hold on to a richer dream even in the midst of relative economic hardships. A country can be poor but yet not philistine.
‘Liberation’ in liberal arts includes internal liberation as well, and it could include several modes of refining oneself within. When modernity was an unquestioned project, liberation from the Nature was one goal of humanity. But now we know better. While we have to keep Nature at bay, we also have to realise that we are also part of it. The time of coronavius is opportune to reflect on this. Moreover, our nature itself is something that needs refinement and taming while it is very much a part of big Nature. So, in recent times a diverse set of course related to environmentalism has made its way into our liberal arts curriculum. As Professor Spencer McWilliams has aptly put, “a liberal arts education can help us develop a more comprehensive understanding of the universe and ourselves”. (Liberal Arts Education: What does it mean? What is it worth?)
Our political authorities may ask for graduates with a certain set of limited technical skills to be productive in the narrow roles assigned to them in contemporary economy. For us in universities, a human being is not just a worker. His or her life in the world of work is only one small segment of his or her life. For us as in the Humanities, questions such as what human beings do, what they reflect on, what and how they enjoy during their non-working hours matters as much as the ‘job skills’ they are supposed to hone. To make matters even more complicated, the liberal arts is interested even in the dreams that occur to human beings during their sleeping hours. To put it simply, for liberal arts human self is much more than a human worker.
A holistic development of the ‘whole person’ is the goal of liberal arts. It includes eight interrelated aspects: intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, vocational, ethical, personal, and social. Intellectual development requires acquiring broad-based knowledge, learning how to learn, and learning how to think critically. Emotional development includes understanding, managing and expressing emotions. Developing high quality relationships with other people is the basis of social development while ethical development aims at providing students with a clear value system that enables them to make sound decisions. Physical development concerns the understanding of one’s own body and taking care of it. Spiritual development may be the most culture-sensitive as each culture may have its own take on what is ‘spiritual. ‘Vocational’ is indeed a form of development that must be a part of contemporary education. But is only one among eight. It includes exploring career possibilities and developing skills required for a career. As university teachers we do want our graduates to find jobs and achieve some sort of financial independence to pursue other goals of life articulated here. Personal development, the last of the eight, stays the last because it is the bottom line, so to speak. For personal development one needs to cultivate a strong sense of self-identity and agility to step out of that identity in being considerate towards others.
The Role of Peradeniya:
Whole Person, Whole Campus
A fully developed university must have all the facilities needed to address at least those eight areas. Holistic education believes that curriculum and co-curriculum must make use of whole campus for that purpose. Founding fathers of University of Peradeniya seem to have endowed with a concept of holistic education in the early twentieth century. Just to give only a few examples, for those who argue for making use of the whole campus for holistic education claims that for one’s intellectual development, a university has to utilise learning centers, library, academic advising services, tutoring services, information technology centers, invited talks on various topics, workshops, theatre halls, art shows and so on. This list, though not comprehensive, demonstrates that the intellectual development of a graduate is much more than following time tables and attending formal lectures. At Peradeniya, we may not have all these facilities, but when the university was founded a considerable attention was paid to these aspects. Taking a long walk through the beautiful University Park can be education in itself if one is rightly attuned to the lessons of natural beauty. I have learned those lessons at stunning campus parks at Wisconsin and Cornell.
Now, let me touch on ‘spiritual development.’ In addition to formal instructions on subjects such a philosophy and arts that concern one’s spiritual life, there should be co-curricular involvements with campus religious communities. Programmes such as inter-religious dialogue could be part of these activities. Perhaps, it was for such holistic education that places for all religions have been established within the University of Peradeniya.
Instead of cutting down funding on ‘liberal arts’ education, the government must invest more in the kind of education explained above. Even without enough financial resources some of us have been working hard to promote such a holistic education. Yes, just some of us. There are people who have no idea as to what they should be doing at universities. Among them, there are academics who believe that training students to site exams that lead to a certificate is university education. Yes, that is education often found at private tuition classes. But there is much more to university education. If our holistic education is only partially done, it is natural that authorities ask out graduates to learn ‘something technical.’
The prevailing pandemic has crippled nearly all co-curricular activities at campus. An education that does not include library, playground, gymnasium, the Sarachchandra Open Air theater, the E.O.E. Perera theatre, heated discussions with guest speakers, and, even some trips to the lovers’ lane or other ‘lanes’ cannot help achieve eight developmental goals of holistic education. COVID-19 has corroded that education. But holistic education is faced with a bigger threat. It is the demand that education be geared for the job market. True academics must do everything possible to prevent that philistine virus making inroads into our higher education institutions. Only those who are capable of realising the true meaning of holistic education envisioned in the Humanities and liberal arts can stand up to such philistine invasions. Those are the ones who really deserve to be hired and promoted.
Chinese Development Experience:
Why Have Sri Lankans Failed So Far
by Luxman Siriwardena
During the past decades, several East Asian Economies have experienced consistent high rates of economic growth while achieving unprecedented improvements in the standard of living of their citizenry, an achievement that has been described in the famous World Bank study as ‘Asian Miracle’. Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and the Republic of Korea (ROK) were the partners of this achievement. One analyst explained this miracle as developments that have ‘telescoped into a single generation, a process of socioeconomic development that took the advanced economies of Western Europe centuries to achieve’. This group have now been dramatically overtaken by Communist China which has also eliminated poverty, probably excluding a few clusters in remote parts of rural China.
Unfortunately, however, all South Asian countries, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka still remain far behind China as developing economies. It has been estimated that a high percentage of the population of many of these countries are living in abject poverty and deprivation.
China’s economic development as now well demonstrated, has been associated with technological advancement surpassing many of the advanced market economies. It is only a matter of time before China becomes the largest economy in the world. Even in the current COVID-19 pandemic situation it has emerged as the only country to record a positive growth rate in 2020, according to multilateral lending agencies.
In this context it is of significance to understand how President Xi Jinping has articulated the Chinese development within the framework of Marxist Political Economy. In this regard, a speech delivered by Jinping, in the mid-August needs to be closely studied by the academics and policy makers in developing countries like Sri Lanka. President Jinping proposes in the speech that the Marxist political economy must be studied and developed as a higher stage of theoretical and practical advancement of Political Economy. Most relevant to the current development discourse is his combining of Marxist political economic principles with new practices of reform and opening up of the Chinese economy.
President Jinping has also categorically mentioned that the belief of some people that Marxist political economy and the analysis in Das Capital is outdated or outmoded is arbitrary and inaccurate. Jinping states that nowadays there are various kinds of economic theories but the foundation of Chinese development cannot be explained by any theory other than the Marxist theory of political economy.
With reference to the development of theory and practice in China, Jinping upholds the contribution by successive Chinese leaders. Going through his argument it is clear that President Jinping is contributing to the new stage of development in Marxism termed as Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.
In his analysis President Jinping refers to almost all challenges the modern-day advanced market economies are confronting and strongly advocates study of them in the context of Marxist political economy which include theories of developing a socialist market economy, enabling market to play a decisive role in allocation of resources while providing for a prominent role for the government and state-owned enterprises in promoting, facilitating and coordinating new industrialization, agricultural modernization and other essential players of growth and development. It is also interesting to learn the way China addresses the property ownership/rights and right of the farmers to contract out lands.
What President Jinping has emphasized with regard to the study of political economy has a direct relevance to Sri Lankan academics and policy makers irrespective of what they have learned in universities of the West or from multilateral or other agencies. In his presentation President Jinping has emphasized the importance of six key principles in economic development in China.
i. Adherence to people-centric development thinking
ii. Focusing on new development concepts with a futuristic view
iii. Upholding basic economic systems preserving Chinese Socialists Characteristics
iv. Improvement of basic distribution systems
v. Focusing on the direction of socialist market economy
vi. Adherence to the basic national policy of opening up when effecting necessary reforms.
His concluding remarks would be an eye-opener to Sri Lankan and other developing country policy makers, particularly economists.
Their commitment to upholding the basic principles and methodology of Marxist political economy does not imply rejection of the rational components of other economic theories. Western economic knowledge on areas such as finance, prices, currency, markets, competition, trade, exchange rates, enterprises, growth, and management do reflect one side of the general laws underpinning socialized production and market economics, and should therefore be used as reference. At the same time, however, Jinping suggests that it is necessary to keep a discerning eye on the economic theories of other countries, particularly those of the West, making sure that the wheat is being separated from the chaff. It should be ensured however, that these theories reflecting the nature and values of the capitalist system or are colored by Western ideology are not blindly adopted. Although the discipline of economics is devoted to the study of economic issues, it does not exist in a vacuum, and therefore cannot be separated from larger social and political issues.
Why have our economists, both in academia and in policy making positions, not understood this simple truth? Why have they failed to develop theories and explanations that address local needs like their counterparts in the region? For example, India, Pakistan or even Bangladesh have world class economists who have come up with homegrown theories and homegrown solutions to local problems. Could it be that our economists, unlike their regional counterparts who have succeeded, have not been able to free themselves from the clutches of the west intellectually and ideologically? How much their education in the west, reinforced through regular training given by West-dominated multilateral agencies and also frequent exposure to thinking of the West in their work, is responsible for this unfortunate situation? Whatever the reasons are, instead of thinking independently on their own they parrot their mentors in the West for short-term gains like easy recognition and self-fulfillment continuing the vicious circle and perpetuating the misery of their people. Irony is that when a solution is needed the only thing our experts are capable of doing is seeking refuge in programmes of multilateral development agencies reminding us the famous saying attributed to Einstein that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”
Sri Lankan policy analysts, this applies to academics and researchers too, must desist from advocating indiscriminate reliance on foreign concepts. Their analyses should be based on objective conditions that exist in Sri Lanka and associated socio-political environments namely, political economy. thoroughly and at length to prevent them being marginalized in the emerging discourse.
It is time for our academics and policy makers to change the path on which they have been travelling, the path not only built by the West but also the road rules for the travellers have been written by them. What our academics and policy makers, especially, economists, have been hitherto repeatedly preaching and implementing are literally carbon copies of classical, neoclassical or Keynesian theories they have learnt without adaptation to meet Sri Lanka’s development needs.
It is stated by the historians that Lenin further developed Marxism where it was further fashioned by Stalin and Trotsky. In the modern era remarkable adaptations to it were brought in by Chairman Mao. Since then there have been many Chinese leaders who have made various pragmatic contributions for the Chinese economy. President Jinping has presently brought Chinese economy to a new stage of development through more pragmatic and innovative ways without deviating from fundamental Chinese characteristics.
In view of the above it can be concluded that there are many lessons that developing countries like Sri Lanka can learn from the Chinese development experience. If our academics and policy makers can come out of the ivory tower of conventional framework and improve on theories and models that they have learned in the past by adapting them where necessary to local conditions that may go a long way in help promoting effective policy for sustainable growth and development. Until and unless that happens our attempts to achieve sustainable economic growth and development in the country will remain only a pipe dream, which it is today.
Revamp CMC’s crippled Public Health Services
By Dr. Pradeep Kariyawsam
Former Chief Medical Officer of Health / CMC
When the second wave of the Covid-19 epidemic started, it was inevitable that the wave would reach Colombo, as many other epidemics such as dengue fever, chikungunya, cholera, influenza started in Colombo and then spread to other areas. Here of course those who travelled from abroad obviously brought the disease to the country, and then it spread towards the city in no time. There are many who travel from Gampaha District to Colombo city area and they were the potential carriers of the virus.
Prevention activities should have been started from all fronts, especially in Colombo North and Central areas, as soon as we heard about the Minuwangoda outbreak; and without hesitating when it reached Peliyagoda which lies in the northern bank of Kelani river. Colombo North lies just a few hundred feet away in the Southern bank. True the CMC started carrying out PCR tests, but most of them were off target as hardly a patient was found initially. There is no point in crying over spilt milk now. The importance of Public Health Services should be recognized at least now, and that a proper service could save the city and country from economic collapse and social unrest. The latter mostly instigated by politicians. The deaths at home is a sign that all is not well with the prevention services. Unfortunately, some politicians and government servants do not understand this reality.
Around 40 years ago, the Minister of Local Government realized the importance and the necessity to organize the people in these areas, who actually lived in slums and shanties and the need to prevent communicable diseases and provided them with basic amenities. Hence under his direction the CMC went on to carry out surveys of the needs of the people through new recruits called Health Wardens. The Health Wardens formed Community Development Councils after having elections in the so-called Gardens (Wattas) where the people in them chose their leaders as the office-bearers to run the Councils. Women’s and children’s groups were also formed by the Health Wardens, and these GCE (AL) qualified youth were the acceptable officials to give instructions on any matter on health and welfare. I can remember they even arranged marriage registrations.
They teamed up with the Public Health Inspectors, Nurses, Midwives and Medical Laboratory Technologists (MLT), Health Education Officers, and formed a network that supported the preventive services to the hilt. In short, we were proud of our work and it was appreciated by UNICEF, WHO, UNCHS, etc. For example, when we had to get Colombo as polio free, all of them teamed up and with the help of Rotarians gave vaccines to all children under five years of age in the city in one day! In order to provide a proper service, the city needs at least 65 Public Health Inspectors, 35 Nurses, 175 Midwives, 35 MLTs and over 200 Health Wardens or Health Instructors as they are called now. (The Salaries and Cadres Commission please note!) These services are in a sorry state of affairs now, as the number of officers in service have dwindled so much that we no longer have a single maternity home that is operating at night, as only nine nurses are available, the PHIs have neglected food hygiene work, and Midwives are over stretched so much they are running a crippled service, the laboratories lack material and the poor people have to go to the private sector to get expensive tests done, when they could have got them done free at the CMC labs. But the most important aspects of all this, which are organizing the communities, health education, creation of awareness about communicable diseases, communicating with all and being the link between the people and the health units that were handled by the Health Instructors do not exist anymore.
There aren’t even Health Education Officers anymore, who used to supervise them. The information thus collected then can be analysed by the Epidemiologist to understand the vulnerable areas and direct prevention activities. Unfortunately, there is no Epidemiologist as the post of Deputy Chief Medical Officer (Epidemiology) is not filled during the last three years. That is what is lacking mainly in CMC’s Covid-19 prevention programmes today. It is not the ambulances that the people need as CMC already has two ambulance services; The ambulances run by the MCH Division and the 110-service are run by well-trained fire-fighters. The people need someone to be with them in their hour of need as it happened years ago, looking after their health and welfare needs, as Health Instructors were allocated to areas in which they were responsible for the people in slums, shanties and apartments.
Therefore, it is my humble appeal that the CMC, the Western Provincial Council, and the Ministry of Health get together and fill these posts, create higher cadres for these posts and appoint suitable persons immediately. We have to allocate vulnerable areas to these officers and get them to go to the people, organize them, look after their health and welfare needs and prevent a disaster happening as there will be more Covid-19 waves and new epidemics in the near future. This will definitely reduce deaths at homes. A stable Colombo, health-wise, will make the country stable in the same way. With all my experience I know that this is the only way to prevent this kind of disaster happening again, and this will be a feasible way of managing this crisis for the government to prevent and control this disease.
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