Tamil Buddhism and oldness of Sinhala lingo are beside the point
by Kumar David
Justice Wigneswaran is not laying traps to snare GR-MR or the TNA; that’s not the import of my title. I am suggesting is that wily old Wiggy is calculating that these worthies will snare themselves in traps of their own making, and then his line will pay off. His expectation is that the regime will turn explicitly anti-Tamil and his second calculation is that the TNA is too deeply mired in compromises to extricate itself. Of course, I am attributing motives to him; but in politics it’s okay for analysts to make assumptions about why leaders do this or that and I am within limits of fairness in imputing not unreasonable motives to Wiggy.
This of course is in addition to the fun he must be having watching Field Marshals and Rear Admirals frothing at the mouth. The more they froth the better it plays into his gambit. The old fox’s trick is to say incendiary stuff like: ‘Tamil was the original language of the island, the Sinhala tongue emerged only in the Sixth or Seventh Century AD’; ‘Tamils were the first Buddhists in Lanka and switched to Saivism in early BC’; ‘Dushata Kaamini was a Tamil Buddhist fighting Ellalan a Tamil Saivite’. Stuff like that, even if true, the mere utterance will make ‘hela, jathika, abimane’ blood boil.
Leaving to one side whether Wiggy is stirring things up for larks or for political gain, what’s the historical and anthropological evidence. The Wiggy-Fonny adipudi seemed at first a brawl between two ageing crack-pots and I thought experts would weigh in and sort out fact from fiction sans ethnic and ideological bias. But all experts have chickened out, which tells us how explosive the topic is. I have over the years done some amateur reading so fools need to drift in where angels are cowardly to tread. I don’t care whether Tamil, Sinhalese or Double-Dutch is older or whether the Tamils or the Sinhalese first sniffed religious opium. What I have learnt is from writings of Lanka’s best historian, Leslie (RALH) Gunawardena and anthropologist Sudarshan Seneviratne. I am also very familiar with Indrapala’s excellent Evolution of Ethnic Identity, portions of K.M. de Silva’s tome, what was readily available of Gananath, and Wikipedia level stuff. Let me blurt out this little learning till an expert picks up the courage to speak.
Yes, Tamil is one of the oldest living languages; living means it is still spoken. Chinese, Greek and Tamil may be the oldest. Second, many (most?) Tamils in South India and Lanka were Buddhists in ‘BC times’ before the onward march of Saivism inundated them in ‘AD times’, especially during the apogee of Chola power. There is evidence of widespread practice of Buddhism and Jainism in Southern India and the northern and eastern parts of this island before it was pushed out between the first century BC and the third century AD. The third point is what has got the experts into a funk; they don’t want to be lynched. Sinhala became the lingua franca of southern Lanka during the fifth to sixth centuries AD; that is quite recently. The language of the elite and the clergy prior to Mahavamsa times was Prakrit while a classical version called Pali was used by the learned. In olden times the mass of the people, a few thousand, lived in small tribes and communities and a collective name for their speech is Hela or Elu or Helu; hence the case made by certain pundits for going back to the original Hela stuff has a point.
Vijaya and his horde were a raiding band who spoke an Indian dialect and were assimilated by the tribes and communities who proliferated across the island. Only a few hundred strong they could not have made large sperm donations. The originals in the north were tribal groups but linguistically Tamilised by South Indian migration from BC times. Genetically, Tamil and Sinhalese folk are to a large extent, descendants of these tribal pools though these days all they want to do is gouge each other’s eyes out. Then the interesting bit follows. The difference between our warring idiots is not race – they are much the same gene pool – it is ethnic, that is language, religion and culture. After the high period of Chola conquest two separate cultures ossified in different portions of the island among racially similar peoples. These are the two mentally retarded communities we confront today; this comes across clearly in Leslie and Indrapala’s writings but they put it politely. However, propensity for conflict does not disappear; ethnicities can hate each other as much as races because friction is about material and social benefits. But hopefully, if the mass mind knows that the two are of racially the same stock in conflict over benefits and politics, visceral hatred of the ‘other’ may diminish.
Wiggy suspects that the GR-MR government will screw the Muslims first and then turn on the Tamils. He like the rest of us is anticipating tough times ahead for economy and at that time what is more profitable for the regime than the race-card? Many Venerables and State and Cabinet Ministers are merchants of death that GR-MR dare not leash, and that indicates where power lies. The TNA is too compromised. Its efforts were not unprincipled; it correctly judged that without a deal with the Sinhalese the Tamils will get nowhere. It picked on yahapalana because the UNP is liberal as opposed to the SLPP and SLFP which are of Sinhala-Buddhist ethos. The poor sods ended up as empty handed as Chelva and the FP but not quite as stone dead as Prabakaran. It seems unlikely that the TNA can rise again, but true, stranger things have happened.
Moody’s Investor Service last week dropped Lanka’s sovereign rating from B2 to Caa1, a two-tier drop bypassing B3. The agency defines Caa as “speculative, of poor standing and subject to very high credit risk”; that is junk! The corresponding grade in Standard & Poor and Fitch is CCC, CC or C. While rating agencies have responsibility to both lender and debtor the double whammy is harsh; a one tier downgrade was unavoidable since medium-term prospects for the economy are poor. Recent improvements (remittances rising to pre-COVID levels, sharp reduction in imports, fall in 2020 balance of payments deficit from a feared $8 billion to an expected $6 billion deficit, and enhanced activity in the domestic economy) though loudly touted by the Finance Ministry seem to have been dismissed by the agency as short-term gains. Sadly, the outlook is a looming fiscal (budget) deficit, deterioration of asset quality and a depressing employment picture. Not all of Cabraal’s rantings could have deflected a one-tier downgrade. Wiggy reckons that the regime will go after the minorities when troubles multiply. Maybe he reckons ‘Why would a post-20A regime not do just what autocrats do when cornered by a flailing economy?’
Wiggy is palpably mischievous and enjoys baiting the ‘hela, jathika, abimane’ fraternity. For proof peruse the hundreds of naïve, goofy and brain-dead comments following any Wiggy piece in the Colombo Telegraph. On the serious side I think he calculates that Tamil leadership will go next to the one who walks the talk; he who is most boldly Tamil! Though Tamil militancy was the outcome of Sinhala politics even a militant Wiggy will eventually have to cut a deal; there is no other option. The Tamil stand-off has no realisable solution other than cutting a deal with the Sinhalese state. Muslims have always been of this view. Wiggy is upper middle-class; a liberal intellectual who speaks and writes the Queen’s English like, well like a judge. He is a Royalist who must have just missed entry to S. Thomas’ by a few marks. But strangely he is also an obscurantist. I don’t know what to make of a man who is a devotee of the late Swami Premananda convicted on multiple counts of murder and rape in India in 1997. See-
[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C._V._Vigneswaran and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swami_Premananda_(guru)]
Though the infection rate is now declining the 1000+ that tested positive for COVID in the Gampaha District signal a ‘community outbreak’ described as spread by mechanisms that cannot be traced to contact with a ‘recently-returned person’ or foreign visitor. This is alarming; community outbreaks are very difficult to control; no one knows where this sneaky bug is hiding. If GR and team impose production and industry disrupting curfews again, damage to the economy will be devastating and follow hard on Moody’s downgrade of our credit rating to junk. In the wake of previous mutilation this will act as a geometric multiplier. The possible closure of BIA will further deflate business confidence. If the economy goes into a tailspin the regime will need some drama to distract attention: Dump 20A? Blame minorities for something? Discover ever more welcome crimes of the “previous regime”? The second possibility relates to today’s column.
Trump checks-out of his job
Populist neo-right toughies gear up for a counterattack
by Kumar David
Confirmation of the inevitability of Trump’s departure and the promise that covid-19 vaccines will be available in weeks has created euphoria not seen since the lifting of prohibition in America 97 years ago almost to the day – December 5, 1933. The Dow briefly pierced the 30,000-point ceiling, women and the elderly exposed to heightened domestic violence at the hands cooped up bar-less men espied a light at the end of the tunnel, and millions of Anthony Fauci defying covid-asymptomatic youth took to the skies to go home for Thanksgiving and infect grandparents and elders. (“The young in one another’s arms; those dying generations at their song; caught in sensual music all neglect, monuments of unageing intellect”). But there are dark sides to the jubilation. First, there is some way to go before distribution and mass administration of the vaccine become reality and science though pleased with results so far remains cautious about the duration of immunity. Most important, no vaccine can offer protection against reckless behaviour of a hara-kiri besotted populace.
Challenges to Joe Biden
This piece however is not about covid-19, it’s about an equally virulent plague; the rednecks and fascistic heavies gearing up for a counter-attack while Trump calls them to arms, literally, by tweeting “we must overturn the results of the election” and by making all sorts of incendiary interventions. Trump has virtually checked out of his current job as President, he rarely makes a public appearance, refuses to take questions when he does, and most significantly refuses to intercede in burning national issues such as the explosive spread of the pandemic, economy or foreign policy and China. Instead he has taken to stirring up a counter-attack on the election results and mobilising his semi-fascist troops. Mobilisation rallies have been scheduled by team-Trump in Georgia, Arizona and elsewhere though the participation of President-Reject has to be confirmed. The attacks on the incoming administration are geared up around these slogans: Biden’s nominations are an Obama third-term team; there is a retreat from standing up for US interests under the cloak of rebuilding international relations; they are soft on China trade and on will China get away stealing American jobs; Biden team’s accommodative policies in the guise of climate change harm the economy and let foreign polluters off the leash (Who is John Kerry? Obama’s Foreign Policy Tsar who sold out to Iran, now he will sell America to US-hating Global Greens), and overall, the gist is that instead of putting America First, team Biden will let others exploit America and put ordinary Americans last.
These cries will resonate with the rejected-dejected white working-class and with the majority of poor and less educated whites across a swathe of mid-western ‘red states.’ It seems Biden is putting together a clean and elitist all-liberals cricketing team to engage in no holds barred mud wresting with the muck and filth of Trump-rabble. Joe will lose unless he wakes up to reality. CNN reported that Biden has poured cold water on the idea of nominating Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders to his Cabinet, instead suggesting he would like to keep them in the Senate to carry forward his agenda. He claimed, quite incorrectly, that there is already significant representation of progressives in his cabinet but he did add that nothing is off the table.
Biden’s thus far yahapalana appointments
From senior appointments made thus far it seems Biden wishes to form a good-governance (yahapalana) liberal not a radical administration. Thankfully, unlike Lanka 2015-2020, he will not be encumbered by an ignorant, self-seeking nutcase like Pissu-Sira. Be that as it may, Trump’s conspiracy in collaboration with Republican leaders (Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham and media types Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity) was to execute a palace-coup but this came undone when public, political, media and business pressure mounted and Emily Murphy, Chair of the General Services Office authorised transition funds for the President Elect, and Michigan and Pennsylvania certified Biden victories; also when in Georgia Bidden scored a third win in a third count. But Trump is selfish, petulant and a vengeful liar and until his political coffin is sealed and riveted down at noon on January 20, 2021, just about anything is possible.
Musing on of Biden’s leadership team and its prospects can benefit from reflection on recent Sri Lankan experiences. Despite the chasm in wealth and historical experience between the countries, don’t dismiss the thought that there are useful parallels. Some common features are that in both cases diehard populism with racist overtones are entrenched, and in both countries, there is deep resentment against the well-to-do classes (Washington Swamp, Colombo 7 elite) who have it all while working-people suffer. A third factor is nationalism and xenophobia. A fourth is that America suffered a loutish president while in our case a suave and avuncular former leader and his near canonised brother prevailed, but in both cases these powers had a firm grip on a big section of the mass mind.
Now a there is new parallel; the Biden Administration in gestation and a hypothetical yahapalana government without Pissu-Sira, have much in common. Biden is a man of working-class origin with an earned a BA (double major in history and political science and minor in English; Wikipedia says he was rated a C student). He also has a JD (doctorate by coursework). His stutter was an obstacle, but it also endeared him to ordinary people. His team as announced so far consists of high-flying ideological liberals and liberals-in-economic-outlook (the former pledge loyalty to justice, parity before the law, freedom of speech and religion, and oppose race bias, while the latter stand for free-markets and business-friendly policies). The former Fed Chair who defied Trump, Janet Yellen (Brown and Yale) will be Treasury Secretary (Finance Minister), Antony Blinken (Harvard and Columbia) an Obama era liberal will get State (Foreign Ministry), Cuban-American Alejandro Mayorkas (Loyola and Berkeley) will head Homeland Security and John Kerry, well known as Obama’s Secretary of State is to be climate Tsar with cabinet ranking. All are policy wonks with a clear mission to rebuild, at home and abroad, the America that Trump wrecked. Non-Cabinet postings are also significant. Two able women, Avril Hains (Johns Hopkins and U of Chicago) will be Director of National Intelligence and a distinguished black Linda Greenfield (U of Wisconsin-Madison) will be UN Ambassador. Jake Sullivan (Yale) will be National Security Advisor. If you look up the CVs of these people you will see that it is a team with a strong intellectual, liberal or liberal-economic bent – better for a University Liberal Arts Faculty than a Cabinet maybe.
There is more liberal talent waiting in the wings; Susan Rice, Pete Buttigieg, Vivek Murthy, Andrew Yang, Sally Yates and too many to name. On the left we have Bernie Sanders (Political Science, Chicago and a “mediocre student” in his own words) potentially for the Labour portfolio, and Elizabeth Warren (BSc Houston, hooray a scientist at last and JD from Rutgers Law School) fit for any portfolio.
However so far, they both seem a bridge too far to the left for Biden to cross. So, Biden team may be all-liberal without a daub of red or radical. Thereby hangs a tale: Will this team deliver; will it be able to carry through a programme of economic and social restructuring which can mollify, not just the baying wolves of the Trump Base but all less privileged America? Markets are cheering the appointment of Ms Yellen instead of Ms Warren to the Treasury; America’s political and military allies heave a sigh of relief that reliable Obama era boy Blinken spells the end of a cranky President who put alliances in jeopardy. Greens the world over cheer the return of the US to climate sense. That’s what the liberals can deliver.
But there are critical issues on which liberalism will fall short; like the things yahapalana fell short on and opened the flood gates for the Rajapaksas to came storming back. The poorer three quarters of the population be it America or Lanka have problems yahapalana-type liberal economics is not designed to address. Indeed, that’s why a Trump Base came into being in the first place and why like a Rajapaksa phenomenon a neo-fascist populist option may storm back in four years in the US. The plain truth is that in January 2015 in Sri Lanka and today in the USA the middle-class, liberal intellectuals and indeed the left hail the defeat of ugly autocracy and the confirmation of democratic values, but in the medium term the lower orders of society, the majority, are driven by the need to feed their families not by the bliss of liberal nirvana. A Biden team without radical colouration does not inspire confidence that that it lives on the same planet as rust-belt workers faced with loss of livelihood and mid-west rural folk who have lost hope in modern capitalist America whose economy is networked into globalism. There is indeed no hope for an all-capitalist USA that is unable to restructure itself profoundly.
One does applaud the return of decency, diversity and political discipline to the US. One is relieved that the institutions of American democracy held up against the most brutal attack they suffered since the Civil War 160 years ago. However, none of that will save America now unless livelihood issues and the social cancer rooted in the country’s soul are taken in hand. I fear that a liberal-democratic Biden Administration which shuts out radicals and eschews a transformative programme will fall short. The failure of numerous yahapalanas style governments stud the contemporary global landscape.
More on the Burghers
by HM Nissanka Warakaulle
It was interesting reading the piece by Mr. J. Godwin Perera on the Burghers (SI Nov. 22). I thought it will be appropriate to add a little more about the Burghers who had contributed in a big way to enliven the lives of many Lankans.
First I would like to thank Mr. Perera, who despite being a Royalist, mentioned Mr. Louis Edmund Blaze’, the founder of Kingswood College, Kandy. Blaze’s vision was of a school with with a close relationship between the teachers and students rather than training the boys to merely pass examinations. He wanted to make good citizens with moral values. Other than the important things mentioned by Mr. Perera, such as introducing rugger in schools, cadetting and rowing, he introduced the Prologue at the annual Kingswood prize giving. This narrated what had happened at home and abroad in the year reviewed. He wrote the Prologue until he died. It continued with an old boy doing the honors thereafter.
He also introduced addressing the students as “Gentlemen of Kingswood”, something unique to that school. He, as principal of a boy’s school, was the first to recruit lady teachers to a boys’ school here. The school had such dedicated Burgher teachers (all of them spinsters) to mould the lives of toddlers from the then Baby Class to Standard Two. Some of them were Misses Eileen Clement, Gertrude Thorpe and Muriel Elias. In the middle school there was Miss Joyce Da Silva.
The other famous educationists of the day were Mr. Oorloff of Wesley College and then Trinity, Cannon de Saram of St. Thomas’, Mrs. Labrooy of Girls’ High School, Kandy and Mr. Schockman, the founder Principal of Thurstan who came from Kingswood.
In the University of Ceylon, in addition to Prof. EOE Pereira, mentioned by Mr. Perera, there were Mr. Labrooy and Fr. Pinto in History, Prof. EFC Luduwyke and HE Passe in English, Mr. Ian Van den Driesen in Economics and Dr. Hingert in Philosophy. The Faculty of Medicine had Professors Koch and Chapman and Dr. Jansz among others.
In the sport arena there were many sportsmen and women who were outstanding. Mr. Perera had mentioned Duncan White and Eddie Gray. Duncan White’s brother Freddie (from Kingswood) was considered Asia’s best hockey goalie of his time. The National hockey team had a number of Burgher players in addition to Freddie White, such as Ivan de Kretser, who captained the team for a number of years, Richard Heyn, Derrick Harvie and Dennis De Rozairo.
In cricket there were Vernon Prins, Clive Inman, David Heyn (compared to Neil Harvey as an outstanding fielder at cover point). Richard and David were sons of Brigadier BR Heyn, who has been the only Burgher Commander of the Sri Lanka Army. He represented Sri Lanka in cricket and hockey, a unique achievement.
In tennis there was Rupert Ferdinands who carried the Ceylon flag for a long time whilst in swimming and diving Sri Lanka had the Bollings, and Swan.
As for Beauty Queens we had Maureen Hingert who put Sri Lanka on the map becoming second runner up at a world beauty contest. Like Jacqueline Fernandez joining the Bollywood beauty brigade, Maureen starred in a few Hollywood films.
In music the most famous duo were the de Saram brothers, Rohan and Druvi. Then we had Douglas Ferdinands an exceptional violinist and an excellent teacher who also played in the Symphony Orchestra and had his own junior orchestra where he trained young musicians, some of whom graduated to the Symphony Orchestra led for a long time by Eileen Prins. There were very good pianists such as Noel Forbes, Fr. Eric Bartholomeusz and Clem Croner.
In the entertainment industry there were Burghers of the calibre of Cliff Foenander, Bill Forbes, Alston Koch, Dalrene Suby, Noeline Honter, Desmond Kelly and Ronnie Leach who made their mark here and abroad.
There were a number of very good school cricketers of our vintage. Whilst Royal had Lorenz Pereira, Michael Willie, Fitzroy Crozier and Darrel and Eardley Lieversz, S. Thomas’ had Michael Sproule, Michael Tissera, Dennis Ferdinands, Errol Lisk. In Wesley there were the famous Claessen brothers. The list goes on – Trinity had Eric Roles, Errol Fernando and St. Anthony’s had Ronnie Stevens and the Joseph brothers
The national Rugger teams had very good Burgher players at various times such as Malcom Wright, Eric Roles, Van Langenberg,
In addition to doctors Noel Bartholomeusz and, RL Spittel in Colombo, Dr. Roy Peterson, Dr. Winn and Dr. Frewin who were well known in Kandy. These were in addition to Doctors Darrel Weinman and Travis Pereira.
George Keyt and David Paynter were world renowned painters whilst Wiiliam Blake excelled in cinema, Rodney Jonklaas in under sea explorations and Lionel Wendt in photography and music. He was also a patron of the arts..
And last but not least there was Donovan Andree and later his son Malcolm. Donovan was instrumental in bringing the Holiday on Ice show held on an artificial ice rink and the famous Egyptian magician Gogia Pasha and wrestlers from many countries such as Dara Singh, King Kong and Wong Bok Lee. We never had anybody else to emulate Donovan as a showman.
Editors note: The list of Burgher achievers can never be comprehensive. A reader pointed out that Chief Justice MC Sansoni and Dr. RL Brohier were notable omissions from the first piece by Godwin Perera. Undoubtedly there will be many more gaps and omissions In a long list of the best and the brightest Burghers.
Covid-19: The Epidemic and the Economy
Dr. Vitarana very simply explains the basic facts about the virus, its current level of transmission in Sri Lanka, the difficulties Sri Lanka will face in obtaining a vaccine for the entire population within a short-time frame, and calls for “community action” to end the pandemic. He calls the current mode of transmission, “uncontrolled community spread.” He suggests there could be 80% asymptomatic transmission and cites a figure of 30% test positivity from a random PCR study in Colombo by the CMOH.
by Rajan Philips
“What I have learned about pandemics is you have to be very humble. There is no mission-accomplished moment.”
Dr. Vin-Kim Nguyen
Perhaps every medical professional would agree with the sentiment in the above comment by a Vietnamese Canadian doctor, who is affiliated to two international hospitals, one in Montreal, Canada, and the other in Geneva, Switzerland. Unlike doctors who would give you the unvarnished truth, governments and politicians generally have different arrangements with truth and humility. Lack of humility and premature celebrations of victory are all too common in government and politics in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. The country seems to be now paying the price for the government’s premature declaration of victory over Covid-19 and prodigal distractions thereafter – changing constitution just for the heck of it and changing the heck out of the positions of doctors in public health agencies. The infection total is now past 21,000 and the death toll is reaching 100. A sevenfold increase in both in just over seven weeks. What is worrisome, apart from the rate of increases, is the absence of any indication that the government is in control and is able to arrest the trend, let alone reverse it.
Sri Lankan numbers are still peanuts in the global context. At Sri Lanka’s rates, the US should have under 400,000 infections and 2,000 deaths. But the superpower has a staggering 13 million infections and over a quarter million deaths. But the finally-on-his- way-out Donald Trump, after single handedly leading America to become the super spreader of the coronavirus, maniacally believes that but for his brilliant stewardship tens of millions of more Americans would be infected by now and a million of them would have died. Americans have managed to get rid of Trump, thanks to their unsung heroes who faithfully counted nearly 160 million votes in the most contentious of situations and the judges who boldly rebuked and threw out every one of Trump’s vexatious pseudo-legal challenges. But America is stuck with the coronavirus which is still spreading in its deadly mutation. And the vaccines, though the result of globally coordinated scientific efforts at the highest level, are not going to be overnight panaceas. Again, every medical professional is saying that.
Logistically, there are several hoops to pass through even after one or more of the three lead vaccine candidates are approved for use. Their mass production, storage and transport are all huge challenges, which can be done but not in any hurry. And worldwide vaccination thereafter will be an unprecedented health intervention on a global scale. Then come the challenges of keeping records for multiple inoculation, verifying vaccine effectiveness, and tracking virus transmission after vaccination by pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers. According to experts the now ongoing clinical trials alone are not sufficient to be conclusive about any of this, given the speed at which vaccine development is necessarily being undertaken. The consensus upshot is that masks and physical distancing cannot be dispensed with easily or quickly even after vaccination programs get underway in different countries. All of this would invariably lead to delaying the resumption of economic activity to pre-pandemic levels. Sri Lanka is not alone in this, but there are many things that individual countries will have to do themselves on their own.
From Infection to Recession
Last week I mistakenly left out what would have been the last paragraph in my article. The paragraph was about Dr. Tissa Vitarana’s statement entitled, “Community action can end the Covid-19 pandemic,” that appeared in the Sunday Island on November 8. That statement is by far the best and the most comprehensive, if not the only, public health policy paper on the subject by anyone who is associated with the present government. There should be no surprise about such a statement coming from a former Director of the MRI and a respected professional and academic. He has also been a Minister in the previous Rajapaksa governments, briefly Governor of the North Central Province, and now a National List MP. What is surprising is that Dr. Vitarana’s expertise and thinking for dealing with Covid-19 are not able to find any resonance at any level in this government.
Dr. Vitarana very simply explains the basic facts about the virus, its current level of transmission in Sri Lanka, the difficulties Sri Lanka will face in obtaining a vaccine for the entire population within a short-time frame, and calls for “community action” to end the pandemic. He calls the current mode of transmission, “uncontrolled community spread.” He suggests there could be 80% asymptomatic transmission and cites a figure of 30% test positivity from a random PCR study in Colombo by the CMOH. He fears that waiting for the vaccine to control the virus could be a “distant dream.” The reason is that apart from logistical delays, Sri Lanka should be in a position to buy the available vaccine for 60% of the population in addition to the expected WHO’s free vaccine for 20% of the population, to vaccinate 80% of the population – the threshold “to break the chain of transmission in a population.”
Until then, it is “community action” that should be relied upon, along with the public health infrastructure and a knowledgeable population observing basic health practices, to contain the community spread of the virus. Dr. Vitarana is confident that “if a good example is set from the top (no large gatherings etc.) and the people follow the health guidelines, the country can get rid of the Covid-19 scourge.”
In fairness to Dr. Vitarana, he is not asking to be in charge of this community action plan, and he is confident in the abilities of doctors in the Epidemiology Unit and of the armed forces for tracking and tracing. And if Dr. Vitarana is just a retired professional without political involvement, no one would be suggesting that he should be recalled from retirement to head this or that coronavirus task force. The only reason that some of us are puzzled about his apparent exclusion, is that he has been so much a part of the PA/UPFA/ULF/SLFP/SLPP governing political formation for 26 years – all the way back from 1994, when some of the current bigwigs were in and out of the country and would not have known the difference between a parliamentary system and a presidential system.
Put another way, the mystifying exclusion of Dr. Tissa Vitarana and the inexplicably ridiculous transfer of Dr. Anil Jasinghe from Health to the Environment, are not signs of a government that is prepared to utilize the best available people and the all the available institutional resources to “methodically” (to borrow presidential terminology) deal with the current pandemic crisis. Equally, if things have been working, and there is no surge of infections, nobody will be talking about Dr. Vitarana or Dr. Jasinghe. And there is no certainty either that everything about containing Covid-19 is going to get better. At least, there are no encouraging signs that things are indeed getting better.
The saving grace for everyone is that the recovery rates are high and the death rates are still low. It would also seem that the symptoms of infected are people are not as severe in Sri Lanka as elsewhere, and hospitalization is not currently overwhelming. Will all these factors hold at their current manageable levels, or can they get out of control? I have not come across any discussion about future projections either through technical modelling, or based on experience and commonsense. The overall uncertainty affects decision making about the levels to which social and economic activities can be allowed to open up or resume. In the absence of certainty and determination, it will not be possible to plan for or promise economic growth, let alone prosperity. Even if Sri Lanka is somehow able to resume significant economic activities, it still will have to face a very sluggish world outside.
It is a sign of the times that the British government has officially declared that it is heading towards its worst recession in three centuries. That last one was in 1709 and was caused by a fierce European winter which ravaged economies and caused famine. This time the British economy is expected contract by 11.3%, worse than every country in Europe other than Spain which is staring at a 12.4% GDP drop. Rishi Sunak, Britain’s Punjabi-Hindu Chancellor of the Exchequer, told the House of Commons last week, “Our health emergency is not yet over, and our economic emergency has only just begun.” The emergency could apparently get worse if Brexit goes wrong. In any event, the British government is not expecting the economy to return to pre-pandemic levels until the end of 2022. That generally is the sentiment in most countries. And China cannot play the same saviour role it played during the 2007-2008 global financial crisis.
This is also the context in which Sri Lankan government leaders should rethink and revisit many of the premises and projections that were included in the new budget. If it is “day-dreaming” to think of buying vaccine to vaccinate 60% of the population, by what yardstick of reality can one expect 60% market capitalisation? Until Covid-19 is brought under reasonable control, it would not be realistic to expect the economy to return to anywhere near full throttle. Clearly, a total lockdown is not the answer, even though it would be the easiest to implement and to claim victory.
Economic targets and infrastructure investments that are inappropriate for the current situation, that are environmentally harmful, and do not carry long term benefits should be avoided. Inappropriate examples include construction of highways and mass paving of 100,000 kilometres of currently unpaved rural roads. The latter would be a drainage disaster. Potential projects that deserve investment green light, are helping garment factory workers to build their own houses, urban and rural water supply and sanitation schemes, countrywide drainage control, and water management as part of agriculture and food production. Such targeted economic activities can go hand in hand with “community action” to contain Covid-19.
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