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Work with people to defeat Covid-19

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by Jehan Perera

The sudden resurgence of the Covid pandemic in Sri Lanka was totally unexpected by the people at large though it was expected and predicted by those in the scientific and medical communities. The people had been reassured by the political leaders and sections of the media that Sri Lanka was a success story unlike other countries, including more developed ones that had been devastated by the pandemic. However, the country had received an early warning in the second wave which had commenced in October last year with the spread that was believed to have originated in the garment industry. But much before this the country’s top medical associations had been warning that community spread of the coronavirus had already commenced. These warnings were neither heard nor acted upon by the vast majority of the population. The mainstream view, until the shock of the third wave in April, was that Sri Lanka was a success in Covid management.

Sri Lanka enjoyed undoubted success in combatting the first wave of the coronavirus, with the participation of the security forces in implementing the lockdown and tracing of persons infected by the coronavirus. This success seems to have given rise to the misperception that the country was secure enough in terms of Covid control to give priority to the revival of the economy. But there was a big information gap between the appearance and the reality that swayed the governmental decision-makers. There can be no other explanation for their failure to heed the warnings that came from the medical and scientific community in the week, prior to the New Year shopping and holiday season.

Scholars, who have studied disasters that have afflicted human beings over the millennia, have noted that lack of proper information was often at the centre of those tragedies that might have been averted. Famines have taken place in many parts of the world and have led to millions of deaths that need not have happened. There was sufficient food stocks in other parts of the world, sometimes in the country itself, that could have been sent to the areas that did not have food. The Bengal famine of 1943 in British India is an example. The policy failures began with the provincial government’s denial that a famine existed. There was a breakdown in the lines of communication that could have led to food supplies from areas, where food stocks existed, being sent to the areas with short supply. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bengal_famine_of_1943)

Since the successful containment of the first wave of Covid by the strict policy of lockdown and curfew adopted by the government, the restoration of the economy has been its first priority. The economy and people’s livelihoods received a severe battering during the two-month long lockdown. The Covid spread was contained but the economy shrank by more than it ever has in the post-independence period. The government gained the appreciation of the general population and the international community for its success in containing Covid. But the downturn in the economy needed to be restored which is what the business advisors of the government set out to do.

Unnecessarily risky

In retrospect,some of the government’s decisions, taken to revive the economy appear to have been unnecessarily risky in terms of containing the Covid spread. One was the partial reopening of tourism industry which led to an influx of tourists from countries that had poor track records of containing the pandemic, most notably Ukraine and India. These tourists were meant to arrive in a “bubble” and depart having toured the country in a “bubble” but even with these most stringent precautions it seems to have paved the way for new Covid variants to have taken root in the country. More recently there was media exposure given to a variety of “quarantine tourism” from badly affected countries from which the wealthier people wished to temporarily take a respite. The actions of government ministers in pouring “sacred water” into rivers to forestall the pandemic and their imbibing of a special “Covid herbal concoction” to protect against the virus was not based on science, professional advice and rationality that the country needs its decisionmakers to follow.

In these circumstances, it seems unfair that the blame for the resurgence of the Covid pandemic should be put on the people themselves who are charged with being negligent in their duties to take care of themselves and of others. Shock and awe treatment of ordinary citizens who were not taking the Covid pandemic seriously was witnessed on a video clip that were released of the police apprehending people who did not wear masks in commando-style. The videoing of the operations was done with precision and widely circulated on the media for maximum impact. The videos show police personnel in Covid protective clothing going into crowded urban areas, apprehending offenders who are not using masks properly, carrying them physically and bundling them inside parked buses to be taken to be charged. Such governmental actions can breed resentments that grow with the passage of time. The danger is also that the security forces may be induced to act similarly in other situations, too.

 

FRAUGHT TIMES

For the past year, after the success of the government in controlling the first wave of coronavirus, the people at large have been made to believe that the government has everything under control and that Sri Lanka has certain unique conditions that will spare it the fate of other countries. The recent police operations in different parts of the country to apprehend members of the general public who were either not wearing their face masks at all, or improperly by not covering their noses, suggests an intention to instill the importance of following health guidelines in the people. It would have been better if these police actions had been done consistently throughout the period, and by police in the course of their regular duties, such as during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year festivities in different parts of the country.

It needs to be kept in mind that these are very fraught times in which the majority of people are struggling to make ends meet. Due to the economic downturn many of them have lost their jobs or are getting only a part of their salaries. According to the World Bank, “With jobs lost and earnings reduced, especially in urban areas and among private sector employees and informal workers, the $3.20 poverty rate is projected to have increased from 9.2 percent in 2019 to 11.7 percent in 2020.” (https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2021/04/09/sri-lankan-economy-recovers) Daily wage labourers find it harder to get daily work as potential employers do not wish to give them work and hire them for fear of Covid infection. Those who are fortunate enough to have their children attending schools with online teaching have all to meet extra expenses such as phone data charges for their children’s education.

At the same time as there is public resistance to a lockdown there is fear and apprehension about contracting Covid and the health consequences in a situation where the hospitals are full and not able to accept more patients. In these circumstances there can be pent up anger within society that can suddenly come to the fore. The government needs to take these tensions within people into account when it designs its responses to the unfolding crisis. Instead of demonstrating the punitive powers of the state machinery there could be an emphasis on messages of care from the government to the people. The government could take the people into its confidence and educate them about the true situation with regard to Covid spread and what can be done in partnership to mitigate it. It needs to come up with economic support schemes, such as the Rs 5000 dole or food coupons for the poor, that will make the people ready for a lockdown. A democratic polity will seek to inform, educate and work with the people to overcome any crisis the country faces.



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‘LIOC increases prices to cut down losses at CPC’s expense’

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Huge increase in sales volumes disastrous for Ceypetco – CPC chairman

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) Chairman Sumith Wijesinghe says Lanka IOC has increased its fuel prices by Rs. 5 a litre to curtail its losses by making its customers obtain fuel from Ceypetco fuel stations.

Wijesinghe said so when The Island sought an explanation as regards the mechanism in place to revise fuel prices and whether Lanka IOC required the government permission to do so. Wijesinghe emphasised that Lanka IOC move was calculated to discourage customers coming to its fuel stations thereby would sharply increase financial losses on the state enterprise as its fuel was highly subsidised to protect the local consumer.

“In other words, the surge in sales volumes will automatically increase losses. The same result can be achieved by increasing petrol and diesel by just two rupees, each,” Wijesinghe said.

Responding to another query, Wijesinghe pointed out that Lanka IOC clearly sought to cut down on their losses by forcing its regular customers to visit Ceypetco fuel stations. The outspoken official said that as their competitor is on record as having said that they suffered a loss of Rs. 20 and Rs.40 per ltr, on the sale of petrol and diesel, respectively, Lanka IOC strategy was clear.

Lanka IOC is a subsidiary of Indian Oil Corporation which comes under the purview of Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, is the only private party that operates fuel stations here.

CPC Chief said as a result of increased volume of sales their stocks would be depleted much faster. Wijesinghe described the situation as ‘grave’ and quite a concern to cash-strapped loss making public sector enterprise.

According to him, the problem was much worse than the public realised. The Indian strategy would cause a catastrophic situation, Wijesinghe said.

Wijesinghe admitted that Lanka IOC didn’t require Energy Ministry consent to revise fuel prices. The enterprise that entered the Sri Lankan market during Ranil Wickremesinghe’s premiership in 2003 is the eighth largest listed company here.

The official stressed that urgent revision of fuel prices was a dire necessity as the overall financial situation remained precarious. Ceypetco’s network of fuel stations is much larger than Lanka IOC’s.

Lanka IOC in a statement issued Thursday night said that the selling price of petrol and diesel here remained significantly low as compared to the prices prevailing in the neighboring countries. “The prices of petrol and diesel need to be in line with the prices prevailing in the international market,” the company said in a statement e-mailed to The Island.

Lanka IOC refrained from revising the prices of Lanka Super Diesel and LP 95. The previous price revision took place on June 12.

Asked whether Ceypetco would match the Lanka IOC’s price increase immediately to counter the competitor’s strategy, CPC Chairman said that the issue at hand required a thorough examination of the full picture as they couldn’t contain the rapid deterioration of the finances unless a substantial increase was implemented.

Claiming the mounting losses were unbearable, Managing Director LIOC Manoj Gupta said that the company had increased the prices to the barest minimum. Responding to The Island queries, Gupta said that Lanka IOC didn’t require GoSL approval to revise fuel prices. According to the Indian official, Lanka IOC had been empowered by ‘virtues of previously signed agreements with GOSL to take independent commercial decisions.“

As at Oct. 21 the international price of Gasoil 500ppm was at $ 95.62/barrel and Gasoline92 $ 99.37/barrel.

The last price revision took place on June 12, 2021. However, since then the Brent crude oil prices have increased from $72/barrel to $86/barrel in the international market.

Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila on Oct. 15 revealed that when raised the possibility of Treasury assistance to the CPC with Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, he was told in no uncertain terms the Finance Ministry was not in a position to do so.

In the wake of simmering controversy over the fuel price hike announced by Minister Gammanpila on June 12 with General Secretary of the SLPP attorney-at-law Sagara Kariyawasam demanding the minister’s resignation, the latter declared that the revision of fuel prices was the prerogative of the Finance Minister.

Attorney-at-law Gammanpila explained that in his capacity as the Energy Minister, he only made the announcement of a decision taken at a meeting attended by both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Asked by The Island yesterday (22) afternoon whether the Ceypetco would match Lanka IOC price hike immediately, Minister Gammanpila said ‘No.’

In terms of the 2003 agreement with the UNP government, Lanka IOC has the strategically located China Bay oil tank farm, the largest such facility situated between the Middle East and Singapore. The tank farm, formerly owned and operated by CPC, has 99 tanks, each with a capacity of 12,000 litres. Of them, only 15 of these tanks are operational at the moment.

Commenting on the ongoing talks with about half a dozen countries to ensure uninterrupted fuel supplies, the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) leader Gammanpila said that the cabinet of ministers recently approved a proposal to obtain USD 3.6 billion loan from Oman to repay in 20 years with a five-year grace period. According to him, the Omani offer had been undoubtedly the best and the government was going ahead with it. The offer now before the cabinet of ministers would give the government an opportunity to use USD 500 mn overdraft to order refined products from India.

Minister Gammanpila said that there had been other offers from China, UAE and Singapore though at the moment they were committed to Omani and Indian proposals.

Asked to explain the Indian offer, Minister Gammanpila said that USD 500 overdraft could be obtained with 4 percent interest payable in one year.

“Once settled, we’ll be eligible for USD 500 mn overdraft again.”

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‘IPU pleased with release of MP Bathiudeen’

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MP Rishad Bathiudeen’s media office said yesterday that the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) had stated it was pleased that the parliamentarian was released on bail.

Issuing a press release, the media unit said that the IPU in its official Twitter account stated that “The IPU is pleased that Sri Lankan Parliamentarian Rishad Bathiudeen was finally released on bail following his arrest on the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The IPU will closely monitor his trial.”

Bathiudeen was arrested by the CID on 24 April 2021 under the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act No. 48 of 1979. He was detained for a total of 177 days before he was finally released on bail on 14 October.

“Being a Parliamentarian, the case of Rishad Bathiudeen had drawn the attention of the IPU. The IPU is an international organization comprising 179 national Parliaments and 13 regional Parliamentary assemblies from all over

the globe. Having been established in 1889, the primary goal of the IPU has been to promote democratic governance and accountability. It also has permanent observer status in the United Nations General Assembly. The IPU has considerable influence in the affairs of the United Nations and has contributed towards numerous resolutions of the General Assembly. The investigations of the IPU are still ongoing and have not been made public. It is likely the IPU would take up the case of arbitrary arrest of Rishad Bathiudeen in its upcoming session in November at Madrid, Spain,” Bathiudeen’s media office claimed.

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Wigneswaran wants self-rule for Tamils in North and East

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By Dinasena Ratugamage

Former Northern Province Chief Minister and Thamil Makkal Thesiya Kuttani (TMTK) leader C.V. Wigneswaran said that issues faced by the Tamil people would not end until the Sri Lankan Constitution recognised the Tamil homeland and allowed self-rule for the Tamils in the North and East. “This is the only way to secure their rights and give them the freedom they deserve,” he said.

Speaking to Jaffna-based journalists, Wigneswaran said that Sinhala Buddhist leaders of the country needed to know that Tamils’s rights had to be safeguarded.

“Everyone must admit that Tamils have the same rights as everyone else in Sri Lanka. The North and East of Sri Lanka are the homelands of the Tamils.”

Wigneswaran said that it was important to raise those points at a time when a new Constitution was being drafted. He said that Sinhala Buddhist leaders of Sri Lanka had always tried to undermine the concept of a Tamil homeland.

“The war ended 12 years ago but the Army is still in the North and the East. Because they are there, the Tamils can’t enjoy all the resources that are rightfully theirs. Some lands are held by the Army and this has caused a land crisis,” he said.

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