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.
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.
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.
People to get fuel price shock soon
The Cabinet sub-committee on the cost of living had decided to increase fuel prices, Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila told the media yesterday (11) in Colombo. He said that the date of the price hikes would be revealed soon.
The Minister said that if they announced the date, it would lead to long lines at filling stations and it would have disastrous consequences during the pandemic.
“We know that things are hard for everyone, that is why we didn’t increase fuel prices for 21 months. But the government can no longer bear the losses. The oil prices in the world market have been increasing. By the end of 2020, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) had accumulated a loss of RS. 331 billion. Each year we spend three billion dollars to import oil,” he said.
Gammanpila said that the main sources of income for the country had been affected due to the pandemic and foreign investments and tourism had stopped and a large number of Lankans working abroad had returned, decreasing remittances.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Office on May 20 said that a ministerial subcommittee discussed the sharp increase in crude oil prices compared to 2019 and 2020.
The PM chaired the meeting in the Committee Room 8 in Parliament. The Cabinet subcommittee discussed ways and means of addressing the problems caused by the crude price hike.
The PM’s Office said that ministers had discussed how to sustain public relief in the wake of further increase in expenditure. The subcommittee discussed the financial problems of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), among other things. The PM’s Office said that ministers had discussed how to sustain public relief in the wake of further increase in expenditure. The subcommittee discussed the financial problems of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), among other things. (RK)
HRC asks IGP to explain how he intended to stop deaths of suspects in police custody
Report called by June 13
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Human Rights Commission has sought an explanation from IGP C.D. Wickremaratne as regards continuing deaths in police custody.
In a letter dated June 8, 2021, HRC Chairman Dr. Jagath Balasuriya has raised the recent deaths in police custody with the focus on two incidents involving Panadura and Batticaloa police.
HRC Acting Director Research and Monitoring Nihal Chandrasiri told The Island that the June 8 dated letter was the latest missive addressed to the IGP regarding this particular issue since the formation of the new HRC following the last general election in August 2020.
Chandrasiri made available to The Island, a copy of Dr. Balasuriya’s letter addressed to IGP Wickremaratne.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in late Dec 2020 named former lawmaker Balasuriya as the Chairman of the HRC comprising· Dr. M.H. Nimal Karunasiri, Dr. Vijitha Nanayakkara, Ms. Anusuya Shanmuganathan and H.K. Navaratne Weraduwa.
Chandrasiri said that the HRC first took up deaths in police custody in the wake of the killing of Dinithi Melan alias Uru Juwa, who had been arrested by the Nawagamuwa police, and Dharmakeerthi Tharaka Perera Wijesekara alias Kosgoda Tharaka in the second week of May 2021.
Civil society activist attorney-at-law Senaka Perera told The Island that continuing deaths in police custody should be examined against the backdrop of a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka delivered that the extra-judicial killing of a suspect in police custody violated the right to life, in spite of the absence of an explicit right to life clause in the Constitution of Sri Lanka.
According to Dr. Balasuriya’s letter, reportage of the deaths of Chandana Vidushan and Ali Khan in the custody of the Batticaloa police and Panadura (North) police, respectively, prompted the HRC to take up the matter with the IGP. Declaring that the HRC has initiated an inquiry in terms of Section 14 of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka Act, No.21 of 1996, Dr. Balasuriya said that inquiries revealed both victims suffered cruel and inhuman treatment in the hands of the police, leading to their deaths?.
Expressing serious concern over what he called the absence of safety and security of those in police custody, Dr. Balasuriya has pointed out to the IGP relevant sections of the Constitution, in addition to Supreme Court rulings in respect of such matters and two letters dated Oct 21, 2020 and March 17, 2021 that dealt with the issue at hand.
Asserting that continuing deaths in police custody resulted in deterioration of public confidence in law and order, such incidents underscored the threat to what he called public freedom. Having reminded the IGP that the HRC intervened in terms of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka Act, No.21 of 1996, Dr. Balasuriya has requested the IGP to submit a report to him of measures he intended to introduce to prevent deaths in police custody by or before June 13.
In the wake of several killings in police custody, Romesh de Silva, PC, recently moved the Court of Appeal on behalf of convicted heroin dealer Gampola Vidanalage Samantha Kumara alias Wele Suda held at maximum security Boossa prison. President’s Counsel successfully argued against the police taking Wele Suda into their custody.
President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) President’s Counsel Saliya Pieris has appeared in the Court of Appeal on behalf of Janith Madushankar alias Podi Lassi. Having brought to the notice of justices, Sobitha Rajakaruna and Dhammika Ranepola, the most recent killings in police custody of ‘Uru Juwa’ and ‘Kosgoda Tharaka,’ Peiris sought the court’s intervention to ensure his client’s safety and security.
The lawyer has requested that the court direct the IGP to transfer his client from the custody of the CID to another unit.
Health trade union alliance claims their strike a success
By Rathindra Kuruwita
Senior health officials including doctors benefited from the current health crisis, Health Services Trade Union Alliance (HSTUA) President Saman Rathnapriya said yesterday commenting on the trade union action resorted to by a number of health sector unions, excluding the GMOA.
Rathnapriya maintained that the strike was a success and non-health sector unions too had supported them because what he called unfair increases in allowances received by doctors affected the entire state sector. The allowance given to doctors had been increased by 78%, from Rs. 41,220 to Rs. 78,120, however other categories had not received any increase in their allowances, he said.
“Our union action was a success, but we are not happy we had to do this. Nurses and other staffers have not received any increase in their allowances although they too are contributing greatly in the fight against COVID-19. The Health Ministry is unnecessarily creating issues by giving a colossal allowance increase to the doctors,” Rathnapriya said.
College of Medical Laboratory Science (CMLS) President Ravi Kumudesh said that the doctors held top positions in the Health Ministry and for many years they had been ignoring the salaries and allowances of other employees.
“They not only mistreat us but create new issues, testing our patience. Throughout this pandemic you can see this. They get all the perks and have even their family members vaccinated. They are taking advantage of the fact that we are exercising patience in view of the pandemic,” Kumudesh said.
Kumudesh added that the union action had not affected the anti-COVID-19 programme, cancer, maternity and paediatric hospitals, etc.
“We are not doing this to inconvenience the people. We are trying to ensure that the Health Ministry does not create additional problems,” he said
President of All Ceylon Management Service Officer’s Union, Udeni Dissanayake said that they too supported the trade union action because the actions of the GMOA would have an adverse impact on the entire state sector.
Doctors had received certain perks in recent years, and they had contributed to salary anomalies and inequality of remuneration across the board, he said.
“Doctors were treated with great respect in our culture, and this is being eroded by the actions of the GMOA. They have been receiving allowances increased and after a while those of similar standing in other sectors, too, ensure that they get hikes, but those in the lower grades do not see any increase. Although we are not a health sector union, we fully support this action for two reasons. One is that the cause is just and the other is that the impact of the allowance hike given solely to the doctors will soon be felt by us,” Dissanayake said.
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