Sri Lanka government had resisted enforcing a lock down to fight the Covid-19 pandemic as advised by medical health authorities for nearly ten months. Instead, it had opted for travel restrictions. However, the government was forced to announce a 10-day nation-wide lock down from August 20. However, when the total number of cases breached figure of four lakhs and death toll mounted to nearly 9000, the beleaguered government further extended the lockdown till September 6.
It might be tempting to attribute Sri Lanka’s losing battle to control the Covid-19 pandemic to the Delta variant and its three new mutations, now in the fray. However, the government’s inability to strategize its pandemic control measures is evident from the Covid data.
The number of cases which averaged a low of 1282 new cases in the week ending July 12, rose to a high average of 5961 by end August. According to Reuters data, Covid infections are increasing with 5325 new infections reported on average each day, working out to 170 persons per one lakh people; this is 97% of the peak –- the highest daily average reported on August 26.
Despite the hiccups in vaccine procurement and vaccination programme, Sri Lanka has administered around 19.5 million doses of Covid vaccine, enough to have vaccinated two doses to 44.7 % of the population. This is not a bad record, when compared with other countries. But the problem appears to be in enforcing preventive health measures.
The government has been clearly caught in a dilemma on imposing a lockdown. It was only in August 2, in a bid to restore normalcy, the government urged state sector employees to return to work. It increased transport services. But when medical authorities were strongly favouring lock down, the government allowed the heads of department to determine the staff requirement. When the hospitals started overflowing with patients, integrated health care programme of confining pandemic patients to homes was adopted.
President Rajapaksa speech on the eve of the nation-wide lockdown sounded pessimistic. He warned the already harried people “to be prepared to make more sacrifices if the country is to be placed under a lockdown form a longer period of time in the future.” He dwelt at length the high cost of imposing a lockdown.
His words “although the government does everything it can to provide oxygen, establish intermediate treatment centres and administer vaccines, it is the role of doctors to manage patients appropriately” lacked compassion to both the victims and health staff. So were his words “Most of the people who passed away from Covid-19 were over the age of 60. The majority of people out of them had been suffering from chronic diseases for a long time and they had not been vaccinated.”
The President has reshuffled his cabinet, in a bid to impart new momentum to the battle against Covid and its adverse impact on the economy. Prof GL Peiris has been made minister of foreign affairs in place of Dinesh Gunawardana, who has become minister of education. The lack lustre minister for health Pavithra Wanniarach his has been replaced by Keheliya Rambukwella, though how it would improve the situation is to be seen. PM Rajapaksa’s son Namal Rajapaksa has been made minister of development coordination and supervision in addition to his portfolio of youth affairs. This appointment further increases the clout of the Rajapaksa clan in controlling developmental activity.
President Rajapaksa’s ability to decide on the Covid strategy is likely to be tested when the present lockdown ends on September 6, if we go by the recommendations of an Independent Technical Experts Group, published in the Daily FT. The Group estimates the 10-day lockdown as of August 30, would adversely impact at $1.12 billion or 1.3% of GDP, while a four-week lockdown till September 18 would cost $1.67 billion or 1.9% of GDP. If further extended to six weeks till October 2, it would cost the economy $2.2 billion or 2.5% of GDP. The Group has recommended the ongoing lockdown be extended till September 18, as it would prevent 7,500 deaths. If extended till October 2, it would save 10,000 lives and the economy would bounce back. It is clear Covid-19 pandemic has emerged as President Rajapaksa’s challenger. Will the ‘Terminator’ be able to terminate the scourge?
Mangala Samaraweera, well known liberal politician and two-term foreign minister of Sri Lanka, who served as finance minister in the Yahapalana cabinet passed away due to Covid complications on August 24. In a political career spanning three decades, his party affiliations changed between the SLFP and UNP. However, he was man of firm convictions as a liberal democrat against Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism. A fashion technologist by qualification, he was openly gay. He was nominated by the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) party to contest the 2020 elections.
However, he quit the electoral contest before the polls, emphasizing the need for recommitment to democracy as the country was hurling towards an autocracy with the “rapid convergence of the executive, the military and the clergy.” He was a supporter of LGBTQ movement and encouraged their struggle to do away with archaic laws governing same sex relations. Tamil National Alliance spokesman MA Sumanthiran aptly summed up Samaraweera’s contribution: “as a foreign minister in 2015, he tirelessly worked towards justice, accountability and reconciliation. His vision for Sri Lanka was one where every citizen was equal irrespective of ethnic, language, race, religion, orientation or belief.” His death is truly a loss to politics of idealism in Sri Lanka.
Welfare package for Sri Lanka refugees
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin has announced a welfare package of Rs 317 crore for over three lakh Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in the state since 1983. The CM proposes to set up a committee for their welfare. The Committee shall also work towards long term solutions on their problems like citizenship and return to Sri Lanka. In a statement in the Assembly, the CM said Rs 261.54 crore would be allocated for improving infrastructure including reconstruction of houses for those living in camps, Rs 12.25 crore towards ensuring education and job opportunities and Rs 43.61 crore for raising their living standards.
CM Stalin said the government would bear the tuition and hostel fees of 55 students, who are children of refugees. Fifty students in engineering and five others in agriculture would get the assistance. The government has also announced remission of tuition and hostel fee of all post graduate students and hike in scholarship amount for graduate vocational courses.
Assistance to self-help groups, increase in cash support to families are among other benefits included in the proposal. The Sri Lanka refugee welfare package announcement is a strong reminder that Sri Lanka Tamil issue is still alive in the ruling DMK’s political agenda. We can expect the TN government to pressurise New Delhi when Sri Lanka’s contentious issues of human rights excesses during the Eelam war and devolution come up in the UN forums. The CM is also likely to take up the question of Indian citizenship for Sri Lanka Tamil refugees.