While many countries have joined the queue well on time to be in line to receive the life-saving, life-changing, hope-restoring vaccine of vaccines to end COVID’s unchallenged siege in their respective lands, Lanka hasn’t even arrived at the starter’s gate to be whistled out. Instead, she is still in the paddocks making inquiries from potential [...]


Lanka hunts for vaccine with begging bowl in hand

Bangladesh and Maldives begin vaccine roll outs on Jan 26

While many countries have joined the queue well on time to be in line to receive the life-saving, life-changing, hope-restoring vaccine of vaccines to end COVID’s unchallenged siege in their respective lands, Lanka hasn’t even arrived at the starter’s gate to be whistled out.

Instead, she is still in the paddocks making inquiries from potential suppliers without a clue as to which vaccine to order, regardless of its quality; and holding out the begging bowl for charity from all passers-by to raise the cash to buy the vaccine that will safeguard the health of her own people, the ultimate responsibility of any government.

For that, she has to depend on her tears not on spot cash, on evoking pity not on credit power, on prayer and hope not from sterling Fitch ratings, on grovelling on all fours for a freebie dose, on even selling off her last few possessions to get the COVID fix for her imperilled citizens.

This is what this nation has to show after 72 years of independence scraping coconuts, of governments waving the flag of Sinhala chauvinism and steamrolling minority rights, of politicians stoking the fires of racial hatred to broaden the chasm of racial divides even further to emerge to power from its fiery gorge. This is the price a nation pays when it’s led down the garden path to the heady beat of the emotive drum of frenzied prejudice: when it reaps the whirlwind of an unwanted 30-year terrorist war — a war which robbed the nation of its seed and blossom, zapped it of its energy and resources, and left it bereft, pauperised, of both economic wealth and international goodwill.

In spite of the lessons professedly learnt and the truths apparently discovered, despite the follies made and its calamitous consequences still evergreen in memory, the errors of old ways have yet to be fathomed; and, for all the idealistic cry for a one Sri Lankan identity, the communities remain divided by a wall of mistrust, with its shadow falling even on the unburied dead, even during a pandemic.

On the economic front, the outlook is even bleaker. The mega corruption, the gross mismanagement, the glaring nepotism of the past have left the Treasury coffers bereft and the debt repayment burden alone has crippled advancement. With trillions in debt and each citizen hocked to the hilt for 300,000 bucks or more, no wonder the government cannot afford to find 8,000 rupees for a single Pfizer vaccine including booster, for each Lankan citizen to stay protected against the coronavirus. Hence, the plea for handouts for vaccine rollouts.

After Britain became the first country to start immunising her citizens with the Pfizer vaccine. a host of over 30 countries have rolled out the vaccine to their people since December to ensure they not only stay blessed but also stay protected.

THE SEARCH FOR THE ELUSIVE PFIZER VACCINE: After the World Health Organisation’s pauper’s Pfizer ration had been doled out, will rest of the populace have to settle for any vaccine given free or at the lowest price?

While those countries, namely Argentina, Belarus, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Kuwait, Malta, Mexico, Oman, Poland, , Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates have been the early birds to have clinched the first stocks to protect their people and have a head start on reviving the economy, Lanka seems to have fallen into complacency once WHO assured  her that she will receive the ‘20 percent of the population’ quota reserved  for countries in dire straits. In the case of Lanka, it will approximately be only for 4 million people.

It appears nothing else has been done to obtain the balance. Here’s what the Consultant Epidemiologist at the Health Ministry, Dr. Deepa Gamage, had to say last Tuesday on the progress: “Initially we were told we had to pay for the vaccine. Later we were told that the vaccine for 20 percent of the population will be given free of charge. The rest we need to purchase if we require. But the situation keeps changing so we are not sure how things will be later.”

With the stalemate, the Health Ministry is now keeping itself busy preparing a priority list of recipients to be given the free Pfizer 4 million vaccines courtesy of the WHO accredited COVAX.

According to Ms. Gamage this list consists of vulnerable groups. Among the recipients identified are people above 60 years of age, frontline workers and others. The Pfizer-Biontech is the only vaccine approved so far by the WHO.

On December 20, the Sunday Times reported that Lanka was seeking a loan of US$10 billion from the World Bank to buy the vaccines but so far nothing seems to have transpired from  the request made and the begging bowl still remains hollow despite the humanitarian grounds on which the tear jerking ‘touch’ was based.

Earlier, it had been announced Sri Lanka would seek a bilateral arrangement with India to get doses for a mass rollout and the Government did not fail to broach the request with the External Affairs Minister Dr. Jaishankar when he arrived last week in Colombo on 5 January.

After all, hadn’t the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his desire to help Lanka overcome the crisis? Hadn’t he announced in his UN General Assembly address last September ‘that India’s vaccine will be for humanity’? That India would be ‘happy to work together with friends and partners like Sri Lanka to bring to our people the benefits of an effective and safe vaccine against this deadly pandemic’?

Such great expectations were instantly flattened when the true purpose of Minister Jaishankar’s sudden visit became apparent. Hours before his departure from New Delhi, the External Affairs Minister told Indian TV that an important focus of his visit ‘will be the Chinese presence in the Hambantota harbour on a 99 year lease. It is an understanding between China and Sri Lanka that they will not undertake any military venture there. So India will take the help of Sri Lanka to ensure that Chinese military or Chinese hegemony don’t come to this region.’ The importance of the Eastern Jetty at the Colombo port to India was also emphasised.

Thus it was clear that he had travelled 1,500 miles to Colombo not merely to talk of doling out free vaccines to protect Lankan lives but had arrived here mainly to safeguard Indian interests currently on the block.

Jaishankar said, ‘Sri Lanka has expressed interest in procuring COVID-19 vaccines from India. We are now looking at post-COVID cooperation and I carry back with me Sri Lanka’s interest in accessing vaccines from India.’ He said that Lanka will be prioritised when the Indian produced COVID vaccine is ready for export.

India produces two vaccines: one developed by Oxford University and UK-based drug maker AstraZeneca, and another by the Indian manufacturer Bharat Biotech. The Indian External Affairs Minister did not mention any dates, his mind, perhaps, more bent on ‘post-COVID’ co-operation.

Last Saturday, the President announced that he had written to Chinese President Xi Jinping requesting for assistance in obtaining the vaccines. On Wednesday, a Chinese Embassy spokesman said China attached high priority to the request. He said there would be a positive outcome for the request for donation. The spokesman also said that both Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines were effective, safe and easy to be stored. He said nine million people in China had received the jabs. That’s barely 0.6 % of her 1.5b population vaccinated.

On Friday, an application had been made by the State Pharmaceuticals Corporation to the National Medical Regulatory Authority (NMRA) seeking approval for the Russian COVID vaccine Sputnik V for emergency use. Its Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Kamal Jayasinghe, said it was before an expert board but declined to give a time frame for its decision. The Russian vaccine hasn’t received approval from the WHO.

The GMOA Assistant Secretary Dr. Navin de Soyza declared that any vaccine must receive mandatory WHO approval for it to be used here.  He said, “Why it’s important to receive WHO approval is because only vaccines that have successfully completed clinical trials receive WHO sanction. It must also receive the approval of the NMRA. What happens in countries like Sri Lanka is that after it has received WHO approval, we conduct ‘post -market surveillance’ for a period of one or two months and only then is approval given.’’

A week after the Indian External Affairs Minister had carried with him back to India, Lanka’s prayer for vaccine help, it seemed India’s generous heart opened up. Lankan State Minister of Pharmaceuticals Professor Channa Jayasumana elatedly announced that ‘India will donate a consignment of Covid-19 vaccines being manufactured there by the end of this month as a gesture of goodwill between the two countries’.

He also announced that ‘procedural steps are now underway for the registration of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V vaccine developed by Russia and Astrazeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine ahead of roll out in Sri Lanka.’ Perhaps he forgot to mention the Chinese Sinopharm and Sinovac as promised by Beijing. Wow, suddenly, like confetti at a wedding, Lanka seems awash with untried vaccines ready for roll out for the public to be jabbed in mass inoculation.

At last, left behind Lanka will be in with a chance to catch up with friends in the neighbourhood, namely, Bangladesh and the Maldives which have announced vaccine rollouts from 26 January. India launched her mammoth vaccine rollout yesterday with the promise of inoculating over 300,000 people in one day, setting a world record.

But what will it be for Lanka? Will it be the Pfizer American, the Sputnik Russian, the Pharm/Vac Chinese, the Bharat Indian, the Oxford English or the Oxford English Made in India? With such an abundance of choice up for gratis, it must make Lanka feel thoroughly spoilt. But yet a decision has to be taken and, in the circumstances, the best yardstick to choose in picking the right vaccine seems to be the old Chinese saying: ‘Good things no cheap, cheap things no good.’ The danger is, however, can beggars be choosers?

JAILED BUT DEFIANT: A smiling Ranjan says, ‘I will stand by what I said’

Ranjan: J’accuse

Popular film star turned one man corruption buster, MP Ranjan Ramanayake who accused many leading figures in the political scene of corruption, including some in his own party, was jailed this week for four years rigorous imprisonment for contempt of court by the Supreme Court.

Once when a TV interviewer asked him why he had bid adieu to the film world, his reply was that he himself sometimes wondered why. When I attend film premiers now, I think this is my world and wonder why I left the glamour, the stardom to get down to this cesspit and clean it. Just think, in what other profession, do people come to your home, give you an advance of Rs. 2 or 4 lakhs, take you in their vehicles, keep you in the best hotels, take you to a Nuwara Eliya hillock and ask you to dance, embrace and kiss a most beautiful girl and pay for all that. This is the best job in the world.’

Poor Ranjan. So what caused his meltdown in his new profession of politics that has taken many sky high? Perhaps, like Icarus, the iconoclast flew on wax wings too near the sun for the establishment’s comfort?

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