First the good news of Lanka’s remarkable recovery from the coronavirus nightmare that once seemed destined never to end but linger on till a sizable number of her people  were dead and some of her democratic institutions and functions were crippled. Last week on May 19, the wind of all the legal arguments for holding [...]


If COVID will leave Lanka crippled, will debt plague leave Lanka dead?


FORMER PRIME MINISTER RANIL WICKREMESINGHE’S FOREBODINGS: ‘Lanka on road to defaulting on her debt obligations,’ in dire ‘Prophet of Doom’ warning to the nation

First the good news of Lanka’s remarkable recovery from the coronavirus nightmare that once seemed destined never to end but linger on till a sizable number of her people  were dead and some of her democratic institutions and functions were crippled.

Last week on May 19, the wind of all the legal arguments for holding the polls as planned on June 20 seemed to have been taken out of the sails when Counsel for the Election Commission, in the ‘Election Date’ case, rose from his seat and told the Supreme Court that his client’s position was that they could not hold the elections on the scheduled date.

Saliya Peiris P. C. informed the court that given the present coronavirus crisis, no elections could be held in the absence of an ‘all clear’ directive from the Health Authority. However, were the Health Authorities to give the green light, elections could be held between 9 to 11 weeks from the date of the positive signal.

But the required green light had already started flashing from the Health Ministry. On May 22, eminent President’s Counsel Romesh de Silva informed court that the Director General of Health Services, Dr. Anil Jasinghe, had already tendered in writing to his client Secretary to the President Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, the assurance that the election process could commence under the prevailing situation in the country.

There was more good news to come. The following day, Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Sudath Samaraweera blazoned the glad tidings that Sri Lanka was COVID free. He said that not a single COVID-19 patient had been reported in society within the last 24 days. Random tests were being conducted in high-risk areas in society, but in the last three weeks, no new cases have been reported from the society, he added.

Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi also stamped her seal of confirmation stating at a news briefing that for the past three weeks no COVID-19 positive cases have been reported from the general public which indicated there is no more community transmission of the virus.

Of course, there were still active cases in hospitals, in navy camps and at quarantine centres but the important objective of preventing the rampant spread of the coronavirus in the community had been achieved beyond all expectations.  The health authorities backed by the Government’s judicious policy of 24/7 indefinite curfews, lockdowns, mandatory use of facemasks and prevention advice had dawned rewards.

Lanka had halted COVID from running amok, made it impotent to bag even one more scalp in its reign of terror in less than two months. The collective prayers of the adherents of all four major religions practised in this thrice blessed island had been answered with a miracle, granted, so far, to no other infected nation.

The bad news, however, is that we are not out of the woods yet. For even while the community is at peace, the coronavirus infected figures are spiking at an alarming rate.

On May 1, the official daily update issued by the Epidemiology Unit stated the number of COVID confirmed at 665 cases. And the number in the Colombo district at 158 COVID confirmed.  On May 15, the number of COVID confirmed cases had risen to 925 cases. On May 28, this number had shot up to 1469 cases.

This dramatic increase has been attributed to the arrival of Lankan citizens repatriated from COVID infected countries which account for 385 COVID confirmed cases, as at 10 am May 28.  The majority of the rest are navy personnel who number 691 COVID confirmed. The figure for Colombo district, the district most infected, remains relatively unchanged at 150.

Fortunately, these patients have been identified and quarantined; and are presently receiving treatment at government centres. Effectively the virus has been contained. The challenge that faces the authorities now is to take all possible measures to ensure the deadly virus doesn’t slip through the dragnet.

This Tuesday, the Director General of Health Services, Dr. Jasinghe, who was last week reported as having given a letter to P. B.  Jayasundera, the Secretary to the President, that the elections process could commence under the prevailing situation in the country, suddenly warned that though the government had relaxed the curfew the country had still not arrived at a state of hundred percent normalcy and hence measures should be taken to prevent infection transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

He said: “Colombo is the most densely populated area and Gampaha is second. Therefore, actions should be taken to protect those areas. COVID-19 infected Navy cluster is still active in these areas.” His warning turned true on Thursday when a navy officer tested positive at the Gafoor Building in Fort  and the entire building along with 200 navy personnel were placed under quarantine as a result.

Eternal vigilance is the price to keep the land COVID free.  We may not be lucky, second wave around, if, God forbid, any. The nation’s Guardian Deities will not be amused if we become the spendthrifts of our good fortune; and fritter away the blessings granted through negligence.

The grim news in the trilogy is the dire warnings of the hard times ahead for all Lankans as prophesied this week by the recently exiled fiscal Prophet of Doom, Ranil Wickremesinghe. The ex-Prime Minister, in his forebodings, does not bring hope that there is life after the COVID plague but instead draws from stark realism to paint a gloomy picture of darkness at noon.

In his siren call to the Government, he warns, ‘Lanka is on the path to defaulting on her debt obligations’. Quoting The Economist magazine, he says that Sri Lanka has been named as the nation with the highest economic tensions in South Asia. “Sri Lanka’s debt services were 87 percent of the Gross Domestic Product in 2019.  It is expected to increase up to 93 percent by end 2020 and hit 100 percent in 2021.  Sri Lanka’s total debt services are expected to be USD 3 billion this year and will go up to USD 10 billion in 2023. On the other hand, given the world economic situation, it will take a long time for the apparel and tourism sectors to recover.

“CNN recently came up with a list of countries that are unable to settle their debts. These included countries like Argentina, Lebanon and Ecuador. According to global indicators, Sri Lanka too could fall into this category. Last month, Fitch ratings put Sri Lanka into “s-minus” based on debt settlement. Morgan Stanley Ratings are expected to push Sri Lanka into a minus status too.”

He sums up the despondent situation staring in Lanka’s face, saying: “The issue today is about the future of Sri Lankan people and not merely statistics. Therefore, we request the Government to come out with a report on the current status of the economy. Silence will not help the nation to come out of the present situation. As per the Fiscal Responsibility Act, it is the duty of the government to compile a report. The Government last came out with a report on the economic situation on March 23 which is now outdated.’’

The Central Bank debunked all claims made that the country was facing a massive debt crisis and was on the verge of defaulting on its debt obligations. In a statement published on its website last week, it said: ‘”The Government wishes to categorically deny all such baseless claims, and would like to reiterate to all stakeholders that Sri Lanka will duly honour all its debt service obligations in the period ahead.’’

So be it. But whether future events should prove the former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe right in his warnings or the Central Bank and the Government wrong in their refutations, it will be the people of Lanka who will have to suffer the horrendous consequences of a nation gone broke.

Last Thursday, the country received first hand, an eye witness account of what can happen when a poverty driven people desperate for food and cash due to the corona crisis, make a stampede to receive a measly thousand rupee note doled out by a philanthropist practising Ramadan charity in Maligawatte, Colombo where three women died and nine were injured. Imagine the scale of the horror when, in the event of an economic catastrophe, a starving people driven to the wall, rise not to ask for handouts to sate their hunger but to grab whatever they come across as of right on the mean bloody streets of anarchy.


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