The Government has been in that awkward, unenviable ‘damned if you do; damned if you don’t’ situation of not putting in place stricter lockdown procedures and thereby allowing the deadly COVID-19 virus to gallop away. It is receiving some deserved flak for dropping the ball by ignoring early warning signals of the presence of new [...]


Once again, early warnings ignored


The Government has been in that awkward, unenviable ‘damned if you do; damned if you don’t’ situation of not putting in place stricter lockdown procedures and thereby allowing the deadly COVID-19 virus to gallop away. It is receiving some deserved flak for dropping the ball by ignoring early warning signals of the presence of new mutants of the virus and a resurgence of the pandemic with greater ferocity.

It is steadfastly refusing to admit the obvious: COVID-19 is now well and truly “community spread” in Sri Lanka. The statistics speak for themselves even though official figures are questionably conservative. The numbers are greater, not lesser than what is given.

It was not long ago that the members of this Government pitched into, and rightly so, the previous Government for ignoring early warnings on the planned bombings of that fateful Easter Sunday of 2019. That same lethargy on the part of the current Administration has now come to bite back as early warnings of the presence of a new and decidedly more potent variant of the virus were prevalent early last month, and before the national new year holidays two weeks later.

Clearly, no lessons have been learnt on acting decisively and in time to avert looming disaster. Political expediency seems to have taken precedence despite availability of data and warnings in the media. Fearing a wave of unpopularity if they implemented lockdowns or in the least, restricted movements during the festive season, the authorities are now blaming the people for irresponsible behaviour.

Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) who have been in the forefront of the battle against the spread of the virus kept warning of a new wave of the virus spreading by May if action was not taken in April. These PHIs are in the lower spectrum of the hierarchy combating COVID-19. Politicians, the military and certain sections of the medical fraternity have been given precedence in the decision-making process. The new wave came sooner than in May. Meanwhile, the Education Ministry was irresponsibly trying to force students and undergrads to go back to schools and universities irrespective of the ground realities.

From claims in the early months of being among the Top Ten in the world in controlling the virus, Government policy slipped to asking the citizenry to look after their own safety, to now saying the vaccine is the only answer.

But the vaccine and the vaccination programme itself is mired in a global tangle and locally, politicisation. Sri Lanka got off to a slow start in acquiring the vaccine, but is now trapped in a web of intricate global imperialism and national self-interest aspects. Even when the limited stocks arrived, the authorities were unable to have a cohesive rational strategy. In the UK, where this new strain hit them hard, they had a planned vaccination campaign. Their Health Minister who is 42 years old had to wait his turn and got his jab only this week under the age-group category. At least domestically, they try and lead by example. Today, the UK is quietly coming out of its pandemic, while Sri Lanka is in danger of going under.

Upgrade Lanka’s migrant labour force

Another successive May Day celebrating International Workers Day came and went without the traditional fanfare due to the deadly COVID-19 virus taking a new, more virulent turn.

Trade unions are up in arms. They wait all year for this show of solidarity. “Workers of the World Unite” is their slogan. In reality it is anything but, at least in Sri Lanka. Workers march under different banners of political parties, one set of workers bad-mouthing the others.

The fact that it was the Army Commander who announced the ban on May Day rallies is what raised the ire of the unions. He may have done so as head of the Task Force NOCPCO combating the virus, but the optics were not good for a civilian Government already under criticism for the increasing trend of dependency on the military.

Workers Day for Sri Lanka is always a day to commemorate not so much the worker within the country, cash-strapped as they are given the skyrocketing Cost of Living and cuts in wages, but those Sri Lankan workers who went abroad, no doubt to better their lives, but who in turn remitted life-saving petro-dollars and other foreign currency to the national coffers.

And yet, this Government when faced with the pandemic, has dragged its feet in bringing them back, letting them fend for themselves in foreign lands, saying they may be a ‘pandemic bomb’ if they returned; the same set who have no qualms in opening the borders for tourists to come from countries where the virus is raging defying logic. As of today, 60,000 Sri Lankan workers in the Gulf region are still languishing for a flight to come back home.

There is a sense of despondency that Sri Lanka has had to rely on the sweat, toil and tears of these poor workers in harsh and inhospitable environments to shore up its foreign reserves. Very little has been done to upgrade the workers from mere ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’.

Take the Philippines for example and how it has turned housemaids to nurses, for instance, taught them English so they can work not only in West Asia or the Gulf but even in the United States, the UK and the industrialised countries in much more respectable and lucrative jobs. Today, they are hailed for being in the vanguard in the fight against COVID-19 as frontline workers earning the respect, and gratitude of local communities.

Successive Sri Lankan Governments have been content with the status quo of their workers doing backbreaking jobs in homes and construction sites as long as the remittances came pouring in. Meanwhile, thousands of Sri Lankans just want to go abroad in search of employment.

In 2019, there were 61,000 housemaids and more than 100,000 skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled persons who went abroad through the Foreign Employment Bureau alone. Thousands of professionals leave outside the Bureau. The proposed Port City Financial Centre is not going to be operational for at least two more decades and will never meet this demand for jobs.

However much the global economy is showing a downturn and taking a hit with the pandemic, it is going to take an upturn, and Sri Lanka’s working class is going to include the export of its human resources. In such circumstances, it might be wise for the Government to invest more heavily to transform its unskilled workers to at least semi-skilled or skilled workers if it wishes to reap better returns from its ever-growing working class.



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