Health experts kept warning ad nauseam of yet another post-Avurudu surge in detected cases – and that rising fatalities from the COVID-19 virus were on the cards. Given the country’s precarious economic situation, the Government opted to ignore the health voices and yield to the pressure from other voices to open up the economy. Now, [...]


Covid economy: Like the Titanic


Health experts kept warning ad nauseam of yet another post-Avurudu surge in detected cases – and that rising fatalities from the COVID-19 virus were on the cards. Given the country’s precarious economic situation, the Government opted to ignore the health voices and yield to the pressure from other voices to open up the economy. Now, the statistics are alarming, and one suspects the official figures are conservative.

There’s no gainsaying that it was indeed a difficult choice for the Government to balance the competing forces. It is not on a strong footing given the state of the economy. On the one hand it is not in a position to give a command. On the other, it is giving contradictory commands and the people are confused or just not listening.

In more recent times, it tried implementing a sham lockdown, then got wrong-footed by allowing the national New Year holiday travel to take place. Then it tried to shut the lid on the new wave of cases, but thereafter did a somersault and went the extra mile to completely open the economy, ask all the public servants to return to work, permit weddings, and bring in tourists from Russia. It has gone the ‘whole hog’, so to say, while on the other side, hospitals are overflowing with patients. Some hotels are having functions with bands playing and air-conditioning blasting, while other hotels (used by private hospitals as intermediate care centres) are filled with COVID patients carrying saline bottles. It is almost like the sinking of the Titanic, while the band played on: A tale of two cities.

With the arrival of fresh consignments of vaccines, there is a false sense of security that the mass vaccination programme will settle the spike of positive cases. If the citizenry is expected to look after themselves amidst a raging virus, critics blame the Government squarely for the freefall of the virus. Who else is there to blame but the Government?

It seems decisions on whether to keep the economy open, or partially open etc., are no longer a Health matter, but a Finance matter. The Government hierarchy has received enough advice from the Health side. Medical specialists have warned repeatedly of the exponential rise in oxygen-dependent patients and pleaded with the Government to revisit the opening of the economy full throttle however dire straits it is in at present. With the death toll rising daily, and the health system on the brink, they ask for the complete relaxation of the economy only after these figures start dropping with the vaccination campaign gathering momentum.

It does not mean closure of the country in toto. Daily paid workers will have to bite the bullet and the Government has a duty to offer them a safety net by way of relief. It was premature for the Government to have opened the country entirely and asked public servants to return to work this week in public transport packed to the brim. The Health Minister has said 45,000 children are already infected. The Government must act, and act decisively, to ensure the galloping new variant does not reach a tipping point, a point of no return by its shortsightedness.

MPs’ educational qualifications: What is the mystery?

 With teachers countrywide taking to the streets making demands and schoolchildren left in the lurch to fend for themselves, it seems education, once considered a passport to a better life, has to take a back seat while the elders squabble.

The Government miscalculated by trying to sneak in a controversial education law that gave the desperate handle the teachers unions were searching for to win public support for a pay rise demand that had been in abeyance sans that public sympathy. A teacher’s pensionable income has been doubled from Rs. 21,750 in 2015 to Rs. 44,950 by 2020. Public servants’ salaries have also been increased 100 per cent between 2016 and 2020. These will bloat the pensions bill for future Governments. Arguments that teachers are a “closed profession” and any salary increases will not have a knock-on effect on the rest of the public service do not hold water as many other sectors, like the Customs, Inland Revenue, Railways, Health etc., are also “closed services”. Given the mushrooming tuition classes around the country, not all teachers live in pecuniary difficulties either, though many do.

Unfortunately, the value of education is not reflected at the very apex of political power in the country. Mystified citizens may well ask, what is the secrecy regarding the educational qualifications of elected representatives? That question is best answered by Parliament’s staff, taking the puzzling position in a Right to Information application filed by a journalist, that this is not information that automatically belongs in the public domain.

The officers of Parliament have said that they are not legally required to obtain that information from MPs under the Constitution and do not ‘possess’ these details within the meaning of the RTI Act. That may (conveniently) take them out of being compelled to release that information. But the argument does not stop there. We are also told that releasing such details will infringe on the privacy of MPs, which is where the mystification comes in.

That privacy argument has been shot down by the Right to Information Commission last week which ruled that releasing details of educational qualifications of MPs does not constitute an ‘unwarranted’ invasion of privacy. As reminded, the public interest factor is high in such instances. In fact, details of educational qualifications of persons applying for appointments or promotions in the public service have become routinely available under RTI, sometimes on Commission orders but often voluntarily disclosed by state entities, from banks to ministries. So why should different or privileged status be given to MPs?

The Elections Commission does not ask for this information prior to an election. Why is that being denied to the country when the repeated mantra of an elected MP is that they exist by the will of the sovereign people?

The RTI Commission stressed the need for transparency of those who legislate for the people. This included making an elector’s criminal records also public. These are common standards long observed in other countries, including elsewhere in the region. Surely it is time Sri Lanka followed suit.

As for the demands of the teachers for a salary hike, even if it may not be justifiable in present circumstances, a recent indication by the new Finance Minister to yield to a Rs. 3.7 billion worth import of vehicles for MPs does not cut ice with the argument that the Government has no funds to pay the teachers better.



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