Veteran singer and entertainer Sunil Perera, who is recovering after contracting the COVID-19 virus, made a pithy remark during a recent TV interview. He said: “When I was growing up (in the 1960s) it was said that Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) is a Third World country. Now, when I am (in my old age), Sri [...]

Business Times

Pandemic blues


Veteran singer and entertainer Sunil Perera, who is recovering after contracting the COVID-19 virus, made a pithy remark during a recent TV interview. He said: “When I was growing up (in the 1960s) it was said that Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) is a Third World country. Now, when I am (in my old age), Sri Lanka is still a Third World country.”

This analogy describes best how the country has failed more than 70 years after independence in moving up the ladder of growth – all because our politicians have failed us over and over again, revelling in confrontational politics rather than coming together for a common cause. Sri Lanka’s never-ending tragedy is that one set of politicians when in power unveils new policies and however good they are, the next set of politicians rejects them and introduces new policies.

However, amidst all these negativities, the role of the health sector of this country was a plus. Even during the 1960s we were one of the best in Asia. Today the health sector is a beacon of hope in the ruthless battle against an invisible enemy – COVID-19.

A heartwarming tale from Matale is a reflection of how dedicated the health service has been during the pandemic. Reports say that due to a shortage of hospital beds, the director of the Matale District Hospital gave up his residential quarters and transformed it into a Preliminary Care Unit. He moved into a room.

The next few weeks are scary with the number of COVID-19 cases seen rising sharply and dead bodies piling up.

As I prepared for today’s discussion on how corporates are doing well amidst these challenges, the phone rang.

It was my jolly-mood economist friend, Sammiya (short for Samson). “Hi Sammiya, good you called as I wanted to discuss how larger establishments in the private sector are doing reasonably well despite the pandemic,” I said in a welcoming voice.

“Yes their recent results show that they have managed the pandemic well. The stock market is also doing well,” he said and went on to give the results of some companies.

According to him, post-tax profits at the NDB Bank rose by 32 percent to Rs. 3.9 billion in the first half of 2021; John Keells revenue rose by 80 percent to Rs.38.80 billion in the quarter ending June 2021; post-tax profit at Hayleys in 2020/21 was up by a staggering 400 percent to Rs. 14.05 billion; Expolanka, reported the highest-ever after tax profit of Rs. 14.8 billion in 2020/21; Aitken Spence Group’s non-tourism sectors reported a profit before tax of Rs. 5.01 billion for 2020/21; SLT-MOBITEL posted a 29.9 percent year-on-year growth of after tax profit of Rs. 6 billion; and the Bank of Ceylon said it had surpassed 2020’s total profit of Rs. 27 billion within the first six months of 2021.

“These are amazing results given the challenges of the pandemic,” I said. “Yes the private sector is hoping that there won’t be any lockdowns or curfews because in the current situation the retail sector (shops/malls/supermarkets) has picked up,” I said, adding that many companies have structured their operations based on a hybrid model – front-liners working in office and others from home.

The future however, as stated earlier, is grim with reports and estimates of COVID-19 infections set to rise sharply. Medical professionals are urging the government to impose a lockdown and curb the spread but the authorities are resisting the call and in a delicate balance, are torn between containing COVID-19, while allowing economic activity so that daily wage earners, in particular, won’t be affected like they were before.

The COVID-19 statistics are worrying. As at August 11 – there were 342,079 cases, 5,464 deaths and 124 daily deaths while China – where the first COVID-19 case emerged – had fewer cases and fewer deaths. As at July 18, there were 283,512 COVID-19 cases and 3,733 deaths; As at June 27, Sri Lanka had reported 251,751 cases and 2,905 deaths; On January 17, 2021, Sri Lanka reported 52,313 cases and 256 related deaths while in mid-August 2020, Sri Lanka recorded 2,844 cases and 11 deaths. These statistics reveal the sharp rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths since last year.

Realising the heavy dose of statistics was taxing my brain too much, I turned my attention, for a breather, to the margosa tree conversation where Kussi Amma Sera was holding forth with her interpretation of the rise in COVID-19 cases.

Rata lockdown karoth, vairasaya pathirena-eka navathwanna puluwan (If they have a lockdown, they can stop the spread of this infection),” she exhorted.

Eka honda piyawarak nemei mokada ape yaluwo godak davase padiyada weda karanne [That won’t be a good move because it would affect many of our friends (domestic workers) who are daily wage earners],” noted Serapina.

Eka aththa. Egollanta asadaranayak wenawa weda karanna beri wunoth (That’s right. It won’t be fair to them if they are unable to work),” said Mabel Rasthiyadu.

Oya hari wenna puluwan, eth mae amaru davas (You may be right but these are difficult days),” added Kussi Amma Sera.

There is also pressure with regard to allowing tourist arrivals in view of the rapid spread of the Delta variant. According to Sri Lanka Tourism, a total of 203 tourists had contracted COVID-19 during their holiday in Sri Lanka during the period December 2020 to July 31, 2021. There were 25,476 arrivals during this period and the percentage of COVID-19 cases was 0.79 percent.

While the private sector is doing reasonably well in this challenging environment and is expected to show favourable results this quarter (July-September) too, the government is facing crises on many fronts – a shortage of milk powder, a dispute over LPG pricing and also concerns as to whether the dollar inflows from various official sources would happen in the next three months, casting a shadow over Sri Lanka’s precarious foreign exchange reserves.

As I prepared to wind up the column, Kussi Amma Sera walked into the room and placed a mug of coffee on the table saying, “Sir, coronavairasaya hithata hari karadarayak (Sir, the coronavirus is very worrying).” I acknowledged her view with a nod, realizing that the next few months would be critical, in view of expectations that the COVID-19 death toll and infections would rise sharply.

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