Doubts grow over official statistics; in Gampaha district, the August 11-12 official figure was 35, but the real figure was in four digits Cabinet reshuffle likely soon; Basil may get tourism also, GL as foreign minister? Basil initiates major course correction efforts, including closer ties with US, with Rajapaksa brother-in-law as envoy to Washington Moves [...]


COVID crisis at explosive point; medical specialists plead for tough measures or lockdown


  • Doubts grow over official statistics; in Gampaha district, the August 11-12 official figure was 35, but the real figure was in four digits
  • Cabinet reshuffle likely soon; Basil may get tourism also, GL as foreign minister?
  • Basil initiates major course correction efforts, including closer ties with US, with Rajapaksa brother-in-law as envoy to Washington
  • Moves also to improve ties with Tamil community, but TNA faces leadership issues as Sampanthan stays on to become the oldest MP

Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, tasked with rescuing the country's economy from the covid doldrums, is seen discussing the upcoming budget with SLPP backbenchers during a meeting at Temple Trees

The Government’s ambitious “course correction” efforts, on hold for many weeks, are now set to get under way.

This is during the most explosive phase of THE COVID-19 pandemic, particularly the Delta variant, taking the lives of at least six Sri Lankans every hour. There are fears among medical specialists that it may double and paralyse the country’s health services. Compounding the situation are serious doubts over the validity of official statistics put out every day. More on those in the later paragraphs.

The focus is on two fronts — one is a Cabinet re-shuffle where the portfolios of some ministers will be switched around as first revealed in these columns. It comes just as the Government completed its first year in office yesterday. As revealed weeks earlier, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa initiated a study on the performance of not only ministers, but also top officials associated with them. It is those whose performances have been considered “poor” who are facing the axe from their current positions. Though there is yet to be finality on the names, such portfolios, government sources said, would include foreign affairs, education, higher education, energy and public security.

There are indications that the tourism portfolio will go to Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa. Priority consideration is being given to this sector with the hope of boosting the country’s foreign reserves. Basil Rajapaksa, who is busy with initial preparations for the upcoming budget, is expected to announce measures to re-build the tourism industry which has taken a severe beating due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The prospects of an immediate revival, except for some with expensive offers, like one air ticket free for every ticket purchased, remain a critical question. The bad publicity worldwide about overcrowded mortuaries, vast numbers being afflicted by COVID-19 and victims dropping dead on the streets have acted as strong deterrents.

On the international front, an important move that signals a marked ‘course correction’ is the Government’s effort to improve relations with the United States. It is likely that Dr Lalith Chandradasa will be named Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the US. His name has been proposed though finality has not been reached. He is to succeed Ravinatha Aryasinha, a former Foreign Secretary, who will end his term upon retirement mid next month. He assumed office in December 2020. Chandradasa now serves as Consul General for Sri Lanka in Los Angeles. Chandradasa is the brother-in-law of the Rajapaksas — the President, the Prime Minister, the finance minister and Chamal Rajapaksa, who is minister of Irrigation and State Minister of Internal Security, Home Affairs and Disaster Management.

It is these consultations, trade circles believe, that led to the unsolicited entry of a US company, New Fortress Energy, to take over the LNG power installation at Kerawalapitiya.  Nevertheless, there is a need to go much beyond diplomatic niceties if one is to convince the US administration about Colombo’s neutrality.

Ahead of taking over as Minister of Finance, Basil Rajapaksa spent a month in Los Angeles. During this period, government sources said, he together with Dr Chandradasa flew to Washington D.C. for informal meetings with US government officials. This was both to explore opportunities to improve relations with the US and to convey the Government’s stated position that it takes a neutral stand on international issues. Much against Colombo’s claims,, the perception in Washington, particularly in the President Joe Biden’s administration, is that the Government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has tilted very heavily in favour of China.

This is where striking contradictions in relations with the US on the one hand and China on the other come to play. For Sri Lanka, a closer relationship with the US would essentially mean greater economic cooperation, particularly foreign direct investment (FDI). A recent State Department report has made strong strictures about how corruption and other improprieties have kept out prospective investors. On the other hand, China has gained a major footprint in Sri Lanka on the economic front with the setting up of the Colombo Port City, an area where Washington entertains fears of it becoming a haven for money laundering. Further formalisation of matters related to the Port City will take place when Chinese Premier, Li Keiqiang visits Colombo next month.

Ahead of Basil Rajapaksa’s visit to Los Angeles in May, this year, informal diplomatic consultations took place in Colombo. That included meetings with US Ambassador Allaina B. Teplitz in Colombo. Thereafter, during Basil Rajapaksa’s visit to the US, there were several informal consultations with key persons in the US administration. Besides the deteriorating economy and the highly troubling COVID-19 situation, the restructuring of the Constitution and addressing issues related to the Tamil community and issues before the UN Human Rights Council figured prominently. During the same period, Ambassador Teplitz went to Washington DC for consultations.

In Colombo, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa also met two senior officials of the US Embassy individually on separate occasions. One such meeting was over lunch at the President’s House. During the same period, after two years in office, for the first time, President Rajapaksa invited the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) for talks. However, the meeting was called off at the last moment. This was particularly due to the absence of Basil Rajapaksa. Though it was expected to be rescheduled upon his return to Sri Lanka, fresh dates are yet to be finalised.

In what seems a move ahead of this, Professor and Minister G.L. Peiris, Chairman of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, the main partner in the ruling alliance who is touted to be the new Foreign Minister, was invited to dinner at the US Ambassador’s official residence ‘Jefferson House’ last week. The only other invitee was TNA’s Abraham Sumanthiran. Diplomatic sources say a close ally and QUAD partner India has been kept informed of this multi-track process that the US Administration is initiating.

Sampanthan and the future of TNA

Mr Sumanthiran is a close confidant of TNA Leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan. Most aspects that affect the Tamil people have been discussed, and decisions shared with him by key players in the Government, diplomatic missions in Colombo, foreign governments, and institutions like the United Nations and the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)., Sampanthan’s frailty and the prevailing Covid situation do not allow him to travel from one meeting to another and be freely available to visit any country, if needed.

Sampanthan is known to be furious with TNA partners for their inability to maintain confidentiality. The leaks to the media of the potential meeting with the President in June and the most recent dinner at the US Ambassador’s house were all suspected to be by one of the Alliance leaders, he had been made to believe.

It so happens that the youngest and the oldest parliamentarians of Sri Lanka in the current Parliament are both Tamils. Jeevan Thondaman was 25 when he entered Parliament in 2020 and Rajavarothayam Sampanthan is 87. On February 5, 2022, Sampanthan at 89 will become the oldest ever, serving Member of Parliament of Sri Lanka. In 2014, at 94, when he finally retired Rishang Keishing became the oldest serving MP of India. Charles Pelham Villiers was the longest continuously serving MP of the UK Parliament. He was elected in 1835 and remained an MP continuously for over 62 years until his death on January 16, 1898, aged 96 years 13 days.

As a 23-year-old young man, Sampanthan joined the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (The Federal Party) in 1956. Although the then Party Leader S.J.V. Chelvanakam offered candidacy in 1963 and in 1970, Sampanthan declined and pursued his legal career in Trincomalee. As one of the most successful civil lawyers at that time, appearing in more than 600 cases at the Trincomalee courts, Sampanthan was finally persuaded by Appapillai Amirthalingam to contest the 1977 general elections. Sampanthan as a Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) candidate won 15,144 votes to secure the Trincomalee electorate for the TULF which gained 18 seats in total to for a Tamil party to become the main opposition party for the first time in history. Although he won that election on a mandate calling for a separate state to be established in the north and east of the country, many say, as an individual he never believed in separation. Some speculate that he intentionally avoided the well-known Tamil conference held in May 1976 at the northern town of Vaddukoddai where a resolution was passed calling for a separate state.

In 2001, a few Tamil intellectuals and nationalists persuaded various parties to form an alliance called the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Sampanthan became the leader of that alliance. For the past 20 years, he has held that leadership position. Sampanthan, as TNA leader, has also held the post of the Leader of the Opposition in the 2015 Parliament until 2019.

Whether he has been a good leader or great leader, he certainly has earned the respect of other party leaders, Presidents and Prime Ministers alike. He is one of the most incorruptible Members of Parliament of recent times. He has never used any privileges including the duty-free car permit. Until recently he has lived in a modest one-bedroom flat where the block of flats does not even have lift facilities. Only since 2015 August, did he occupy the official residence of the Leader of Opposition. Due to his health and the magnanimity of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sampanthan continues to live in that residence.

There has never been a Tamil leader who has articulated the Tamil position as a solution arrived at by negotiation within an undivided and inseparable Sri Lanka. With his astute diplomacy, Sampanthan dealt with the triumphant Rajapaksa regime and the majority Sinhala community soon after the end of the war, and in parallel judiciously dealt with the international community including India that positioned TNA as a trusted stakeholder in Sri Lanka. This paved the way for the establishment of the national unity government in 2015, in which TNA played a critical role.

Sampanthan has the complete confidence of India and genuinely believes in the Indian role in resolving the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka: A leader who brought back confidence in themselves as a community, post the shattering defeat of the LTTE.

However, Mr Sampanthan also draws sharp criticism from many in the community and outside. As a Leader of the Opposition, he did not resolve and/or influence any major national issues that impacted all communities. People accused him of playing second fiddle to the then ruling alliance. Some say he is a very poor judge of character. It was his choice to nominate former Supreme Court Judge C.V. Wigneswaran for the Chief Minister post in the Northern Provincial Council. This ended up as a disastrous choice not just for the Provincial Council, but also for TNA’s reputation and popularity within the community and outside too.

His inability to take decisive action to maintain discipline within the party was blatant when he refused to sack Wigneswaran even after he issued statements publicly supporting an opposing party in the general elections of 2015. This has weakened the TNA in the eyes of the voters. Whilst being able to influence the international community to a greater extent to be sympathetic to the Tamil concerns in Sri Lanka, by and large he has been unable to rally the Tamil grassroots behind the TNA. Since 2004 when the TNA won 22 seats in the Parliament, with ups and down but the trajectory has been downwards leading up to only securing 10 seats in the current Parliament.

Under Sampanthan’s leadership, the TNA failed to focus on schemes that will help the economic development and sustainability of the Tamil community, especially when the Indian Government was helping. This also paved the way for the loss in the vote share to the national parties in the North and East.

The lack of consultative decision making that Sampanthan pursues creates further mistrust within the TNA. His critics further argue that overall, Sampanthan is a less dynamic leader, who has hesitated to take steps to drive the Tamil political agenda forward and mostly has been a reactionary rather than a visionary. He, they say, just like slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, believes that he as a leader will deliver on the promises made to his people. Such leaders do not even think of or entertain thoughts of succession planning. To date, Sampanthan has not laid out a succession plan for TNA leadership after his tenure. By not addressing this vital issue he is facilitating endless infighting and conflicts amongst the current constituent parties. This has the potential to dismantle the TNA, post his leadership and some say that history will not be kind to him.

It is not an easy task for Sampanthan to resolve. Out of the three constituent parties, two are led by former militants who are believed to be still connected to intelligence agencies. ITAK leader Mavai Senathirajah has passed his retirement age and that party itself needs restructuring by including youth and women into leadership. That would become a sine qua non if the TNA, now committed to reconciliation, can reach any understanding over resolving Tamil issues. A post-Sampanthan era for the TNA, one is not wrong in saying, is fraught with the danger of disintegration.

Govt.’s COVID woes

For the ruling alliance, its priorities and good intentions appear to be badly undermined by the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly the third phase. This has seen the rapid erosion of public confidence, with the increasing number of cases and deaths during the third and devastating phase with the advent of the Delta variant. It is not just over the destruction this deadly variant is causing but the chain reactions that have affected the public. Cooking gas is becoming increasingly unavailable. Retailers complain that they have not received their stocks. The move has affected those living in apartments since they cannot use firewood in their kitchen. Also not available is milk powder. Retailers have begun rationing the sale of sugar and dhal by giving customers only two kilos each of the commodity.

It was only last week that the Sri Lanka Association of Medical Specialists, a body of specialised medical professionals, underscored the gravity of the current situation. “With the Delta variant being commonly detected, the number of patients and more disturbingly exponential rise in the number of oxygen dependent patients, our capacity to accommodate them has virtually reached its tipping point.” Their forecast has come right. The Government Nursing Officers Association has said in a statement that about 1,000 nurses and 4,000 health workers have been infected, with four deaths so far. The statement said the morgues were filled and had no space to accommodate bodies. It called upon the Government to adopt urgent measures to overcome the situation.

Last week Dr Manilka Sumanatilleke, Vice President of the Sri Lanka Medical Association (and not the Association of Medical Specialists) declared that the “situation has gone from bad to worse.” This week, the Sri Lanka Medical Association wrote to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa about the “relentless escalation” of the epidemic. Here are highlights:

“All hospitals that provide service for the care of COVID-19 patients have exceeded their full capacity and are left with no vacant beds available for any new COVID-19 patients. As hospitals continue to expand space for COVID-19 patients endlessly, the services available for other diseases are also being severely compromised. The spread of the infection among healthcare workers has led to their falling ill leading to a severe shortage of staff. All these have affected the care given for COVID and non-COVID patients, which is likely to lead to an invariable breakdown of the entire healthcare system and increasing death rates in the near future. There is an urgent need for a rapid reduction in the number of COVID-19 cases, and this could only be achieved by severe mobility restrictions.”

This is what the Association said commenting on vaccines: “Vaccination significantly reduces severe disease and death caused by COVID-19 infection. Certain vaccines such as Moderna, Pfizer-bioNtec and AstraZeneca evoke a significant protection following a single dose.. Sinopharm provides no protection until two weeks after a second dose is given. As there is a need for rapidly inducing immunity in high-risk individuals such as those with common comorbidities and in older people over 60 years, we consider vaccinating older people and people with comorbidities with the above-mentioned vaccines would save more lives. “

The Association has called for a two-fold initiative: (1) To declare a very severe mobility restriction amounting to a lockdown for a minimum of two weeks while maintaining essential services and the programme for vaccination uninterrupted. (2) To allocate vaccines that provide some immunity even with a single dose to all elders and to people with comorbidities.

An area where the Government has suffered considerable damage to its image is the way official statistics are being released. The lack of consistency and accuracy in the figures has been glaring. The official announcement of positive cases from 6 a.m. on August 11 to 6 am on August 12 is an example. According to the official figures, the number of positive cases identified in the Gampaha district is a mere 35. However, the Sunday Times learnt from medical sources that the figure was in four digits. In terms of this announcement, the worst affected district is Kalutara with 468 cases followed by the Colombo district which had 310. The Galle district recorded 269 whilst Kurunegala recorded 209. Medical specialists say that lower figures were the direct result of a lesser number of PCR tests being carried out.

Bodies piling up in morgues and some of them stacked inside container trucks while crematoriums working late into the night and a large number of burials have turned to be a common sight. In Kalutara 23 bodies were cremated in three crematoriums on Monday with Public Health Inspectors volunteering to carry the bodies for cremation due to the lack of workers.  In Gampaha, the Police have been asked to assist in the cremation process.  Deaths due to COVID-19 continue to increase rapidly, triggering concern among health and local government authorities as they struggle with over-worked crematoriums and lack of space to store bodies as well as bury bodies.

With the Oddamavadi COVID burial site reaching its capacity, the Health Ministry is planning to move to another burial site in the Irakkamam Pradeshiya Sabha are in Ampara. It can accommodate over 2000 bodies. According to the Health Ministry, by Wednesday a total of 5,464 Sri Lankans have lost their lives due to the virus since the first wave with the highest daily death toll reported on Wednesday – 124.

With doctors and other medical staff contracting the virus due to over-crowded hospital wards and a surge in admissions leading to an exhausted health system, the Health Ministry issued guidelines on home-based care for asymptomatic/mild symptomatic COVID victims and directed patients to intermediate treatment centres. Several Ayurveda hospitals too were converted to COVID treatment centres due to space issues. Deputy Director General of Health Services, Dr. Hemantha Herath said the country’s manufactured oxygen supply has reached maximum capacity and would be importing oxygen supplies.

While the daily death toll goes above 100, the Government’s National Operation Centre for the Prevention of COVID-19 carried on its determined plan to vaccinate as many as possible, especially those above 60 years of age, and those in the Western Province. So far nearly 10 million people have received the first dose of the vaccines and three million have obtained both doses.

According to the Epidemiology Unit, 1.1 million people have received their first dose and 861,744 have received the second dose of Covishield vaccine. The Chinese made Sinopharm vaccine is the most administered with 8.7 million receiving the first dose and two million receiving the second dose. Meanwhile, 159,081 people have received the first dose and 14,516 persons received the Sputnik-V vaccine.

The Pfizer vaccine continues to be administered to only those who are registered to travel overseas for higher education and those registered with the Foreign Employment Bureau. A total of 251,474 people have obtained the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine and 533 received the second dose.

Sri Lanka Army which has been continuing with its commendable vaccination drive in Army Hospitals and Army medical camps went to the extent of asking people to register those above 60 years old and bed-ridden patients, so that medical officers will visit their residences to administer the vaccine. The Army inaugurated its Western Province-based mobile vaccination fleet on Thursday targeting home-bound elderly, feeble and sick people. Initially ten special vehicles with medical teams of the Sri Lanka Army inside each vehicle are to administer the COVID vaccines visiting doorsteps of those who have registered by calling hotline numbers 1906 or 0112860002.

Patrol teams were also deployed by the Police Community Division this week to find persons over 60 years of age living in Colombo city who have not received the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Arrangements were made to identify such people and transport them to the Sugathadasa stadium and Shalika Hall to be vaccinated with the first dose of Sinopharm.

On one of the Tv talk shows on Wednesday, five of the four medical experts attending the programme called for a lockdown of the country to reduce the burden on health workers with one of them saying he was pleading with whoever was responsible for making a decision to decide on a lockdown.  He warned that more the decision was delayed there would be more deaths.

The Public Administration Ministry which issued a circular earlier asking all government employees to report to work, retracted the circular by permitting pregnant government sector employees to work from home and to limit the number of employees called to work.  This week there were several more government establishments affected. They include the Motor Traffic Department in Narahenpita and Werahera, the Government Printers Department at Borella and the Immigration office at Battaramulla.  The Pension Department called the public not to call over at the Department. It was just a week back all public sector employees were told to return to work.

The public transport system is gradually crippling with over 250 Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) employees contracting the virus. Railway employees too were victims of the virus, from ticket counters to control room officials down with the virus and close contacts placed on home quarantine.

In fairness to the Government, during the first and second phases of the pandemic, where afflicted peple were transported to quarantine centres far away from Colombo, the third wave has seen a variety of problems. The enormity of the issue with hospitals overflowing, morgues having no capacity and an overworked medical team have all contributed to the major crisis.

The Government had to wait till the third wave to cancel the licence of the sorcerer who sold a magic potion named ‘Dhammika Peniya’. It came only after thousands of gallons of this concoction were consumed by many to keep the deadly virus away. These should come as lessons learnt for the health authorities. They should not get carried away by recommendations of politicians about those potions.

During the COVID-19 pandemic so far, the current wave has turned out to be the fiercest with people dropping dead on roads and other places. The vast majority of the medical profession are calling for an urgent measure. It would be foolish to ignore them. Both the people and the country would suffer.


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