There was probably little the Government could celebrate last week on its first anniversary of returning to power and place. Ruling party MPs are being forced to argue a very bad brief these days. Some put on a brave face; others betray a sense of remorse, while some try to lie their way through. Not [...]


Lockdowns: Damned if you do; Damned if you don’t


There was probably little the Government could celebrate last week on its first anniversary of returning to power and place.

Ruling party MPs are being forced to argue a very bad brief these days. Some put on a brave face; others betray a sense of remorse, while some try to lie their way through. Not only has the virus taken a deadly new turn, but food prices, shortages of gas and milk food, anticipated low production of agricultural and plantation outputs, petrol price hikes, sugar scams, trade union strikes, school closures, the lack of foreign currency, import substitution et al have combined into one big cocktail of despair not just for the Government, but also the people.

All of this cannot be laid at the Government’s doorstep, and one must have some empathy for the President who inherited many problems and walked into one of contemporary history’s worst nightmares with the devastating pandemic. Having successfully overcome a bloody terrorist war, he faced another ‘war’ no sooner he assumed office. Being an ex-officer and not a politician, which many felt was a good thing, it was natural for him to rely on the Army to fight this new battle, but to look to them at every turn to deliver the goods, a strategy now under public scrutiny.

As far as the raging pandemic is concerned, it is clear the health experts have been overlooked in favour of counter opinions. It is understandable that they are disappointed because the virus is essentially a health issue. The exceedingly high number of deaths and cases from the spread of the virus speaks for itself.

Taking casualties with you towards the end-game in military warfare is an accepted concept. Not so, in battling a virus. That the mass vaccinations of the citizenry will be the end-game with the defeat of the virus is a myth. Only a part of the country is fully inoculated and it takes 14 plus 1 days for the second vaccine to have some effect. With each passing day, hospitals are overflowing, the health sector is bursting at its seams and frontline health workers are on the verge of physical collapse and increasingly vulnerable.

There are economic factors to be considered, no doubt, especially for an under-developed country where thousands live on meagre handouts. A full-blown curfew seems not even up for discussion. The question is whether at least a partial lockdown will spare the small businesses, tea shops and grocery stores while cutting back on public servants coming to work in packed public transport, cinemas and weddings. It is all a question of ‘balance’ between two equally relentless and competing forces: the nation’s health and the nation’s economy. The hapless President is expected to play the role of a circus juggler.

He is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t where a lockdown is concerned. The decision, however, must not be based on any stubbornness or pride, but on the ground realities. What the President will have to keep uppermost in the decision-making process is whether any collapse of the country’s overstretched health apparatus, which includes staff that are not robots, or soldiers, will make the country ungovernable.

To cushion the impact on those daily paid and small businesses, the Government ought to have by now worked out a safety net other than occasionally doling out a note. No doubt, easier said than done, given that the Government does not have the cash for such a welfare measure and has also reached the limit in printing money. The US has just approved a massive stimulus package but Sri Lanka lacks that luxury.

With mounting deaths and dire projections for the future repeatedly given — and deftly ignored — the Government is seemingly running out of options. The evidence is weighed on the side of greater closure of the country. A partial lockdown seems a sine quo non to not only reduce the number of fatalities, but also to reduce the burden on frontline health workers who now include crematorium workers.

The vaccination programme is not the panacea for the raging pandemic and relying on only that to save the day is to live in a world of one’s own. There are credible reports that the right statistics and data may not even be reaching the President. The country is on the edge, and a little bit further.

Climate change: ‘Never rains, but pours’

If the global pandemic wreaking havoc is not enough, then a 3,500 page United Nations Inter Governmental report on Climate Change and the future of Planet Earth made public this week is enough to make even the most optimistic shudder.

Some naysayers may call the report and all this hoo-ha on climate change, prophecies of doom, but the report shows evidence of ice-caps rapidly melting as a sign of what to expect. Unlike the COVID-19 virus that was a bolt from the blue catching the world unawares, there are no excuses here. Scientists and environmentalists have long been raising the alarm, pointing to the constant floods, forest fires, and extreme temperatures as early warning signals being ignored.

The UN Secretary General says the report is the “death-knell” for coal, gas and oil that are the fossil fuels heating the atmosphere negating world targets of keeping Earth’s temperature average below the 2 degree Celsius limit by 2030. This is a target Sri Lanka has pledged to uphold, and only last month President Rajapaksa announced a welcome policy of ‘No More Coal”. Hardly had his pronouncement resonated, there was news that a businessman ally of his Government had allowed a business entity close to it to bring in coal for a steel and cement factory in the proposed Hambantota Economic Zone.

It seems the entire exercise is one of business interests completely undermining the President’s declared policy which additionally is Sri Lanka’s NDC (Nationally Determined Contribution) to the Paris Agreement, the global commitment by all nations to reduce carbon emissions that trigger rising temperatures. Sri Lanka earned praise only the other day from the UK’s Special Envoy visiting Colombo for its ‘No Coal’ policy. He probably spoke too soon.

Sri Lanka’s international obligations on Climate Change, it seems, have been contemptuously kicked aside.

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