President furious over letter sent by ten alliance party leaders; warns that they could be sacked from Cabinet Doctors say Covid strategy seriously flawed and lockdown a token measure to please the Mahanayakes Cost of living hits staggering heights; dhal Rs. 245, sugar Rs. 240 a kilogram SLFP faces identity crisis; considers move to forge [...]


Lockdown not properly imposed; COVID-19 casualty figures hit highest levels; Govt. gripped by tough challenges


  • President furious over letter sent by ten alliance party leaders; warns that they could be sacked from Cabinet
  • Doctors say Covid strategy seriously flawed and lockdown a token measure to please the Mahanayakes
  • Cost of living hits staggering heights; dhal Rs. 245, sugar Rs. 240 a kilogram
  • SLFP faces identity crisis; considers move to forge a new alliance and call it the United Front or People’s Alliance

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), a more prominent partner of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led alliance, is in the throes of a new crisis.

With 14 seats in Parliament, it appears to be confronted by an identity crisis. This is in the backdrop of other constituent parties with lesser representation, becoming movers and shakers. Some of their actions, like the events that led to the continuation of a ten-day curfew without interruption, have irritated sections. This curfew was extended on Friday till September 6. The paradox, however, is laughable. Those holding Government positions — Ministers and State Ministers included — want to soft pedal the issues and ensure their continuance in office. Vociferous were the others who fear that that they are slowly but surely losing their identity as a people’s party.

The issue played out when the SLFP Central Committee met on August 20 with party leader Maithripala Sirisena in the chair. Some of the speakers who held no government office were critical and urged that the party should become more assertive. The episode some ten partners of the Government urging the Government to impose a lockdown, they argued, was a missed opportunity. All put together, the number of seats the SLFP held in Parliament was 14.

The discussions led to a key decision — the SLFP to forge alliances with other political parties and use one of two names available to it — the United Front or the People’s Alliance.

As the SLFP feels its members are increasingly being sidelined within the ruling alliance, its leader Maithripala Sirisena and frontline members held a media conference this week to announce the party's response to the covid pandemic

Efforts are being made to make this a reality by October 2 when the SLFP marks its 70th anniversary. On this day, events will begin with a blood donation campaign, part of the party’s efforts to help in the wildly raging COVID-19 pandemic. On this day, party leader Maithripala Sirisena will make an official statement setting out the new vision of the party. It is to be a forerunner for a fresh recruitment drive countrywide.

For an older political party, which has once produced Prime Ministers, Presidents and many leaders, a revival to its older status or at least anywhere closer, is virtually an impossible task. It has lost most of its grassroots level base in the electoral districts. That was how the SLPP was able to have a network of electoral branches with more former SLFPers seeking either positions or candidature during elections. Of course, one must bear in mind the recent deep slide in the ruling alliance’s popularity due to reported mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the sudden splurge in prices of essential food items and many other hardships. No opposition political party or group has been able to reap public support over this mounting discontent.

The issue of the political parties writing to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa calling for a lockdown — which formed the subject of discussion at the CC meeting of the SLFP — also ran into serious controversy. First to their letter to President Rajapaksa, on Wednesday (August 18).


“The covid pandemic is spreading faster than ever before and the deaths of the patients have increased in an unnatural manner. We know this matter has already drawn your attention. Therefore, many of our party leaders have made many proposals regarding the matter. We have seen that the islandwide rapid vaccination programme you implemented has given some hope to the nation. We are making this an opportunity to express our gratitude to you for leading the campaign, and to the health authorities and tri-forces for carrying it out.

“The vaccination of the rest of the population over the age of 18 would at least take six more weeks and to obtain results of it would again take a one-month period. Therefore, during the upcoming 10-month period there is a risk of Sri Lanka becoming like the City of Vishala (during the time of the Buddha, a great plague destroyed Vishala Mahanuwara). We learned that after studying the report jointly compiled by the Sri Lanka office of the World Health Organisation and Sri Lankan health experts. Therefore, to face the prevailing challenges, we are making the following proposals.

1. When the nation is facing such massive challenges, the trust of the people vested in the Government becomes a decisive factor. As the media have revealed and confirmed by our sources, there were some national level officials who intentionally manipulated information. If someone thinks if one could manipulate statistics and resolve such a challenge, it must be a joke. Therefore, the ones who are involved in this act should be punished regardless of their status to restore the public trust in the Government.

2. The vaccination programme which is successfully carried out should be expedited by using resources currently unused by the health sector. The hospitals and medical clinic centres can be used. The private sector health employees, retired health staff and medical students can be used for the task.

3. The vaccination should be prioritised to people above 60 years of age and the ones who could face life-threatening conditions due to Covid-19 because of existing ailments. If that is properly done, the fast-increasing death rate could be reduced.

4. We all have experienced that the local medical treatments have successful remedies to treat virus ailments. Therefore, Ayurveda and hereditary treatments should be combined with western medical systems to establish an interconnected medical mission.

5. It would be greatly successful if there is a separate civil society committee system in addition to enforcing the legal system to supervise weather the people are following the covid-19 guidelines. The committees could consist of religious leaders, public representatives, and voluntary organisations.

6. We are proposing to create an all-party mechanism to overcome this challenge since this is a national disaster which affects the nation. A specialist committee comprising health and economic sector officials should be appointed.

7. While this programme is implemented, we propose that the country be locked down. We are sensitive about the economic challenges faced by the Government. We are well aware of its impact on the economy. However, we are sure that we won’t be able to reduce the number of patients to a point where the hospital system could manage even if we lock down for three weeks. We would also like to point out that the number of patients decreased when the country was locked down during the previous time.

The country is paralysed even though it remained open as large number of people are either quarantined or in fear of disease. If the disease is controlled those people will once again contribute to the economic situation. We can also learn lessons from the previous lockdowns and lock down, the country without constraining the economy by enacting the proposal.

1. We can break the fast-increasing infection circle

2. The stress the people under could be minimised by reducing the number of deaths.

3. By reducing the number of patients, the people would have some positive vibes.

4. The people would have self-confidence to actively contribute to the economy.

“We hope you would provide your kind attention swiftly.”

The signatories were the following. The numbers of seats they hold in Parliament are given against their names:

Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera – Ape Jana Bala Party – 1 seat

Vasudewa Nanayakkara – Democratic Left front – 2 seats

Tissa Vitharna – Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) – 1 seat

Wimal Weerwansa – National Freedom Front – 6 seats

Udaya Gammanpila – Pivithuru Hela Urumaya – 1 seat

A.L.M Athaulla – National Congress – 1 seat

Tiran Alles – United Peoples Party – 1 seat

G. Veerasinghe – Sri Lanka Communist Party – 1 seat

Asanka Nawarathna – Sri Lanka Peoples Party – 1 seat

Gevindu Kumarathunga – Yuthukama National Organisation – 1 seat

The contents of the letter infuriated President Rajapaksa. His first telephone call was to Minister Wimal Weerawansa. He admonished him for signing the letter and warned that as President he could remove him from the Cabinet of Ministers. He said that his conduct amounted to a violation of the principle of collective responsibility. The President said if Weerawansa wanted a continued lockdown, he should have raised issue at the Cabinet meeting. Moreover, that week’s meeting had been held not on Monday but on Tuesday at 6 p.m. The second and third calls went to Ministers Udaya Gammanpila and Vasudeva Nanayakkara. The President expressed the same sentiments to the duo. All three ministers were told that in future such issues should be brought up in the Cabinet since they held ministerial portfolios.

“There was some misunderstanding caused over the episode,” Minister Udaya Gammanpila told the Sunday Times. He explained: “When we were in the opposition, party leaders met every week to discuss the week’s political issues and all other matters relevant. However, this practice was done away with when the ruling alliance came into power. Therefore, a few of us, who are party leaders, decided we should meet every Tuesday of the week. We had decided earlier that such meetings be rotated in the residence of the participants week by week. It was, therefore, my turn on the last occasion.”

Minister Gammanpila, who is undergoing quarantine for a second time at his residence after his driver tested positive for COVID-19, added, “I was taking part in the weekly Cabinet meeting through Zoom from my office room. We had finished the items listed on the agenda. The subject now was ‘any other business.’ I listened to a part of it. I then realised that I was keeping the other participants waiting in my house. The only exception was Minister Wimal Weerawansa who was also taking part at the Cabinet meeting via Zoom. On noticing my absence on the video screen, he had also left for my residence and that was how the meeting began on Tuesday evening. It is here that we took a decision in the public interest to write to the President. It was that letter that was sent to him on Wednesday (August 18) and later released to the media. We did not have the slightest idea this would cause any embarrassment to the President. We expressed our deep regret over it.”

Like the proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back, the Sunday Times learnt, that President Rajapaksa had until then wanted not to have a lockdown in place. His position was purely based on economic reasons since he feared it would lead to a deterioration of the economy. He had also planned to fly to Kandy for meetings with the Mahanayakes of the Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters to explain to them why he found it difficult to impose a lockdown (or the extended curfew). The announcement of yesterday’s extension of the curfew till September 6 came from two different quarters. One was Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella. The other was co-presidential spokesperson Kingsley Ratnayake who tweeted that a meeting chaired by President Rajapaksa today (27) morning, decided on the extension. In fact, during his address to the nation, President Rajapaksa made the point that “Although the health sector looks at this issue from one angle, as a government we will have to manage the small economy in our country if we are to continue to pay off foreign debts, pay salaries, and provide subsidies without interruption.” Nevertheless, the mounting figures from the Delta variant have prompted him to decide on extending the current lockdown.

One of the major issues in the recent days has been a price hike in two major commodities — sugar and dhal — whilst milk powder is not available. Dhal is the common man’s food and its price has risen to Rs 245 a kilo whilst sugar has risen to an unprecedented Rs 240 a kilo. A leading sugar importer, who did not wish to be named, said, one of the main reasons was the depreciation of the rupee in relation to the dollar. The other, he said, was a government decision to temporarily stop the import of sugar. He claimed that when orders were placed and Letters of Credit were opened for sugar imports, the dollar was Rs 182. However, it has now shot up to Rs 225.  State Minister Lasantha Alagiyawanna, under whose purview the Consumer Affairs Authority functions said they were helpless. Amendments to provide stiffer punishments to errant traders were pending in Parliament. However, their meetings are now being held only monthly.

There are strong fears of a possible shortage of fuel by October. Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila said the Government has made appeals to several countries including India, China, and West Asian nations. “We are still talking,” he said. Every morning, Minister Gammanpila receives an SMS from the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, giving the stock positions of different varieties of fuel. A CPC source said that the maximum period it could last, would be for less than three weeks. He categorically ruled out fuel rationing and added that “before the situation gets tight in mid-October, we would have to do something.” In respect of imports, the Government’s priority is the import of medicine and petroleum thereafter.

It is amidst these fears that the daily total of those afflicted with COVID-19 has risen to more than 4,000 cases and the daily death toll to over 200. A sizeable segment of medical experts contest the veracity of the official figure. Nevertheless, even such figures are unprecedented. The death toll had remained at the 190s level for a few days before it was made known on Thursday it had hit the two hundred level. There has been an alarming increase in the number of health workers including doctors falling ill.

About 400 doctors, nurses and other medical staff at the Colombo National Hospital have been hit by the virus. At the Karapitiya Teaching Hospital, a major hospital in the south, covid patients include as many as 112 employees including nine doctors. At the Ratnapura Teaching Hospital, 37 infected hospital staff including seven doctors, 20 nurses and ten junior staff are receiving treatment. There were several other hospitals with similar or worse situations. But midweek the statistics of the infected were adjusted on the grounds that some of the previous figures had not been included. This would mean a significant change – the number of people hit by the virus was above 5000 a day. The Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) this week warned that if the trend continued in September there could be as many as 6.000 to 10,000 deaths within the month.

One of those who fell victim to COVID-19 was former Minister Mangala Samaraweera. There were tributes flowing in from leaders in different parts of the world. The legal fraternity too was left in shock by the demise of Attorney-at-Law Gowry Thavarasa and President’s Counsel D.S. Wijesinghe. Though the majority who succumbed to COVID-19 continue to be in the range above 60 years there were others who were in the younger ages. A 36-year-old English tuition master and his 27-year-old wife were among them.  Sri Lanka also recorded the youngest COVID death, a five-month-old foetus from a COVID-infected mother from Gampola. As the majority of deceased are above 60 years, the National Operation Centre for the Prevention of COVID-19 began a countrywide programme to vaccinate elders. But there were at least 460,000 above 60 years who have not received the vaccine. The figure could be higher.

The Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) has been critical of the vaccination programme, questioning as to why those in the age group above 60 were not given priority as planned originally. Dr Hansamal Weerasuriya, a GMOA Committee member, declared, “We have not seen a proper lockdown even though the Government has imposed a lockdown. In March 2020, Sri Lanka underwent an effective lockdown. The patients and contacts could be traced therefore health authorities were able to manage the situation. The lockdown imposed in May this year did not give such good results because the lockdown was not strict. Now we are at the fourth wave which is a difficult stage, yet we believe that still we can turn the situation around.

“Following the movement restriction, random sampling through PCR tests should be done to gauge the situation and treat patients or home-managed patients. However regardless of concerns over travel restrictions, the Government should strictly enforce the current lockdown. Medical doctors can guide patients and carry out vaccination programmes, but the state must maintain strict laws while police and security forces must enforce the strict 80 to 90 percent travel restrictions. Still, we are not too late, we can overcome COVID -19 if all the authorities work together and implement a strong strategy to deal with the situation.  Success could only be achieved if all stake holders contribute.”

Added Rukshan Bellana, President of the Government Medical Officers Forum: “If a proper lockdown was imposed, only the country’s economy would be affected. But today both the economy and the country’s human resources are in jeopardy. This double jeopardy is caused because the lockdown was not imposed at the right time. The lockdown imposed today is not properly implemented, people are on the street. The health authorities requested a strong lockdown earlier, but it was not properly done. As the Mahanayakes had urged the Government to impose a lockdown, it was done just to indicate that they heeded the mahanayake’s advice. But the people are on the streets. The Government has ignored the Mahanayakes as well. The Government has sped-up vaccination and given attention to increase the capacity of beds and supply the oxygen. Yet we see that its strategy has failed. There are deaths of vaccinated persons as well as there is no indication that the virus is under control as more cases are reported.”

Revelations in these columns last week referred to a Tamil diaspora group that arranged for 200 respirators for the Government. However, the Government could not accept them. The reason – this organisation is one of six on which the Government has imposed a proscription. It was just this week that former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appealed to the Government to import 200 respirators to prevent deaths in the provinces. Here is a story of how the bureaucracy worked: Respirators and ventilators are in short supply in the country, particularly in rural hospitals. Some main Teaching Hospitals too lack capacity. The daily growing numbers in hospitalisation if continued will even further expose the lack of capacity in hospitals all over Sri Lanka. Members of a prominent Global Tamil diaspora organisation arranged some 200 respirators from a European donor country. Each respirator cost $13,000 which makes the total cost to be $2.6m. The country concerned also offered to transport these respirators to Sri Lanka as an emergency assistance.

Now the state minister for Primary Health Care, Epidemics and Covid Control, Sudarshini Fernandopulle has taken note of the matter. She has written to the Sri Lanka High Commission in the United Kingdom to take prompt action over this matter.

This week’s developments on the COVID-19 front make clear that the spread of the pandemic is far from over. This again means a further blow to an already deteriorating economy. Worse enough, the daily statistics of those cured, afflicted and dead have caused so much confusion. There are vast sections who doubt their credibility. One need hardly say that such a situation would only cost the Government more.

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