Escaping the Pandemic
By Prof. Tissa Vitarana
The global economic crisis has been aggravated by the health crisis due to Covid-19. In Sri Lanka these have been compounded by a severe food crisis. The impact of the global economic crisis has been mainly the result of the neo-liberal policies, based on a market economy, followed since 1977 by rightist forces, both abroad and here. Led by the UNP, serving the interests of the USA and its Imperialist allies, the local comprador, capitalist class. This has undermined the gains that were made since 1956 through the establishment of a national economy regulated by the Centre Left (SLFP, LSSP, CP) Governments serving the people, and the national capitalist class.
The SLPP-led Government returned to the national economic path after its massive victory over the UNP led “Yahapalanaya” Government. But already the people are disappointed that there has not been any change for the better in their situation. There is a massive increase in the price of food due to uncontrolled exploitation by the private sector. With 60 per cent of families living below the poverty line and the malnutrition rate going to a high level of 18 per cent not only are the people unable to buy much of their essential food requirements, many of them having to manage with one meal a day.
People are asking “why there is no change” with the present Government coming into power and making Basil Rajapaksa the Minister of Finance. The short answer is the failure to follow the progressive path taken by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government under the guidance of the LSSP leader Dr. N .M. Perera as the Finance Minister. The Foreign Exchange situation has also deteriorated sharply. The Foreign Exchange Reserve which used to average USD 8 Billion (sufficient for 6 months imports) has fallen to less than USD 2 Billion (sufficient for 1.3 months). This poses a serious threat to obtaining our imports, and impedes the use of Letters Of Credit (LOC), so that importers may have to make the payments in advance.
An import shortage, even of essential items like medicines, can occur. I would suggest that the Government should take firmer action to drastically reduce non-essential imports so as to conserve the foreign exchange. The Government should have a better planned programme to increase exports by promoting the hi-tech institutes in the areas of nanotechnology (SLINTEC) and biotechnology (SLIBTEC) to develop large scale industries, as well as small and medium (SME) industries. I am informed that besides helping to promote over 12000 SME’s for the local market, and over a 1000 are now exporting their products, with the help of the Vidatha Centres.
These were established during my 10 year term as Minister of Science and Technology. I hope that the Government will give more assistance to these institutions and promote their research efforts. For instance at SLINTEC Dr. Nilwala Kottegoda and her team have produced nano particles with 43 per cent nitrogen (ten times more than what was imported recently from India) to solve the fertiliser problem.
Step by step process
While welcoming the decision of the President to replace chemical fertilisers with organic, the process should be done step by step on a scientific basis. The decision to produce the organic fertiliser through the private sector companies on a commercial scale may lead to exploitation of the farmers. This should be reconsidered as it is possible to train the farmers to produce their own organic fertiliser. Dr. Lionel Weerakoon, who is a former director of research in the Agriculture Department with years of research behind him, is an expert in the fertiliser field and his advice should be obtained.
He is a representative for the South Asian region of the World Commission of the La Via Campasina (which is a farmer federation with over 200 million members worldwide). He along with his team fine-tuned his technology and used it while I was Governor in the North Central Province. He is now assisting the Governor of the Eastern Province in all 3 Districts. His methodology should be extended to all parts of the island. He has modeled his methods on those of Subash Pallekar, whose successful campaign in India has led to him being called the ‘Gandhi of the farmers’. Their approach is by getting the farmers to produce the organic fertiliser to suit their individual needs on a scientific basis.
I would recommend this approach to avoid further exploitation of our farmers who are already deeply in debt. This together with the replacement of monocrops by mixed farming, including leguminous plants like green gram will provide adequate nitrogen to the soil. While the above measures provide healthy food, the solution of the food crisis also requires eliminating the exploitation of the farmer and the consumer by a whole ring of profiteering middleman, both traders and mill owners. This was overcome during the time of Dr. N. M. Perera by his active promotion of the state.
Besides getting rural banks to prevent farmers getting into debt, he got the state to compete with the private sector in the marketing of the farmers produce. He mobilised progressive elements in the government as well as the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) to form more farmer cooperatives as well as consumer cooperatives that directly interacted, doing away with the profiteering middleman. The consumer cooperatives were able to give all the essential food items at a low cost, while ensuring quality.
He even gave the poorest sections of the population a free measure of rice. No one died of hunger or starvation in Sri Lanka, while thousands were dying in other third world countries, due the severe drought that had affected the whole world. The magnitude of the food crisis in 1972/73 is evident when the price of a ton of sugar, which was imported at £ 40 per ton, went up to £ 600 per ton. No doubt there were queues due to the limited number of cooperative outlets. Outsourcing to traders was not done so as to prevent profiteering and black marketing, which was entrenched in society.
The other major health problem beside starvation confronting our people is the worldwide pandemic of Covid-19 which is continuing with the emergence of the new variant Omicron which is said to be 500 times more transmissible than the existing Delta virus. I feel that the magnitude of the Covid problem could have been reduced earlier if my suggestion at the Parliamentary Health Advisory Committee, chaired by the Minister of Health, had been implemented. At the early stage of the appearance of community spread occurring at that time I stated that the cluster control system would not suffice.
A community based intensive campaign to educate every citizen and to ensure that they observed the health rules to prevent transmission had to be ensured. This was to set up properly trained volunteer Covid committees throughout the country right down to village and work place levels.
The Covid committee should be officially empowered to strongly reprimand those not observing the 4 health rules for its prevention. (The wearing of proper mask outside the home at all times, adequate self-distancing, the washing of hands with soap and water after touching any object that has been recently touched by others, and avoiding crowds.) It must be remembered that vaccination only prevents a person falling severely ill and dying, but does not prevent transmission of infection through the vaccinated person.
The practice of these health rules should become automatic by every individual in the country if transmission is to be prevented. This needs the Covid committees not only to educate the people in the village or work place, but also to ensure that everyone obeys the health rules. The Government must be commended for its procuring vaccines to immunise a significant proportion of the population. This together with the immunity developed as a result of the natural spread of the virus in the community will provide sufficient herd immunity.
Since the immunity from vaccination lasts only for a short period of less than six months the question is whether repeated injections are necessary after the third dose is given. In my view this is only necessary in the vulnerable groups (those over 60 and those with relevant co-morbidities). Many people are confused by the need to make a choice from among many vaccines. While the vaccines produced in countries like UK, India and China are based on the traditional methods used and are safe and effective, I am reluctant to support the Government policy of persisting with the new mRNA vaccines (which have not been use before on humans).
This is a pure genetic material which is less stable than DNA and is capable of bringing about various undesirable changes within the genetic material in our body cells. There have been many reports of reactions after the use of the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines even in Sri Lanka and I know of cases that have had to be admitted to hospital. As the herd immunity builds up as expected within our community vaccination is indicated only in vulnerable groups then the safer conventional vaccines should be use even if they are more expensive than the mRNA vaccines.