Govt. Blamed for Promoting Superstitious Beliefs
|By Gagani Weerakoon|
As the House was debating the current pandemic situation in the country, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa arrived in Parliament on 5 May and took his seat in the Chamber. Upon arrival at 10.05 a.m., he was accorded a warm welcome, at the main entrance, by the Chief Government Whip Johnston Fernando along with State Ministers Kanaka Herath and D. V. Chanaka. Minister of Trade Bandula Gunawardena was delivering his views when President Rajapaksa took his seat.
The House was originally scheduled to debate the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill, but the date had to be deferred as the Speaker had not received the Supreme Court’s determination on the Bill. The decision to delay the debate was taken at the Parliamentary Business Committee meeting, chaired by Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena. Secretary General of Parliament Dhammika Dasanayake informed that Parliament had not received the determination of the Supreme Court, on the constitutionality of the Bill, as yet. Instead, it was decided to have an adjournment debate on the current COVID19 situation in the country. The Adjournment debate on current COVID-19 situation in the country was held leaving all the doors to the House open on 4 May.
This is the first time in which a Parliamentary Sitting was held in this manner. Usually, all the side doors are kept closed during the sittings. With the permission of Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena and Secretary General Dhammika Dasanayake, the side doors on both sides of the chamber were left open to allow as much ventilation as possible so as not to jeopardise the security of the House. According to Serjeant-at-Arms Narendra Fernando, a number of steps has been taken to make Parliament more safe, keeping in line with the COVID-19 health regulations. He said that the air conditioning in the chamber was operated in a way that it was ventilated from the outside.
At the commencement of the Sittings, the Speaker requested all Parliamentarians to adhere to the Health Guidelines given by the Health Authorities in the wake of the COVID -19 situation in the country. He urged MPs to follow the health guidelines when working outside Parliament as well. The MPs, staff of Parliament, other affiliated staff, Parliament journalists, and security personnel were requested to support and adhere to the Health Guidelines such as wearing masks, washing and sanitising of hands, and maintaining social distance when attending and being present in Parliament and when acting outside Parliament.
Opening the debate, SJB MP Dr. Rajitha Senaratne requested the Government to use the Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre as COVID-19 treatment centre. Senaratne noted that it is not safe to admit COVID-19 patients in hospitals with Tertiary Care Services because by doing so, the virus could be spreading more. “There is plenty of space in the Nelum Pokuna Theatre which is not being used at the moment. So it could be used as a COVID treatement centre by arranging beds. Apart from Nelum Pokuna Theatre, Millennium Ward Complex, at the Colombo South Teaching Hospital and the Polonnaruwa Renal Treatment Hospital, could also be used as COVID treatment centres,” he said. Speaking further, Seneratne said that the medical experts suggest to lock down the country.
“When these experts suggest something like this, the Government supporters try to sling mud at them using the photos they have taken with me during the meetings held when I was the Health Minister. This is not acceptable,” he added. He also noted that there is a severe shortage of certain medicine like thyroxin in the country at the moment. He slammed the Government saying that they paved a path for superstitious beliefs and practices amidst a pandemic and put the people in danger.
Despite medical experts warning the Government, through scientific research, that dangerous strains of the virus had entered the country and recommended certain precautions, the Government continued to disregard their advice and continued with their political agendas resulting the death of scores of valuable lives, he stressed. He also recommended that the public transport system should be better monitored to prevent close contact and to break the cycle of infection. Senaratne also said that facilities of the Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) Hospital should be utilised to meet the ICU facilities to deal with the growing cases.
Bathiudeen heats up Chamber
A heated debate erupted in Parliament over SJB MP Rishad Bathiudeen being allowed to attend Parliamentary sittings. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa requested Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena to allow the MP to attend Parliament under the parliamentary privileges. At this juncture, Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara said, “I request the Speaker not to let Bathiudeen, who is detained under PTA, to attend the proceedings.
There is an investigation going on regarding the Easter Sunday bombings, which is a matter of national security. If Bathiudeen is allowed to attend Parliament and if he reveals sensitive information about the investigation using his privileges, the investigations will be hindered. It will give an opportunity to other suspects, who are yet to be arrested, to even flee the country.” Premadasa: “When Bathiudeen’s matter was taken up for the discussion at the Parliament’s Business Committee, none of the attendees, including the Speaker, the Leader of the House, raised that concern.
It has been informed that Bathiudeen is a close contact of a COVID-19 patient. But we do not know much details about that. That is why I officially asked you about the matter.” The Speaker: “I was informed that he is a close contact of a COVID-19 patient. Now there are two concerns. We can have a lengthy discussion about this later and take a decision.” Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella: “Now we are hearing three different stories within 24 hours.
When Bathiudeen’s family asked about this, they were informed that the Speaker’s signature has not been received for Govt. Blamed for Promoting Superstitious Beliefs By Harini Amarasuriya Indian author Arundhathi Roy, writing to the Guardian newspaper described the Indian government’s failures in the face of COVID-19 as a “crime against humanity”. Certainly, the news and images from India are heartbreaking.
When a society has reached a point where whether you are able to access lifesaving treatment or not, whether you live or die, whether you are able to grieve properly when you lose a loved one, depends on your position in society, your connections and your wealth – that society has hit rock bottom. These are consequences, – make no mistake, these are not accidents - of deliberate actions and policy choices, of callous and in Roy’s words, coldly indifferent leaders. Sri Lanka today is also at tipping point. For several successive days, the number of COVID positive people has been a little under 2,000 a day.
Since, this is based only on the numbers tested, we can only assume that the numbers are in reality higher. Reports from health personnel on the frontlines are not good – hospitals are reaching full capacity and people, even after testing positive, are forced to stay at home since intermediate treatment centres and hospitals are both at full capacity. For those who are asymptomatic or showing mild symptoms this may not be a problem, but worryingly, this particularly strain of the virus seems to be more vicious. Therefore, the demands on the health sector are increasing.
This is not just in terms of infrastructure but also human capacity. For example, providing a patient ICU care is not simply about provisioning an ICU bed – but requires a team of specialised doctors, nurses, equipment and medication. These, especially the human resources are much harder to deploy suddenly.
Increase in maternal morbidity One of the greatest threats of COVID is the pressures it places on the health sector and its consequences not only in terms of managing the epidemic, but for managing other health issues as well. As all attention, resources and capacity get diverted to COVID, other equally pressing and urgent health issues are neglected and overlooked. Already, health personnel have warned that there may be an increase in maternal morbidity due to the pressures wrought by COVID on the system.
This is why health and medical experts have been stressing the importance of not letting the COVID situation overwhelm the health sector. This is of course an incredibly difficult thing to do. It means managing the spread of the virus while simultaneously increasing the capacity of the health sector. Strict implementation of health regulations is paramount More than a year on, what we know is that as of now, we have not been able to strengthen the capacity of the health sector to deal with this ongoing crisis. ICU units have only increased marginally, quarantine centres, treatment centres, testing facilities and laboratories etc., and are still insufficient. It is evident that the government lost focus demonstrating either ignorance or disregard for the nature of this virus.
What the world has learned over the past several months is that this virus mutates resulting in a cycle of infections. No country will be able to drop its guard until at least 70% of the world population is vaccinated. This means, that creating awareness among the public of the need to continue following health regulations such as masking, hand washing/sanitation and maintaining social distance for the foreseeable future, is paramount. But most importantly it means steadily increasing the capacity of the health sector to cope with the epidemic. It requires prioritising health requirements and realigning all other policies at least for the next two years in anticipation of managing an ongoing global and health epidemic. Then what of vaccinations? Certainly, vaccination is important – but once again, a proper roll out plan for vaccination must be in place. What we saw with the first round of vaccinations in this country was completely unacceptable.
The priority list agreed to by health experts was quickly disregarded and the heavy political hand was evident as connections and position rather than need became the criteria for vaccination. Now, there also seems to be uncertainty about procuring vaccines even for the second dose for those already given the first. It is on this issue that the global inequalities in the health sector and the power of the pharmaceutical industry is most evident. While rich countries are hoarding vaccines, the industry is making billions in profit. Poorer countries are falling way behind in vaccinating their populations. The head of WHO has said that the world is on the brink of a ‘catastrophic moral failure’ due to vaccine inequity. It is not only in the vaccine roll out that the inequity is evident: the ability to engage in health seeking behaviour – whether as a country or as an individual – is intimately tied up with socioeconomic conditions.
The poor and the underprivileged are the hardest hit. TRIPS waiver At the moment, there is a growing lobby demanding a Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver for COVID vaccines. In a major policy shift, the US (home to some of the biggest pharma companies including Modena and Pfizer that is manufacturing COVID vaccines) has agreed to a TRIPS waiver.
Yet, working out the modalities of how this will work will require more lobbying, negotiation and hard work. The pharmaceutical industries have already started lobbying against the waiver and countries such as the UK, the EU, Canada and Australia have resisted this move. Also, it’s not only on the vaccine per se that a patent waiver is required, but on the technology that accompanies its production and roll out. All this means that as important as the vaccine is, it will be some time before its impact will be felt.
The time has also come to seriously take stock of the impact of decades of policies that encouraged privatisation of health care putting profitability over social justice. This ethos has also had huge consequences for research and development, where competitiveness and profit drive research agendas rather than collaboration and need. TRIPS waivers of medication and vaccines should not be simply about responding to ‘exceptional’ circumstances. The morality of TRIPS in areas especially relating to health, education, innovation and research must be questioned. Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, our challenges are far more fundamental.
Our problems are primarily at the level of leadership – whether in politics, business or education. We seem to be saddled with leaders of incredibly narrow vision, with petty and selfish agendas. Combine that with incompetence and insecurity and you have a recipe for disaster. This country does not lack in experts, efficient administrators or competent professionals. Yet, they are being side-lined today. COVID must be managed by health professionals and those experienced in disease control. From briefing the public to taking the final decision on measures for quarantine – it is paramount that we allow those who know to be in charge. It is worrying when even the State Minister for COVID prevention, herself a health professional hints at being undermined.
It is shocking when a senior Minister brazenly admits that he influenced a decision on lockdown in his constituency when the health personnel in charge of the area go public saying a lockdown is essential. What is worrying is not that the Minister interfered with a decision made by those in charge – but that he was allowed to do so. This reflects the breakdown of the system of decision-making in the health sector which is the worst possible scenario we could have at this moment.
People currently in power in Sri Lanka are still battling charges of war crimes. For the sake of the people of this country, let us hope that crimes against humanity in the face of COVID will not be added to their list of charges. The leadership we want in COVID times that. You informed us that he cannot be brought to Parliament because of COVID-19. Now Weerasekara is saying another thing. All of these are lies.”
MP M. A. Sumanthiran: “This is the first time ever that a minister has told Parliament that an MP detained, using an administrative detention order, cannot be brought to Parliament. This has never happened in the history of this House.
Until an MP is convicted judicially, he doesn’t lose his seat in Parliament. If what Minister Weerasekara says is a rule, then someone can be administratively detained on suspicion for three months and lose his seat. That cannot be the rule. The President and the Prime Minister should speak up and clarify the Government’s position on the matter. If this continues any political opponent can be detained without being found guilty and lose his parliamentary seat.” The Opposition MPs started to shout in protest against Weerasekara’s remark.
SJB MPs Chaminda Wijesiri, Mujibur Rahuman, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, S. M. Marikkar and Harsha de Silva also spoke in protest against Weerasekara’s statement. “Weerasekara cannot change the existing Laws and violate privileges of MPs. If he wants to do that he should bring a new Constitution,” Harsha de Silva asserted.
Weerasekara: “I am the one who is responsible for the public security of this country. Not, this Opposition and Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. I requested the Speaker not to allow any MP who is detained under the PTA to attend Parliament. We cannot act as the Opposition says.”
Who is the better Sarath?
Public Security Minister Rear Admiral (retired) Sarath Weerasekara locked horns in Parliament with Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka on 5 May, over the latter’s recent statement on former army personnel Sunil Rathnayake, who was convicted of the murder of eight civilians, including a toddler in Mirusuvil in 2000, and released recently through a Presidential Pardon.
Field Marshal Fonseka recently said in Parliament that granting pardon to Rathnayake cannot be accepted. In response to this statement Weerasekara accused Fonseka of making statements that betray the nation and the military. Fonseka, rising to a Point of Order, fired back at Weerasekara saying that the latter is a disgrace to the military uniform. Weerasekara: “A person like you is not suitable to be a Lance Corporal, let alone being a Field Marshal. You have a proven record of treason during the war and having lied to your own comrades and got them murdered.
You betray the country. You know nothing about this and yet you dare to make false accusations. It is not only you who took part in winning the war. I was one of the five honoured for winning the war. Rathnayake was convicted during former government. It was based on a statement given by a terrorist named Maheswaran. Now, this Field Marshal also repeats same things as the terrorist.”
Fonseka (interrupts): “I said what was in the Supreme Court verdict, nothing else.
” Weerasekara: “That is because you take money from the Tamil Diaspora. Rathnayake was pardoned based on the fact that only he was convicted while all the other accused in the case have been released. It was a decision made based on legal advice. Rathnayake is a war hero. You don’t care about war heroes. When terrorists were pardoned you never said anything against it. When 12,000 LTTLE cadres and many child soldiers were rehabilitated, did you speak against it? No. now you are accusing a war hero like Rathnayake. When judges released terrorists, what were you doing? Shame on you.”
Fonseka: “According to this man, those 12,000 LTTE cadres should have been killed. How can he even suggest a thing like this? This man is crazy… Because of crazy men like this, our country is disgraced before the international community. His government is proudly saying that they rehabilitated former terrorists and now this man is saying it is wrong.
What is this nonsense?” Weerasekara further accused the Former Army Commander of having dealt with the LTTE and the Tamil Diaspora when Fonseka contested the Presidential Election and won areas having a majority-Tamil population. “You obtain money from Diaspora to disgrace the military. You even went to BBC and said the military committed war crimes.” Fonseka replied, saying Tamil people voted for him because they knew that the Army carried out a humanitarian mission. The military should never show mercy to soldiers who committed war crimes, including Sunil Ratnayake, he said. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa called on the Speaker to remove the comments made by the Public Security Minister from the Hansard.
Taking tips from Ranil
With the sudden upsurge of the number of people falling victim to the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UNP too decided to temporarily defer its weekly party activities and public meetings etc. Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had already given instructions to Party General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara to conduct the said activities through the Internet only. The leader too decided to remain indoors at his 5th Lane residence, while the Party seniors and medical professionals had advised the former not to venture outdoors. Hence the leader too decided to engage in party activities through online media such as Zoom and WhatsApp etc. As he was confined to his residence the leader decided to finish the remaining work of a book, which he is presently writing related to politics in the Asian region.
Hence, he decided to devote much of his time to this particular task, other than discussing Party work with Party activists through the Internet. In the meantime, when the leader rang Vajira Abeywardena last Tuesday, the latter was at a private hospital in Colombo. Vajira said that he had arrived at the hospital to visit two patients and mentioned that one of them had been subjected to a surgery as well and that he was well known to the leader too. Vajira then handed over his mobile phone to patient, SJB MP Harin Fernando, who was being treated there.
As the leader too had wanted to talk to Fernando, both of them were then engaged in a long conversation. Wickremesinghe told Harin that as a surgery had been performed on him, he should take care and only do what the doctors advise him to do. The leader expressed hope that Harin would have a speedy recovery. The doctors had advised Harin to recuperate over a few days and the latter had a list of books that had been set aside to be read. There was also a book that had been written about his former leader.
Several Opposition MPs who had called him had suggested to Harin that the best person to seek input regarding the debate that is to be held in Parliament, concerning the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill after the verdict issued on it by the Supreme Court, would be Ranil.