Mounting Criticism Leads Government to Impose Countrywide Lockdown
|By Gagani Weerakoon|
With criticism mounting against the Government, over its apparent failure to control the increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, on Monday (16), took away the Health Ministry from Pavithra Devi Wanniarachchi and handed it over to Keheliya Rambukwella, who famously said “Our target is to get everyone above 18 vaccinated by September and thereafter it is in the hands of the Gods.”
Pavithra Wanniarachchi was sworn in as the new Transport Minister. The mini cabinet reshuffle also saw Prof. G.L. Peiris and Minister Dinesh Gunawardena swapping their respective ministries. Accordingly, the new Education Minister is Gunawardene while Prof. Pieris took over duties at his favourite Ministry, Foreign Affairs.
Gamini Lokugeis the new Minister of Power while Dullas Alahapperuma who held the portfolio was sworn in as the Minister of Mass Media. Namal Rajapaksa was given the portfolio of Minister of Development Coordination and Monitoring, in addition to the portfolio of Youth and Sports. Both Namal Rajapaksa and Lokuge took oaths via Zoom. Rambukwella tweeted that he is privileged and honoured to have been appointed as Minister of Health by President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.
He also thanked Wanniarachchi for her efforts to date in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. His tweet went on to say that, in the future, the collective social responsibility of all citizens will be required to overcome this challenge. “I humbly request the participation and cooperation of all Sri Lankan citizens in making this a reality,” he concluded. Meanwhile, Lokuge thanked the President and Prime Minister on Facebook.
Pavithra takes a dig at reshuffle
Minister Wanniarachchi, who was appointed as the Minister of Transport, in a cabinet reshuffle, bade farewell to her former staff at the Health Ministry Monday afternoon. A special meeting was held at the Ministry of Health to bid farewell to Wanniarachchi and welcome newly appointed Minister Keheliya Rambukwella. Minister Wanniarachchi admitted that she too, like many others in the Ministry, was shocked when she was offered a new portfolio. "When I was called, I told a group of doctors who were at a meeting with me that it might be a ministerial change. Doctors said that my portfolio will not be changed.
But I was unaware of all these new developments until the last minute," she said. She related a renowned folktale during her farewell speech that left many wondering whether she was trying to convey a hidden message. She said; "Once, when a King and his chief advisor (Purohitha) were on a journey together and the King’s finger was accidentally cut off by his own sword. Why did this happen? he asked Purohitha, to which latter replied “must have happened for good”. The King, angry at his response, pushed Purohitha into a pit and continued his journey, but in the opposite direction.
Subsequently, the King was surrounded by a group of celebrants, looking for an individual to sacrifice to complete their ritual. Upon inspection, however, they deemed the King unsatisfactory for the sacrifice, claiming that he was not a ‘whole’ person, as he had damaged fingers. The King was then free to go. He later realised that Purohitha had in fact been right, the celebrants had let him go because he was missing a finger.
He went back looking for Purohitha. Pulling Purohitha out of the pit, the King asked him for forgiveness, to which Purohitha replied ‘I am grateful to you, for if you had not thrown me into this pit, I would have accompanied you. And once the celebrants deemed you unfit for the sacrifice, they would have taken me instead, as I am a ‘whole’ person’. “Similarly, we too shall think that everything happens for a reason,” the Minister concluded.
COVID-19 reaches new heights
Party leaders decided to limit Parliament sittings to only Tuesday (17) due to the Covid-19 situation. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19) (Temporary Provisions) Bill was taken up for debate on that day. Participating in the debate, State Minister Prof. Channa Jayasumana revealed that Sri Lanka has detected three new mutations of the Delta COVID-19 variant. He further said Sri Lankan researchers have detected several mutations of the virus and there are three key mutations that have been identified. “Three key mutations have been identified.
The SA 222V, SA 701S & SA 1078S. These are known as Spike mutations. These mutations could also be a contributing factor for the surge in the spread of the virus,” he said. He also said the delta variant has a 60-70 per cent higher transmissibility than other variants and leads to exponential increase in the number of oxygen-dependent patients. This variant can be one of the reasons for the rapid spread of infections in the country, he added.
Call for lockdown
A total of 12 Parliament staff members tested positive for COVID-19 following random Rapid Antigen Tests (RAT) carried out, Sergeant-at-Arms Narendra Fernando said. Fernando said 275 random RATs were performed on MPs, Parliament staff, security personnel and Parliament journalists.
After identifying the infected persons, action was taken to identify their first contacts through CCTV footage and they have been sent for quarantine, he said. Fernando also said 95 per cent of MPs have taken COVID-19 jab (Oxford AstraZeneca, COVISHIED, Sputnik V and Sinopharm) to date while over 98 per cent of Parliament staff members including ancillary and other staff have taken the jab.
Over 98 per cent of Parliament journalists have been vaccinated to date as well. A few of the above categories refrained from taking the vaccination due to allergy situations and other complications, he said. Meanwhile, a RTI request revealed that only 146 MPs out of 225 MPs were vaccinated against the COVID-19 as of 12 August.
Six MPs have been tested positive for the virus in August. In this context, SLPP MP Maithripala Sirisena requested President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to immediately convene a meeting of representatives of political parties in Parliament, to discuss and find solutions for the current situation in the country and the COVID-19 pandemic. Participating in the debate on the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) (Temporary Provisions) Bill, Sirisena said Sri Lanka could have received more assistance from the WHO to curb the pandemic.
“It is not only Sri Lanka which faces shortages in resources in the health sector. Many other countries in the world also face similar situations like us. Therefore, everyone should get together at this crucial time to overcome these challenges,” he said. All political parties should join hands to find solutions to control the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.
We should not waste time by pointing fingers and finding fault for every action of each and every one. In the event of a national disaster, everyone should forget political differences and unite on behalf of the nation, Sirisena pointed out. Leaders of 10 parties affiliated to the Government requested the President to lockdown the country for at least three weeks. While emphasising that they are aware of the country's economic crisis, they also stated that in previous situations where the country was placed under lockdown, the number of patients reduced and could be handled by the healthcare system.
The parties that have proposed the lockdown in writing are: Our Power of People Party, Democratic Left Front, Lanka Sama Samaja Party, National Freedom Front, Pivithuru Hela Urumaya, National Congress, Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, Sri Lanka Communist Party, Sri Lanka People’s Party, and Yuthukama National Organisation. Individuals undergoing quarantine and a fear of COVID-19 have hampered the country’s functions, according to the parties, who believe that everything will return to normal after a lockdown.
They hope that once the number of infected people is reduced, there won’t be fear and people will go about their normal lives. The ten parties proposed forming an expert committee comprising health and economic experts, as well as setting up an all-party framework for it as a Nation. The parties claimed that some relevant authorities misinterpreted numbers, which they condemned, stating that any officer who believes that falsifying statistics will lessen the severity of the pandemic should be severely dealt with.
They urged that steps be taken to integrate Ayurvedic and traditional medicine with Western medicine and to create a hybrid medical operation, citing their own experience with successful viral infection therapies in indigenous medicine. They also urged religious leaders, government officials, and leaders from voluntary organisations to form public committees to encourage people to follow health guidelines. Meanwhile, the Mahanayake Theras of Malwatte and Asgiri Chapters also called on the President to impose a countrywide lockdown, which the latter heeded to by Friday afternoon.