Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)
COVID-19 becomes key factor in polls campaign
PM denies any second wave, but opposition parties likely to turn upsurge into political issue UNP releases manifesto, outlines measures to deal with pandemic and revive the economy Minister seeks death penalty for police officers involved in massive nar
The sudden spike in Covid-19 cases last week jolted the government and plunged Sri Lankans into a state of confusion. The concerns reflected at the weekly ministerial meeting on Wednesday. There, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa acknowledged that people were frightened by the developments. If the opposition parties were somewhat mute because of the efficient way the anti-Covid-19 campaign was handled earlier, the spurt in the number of cases had made the issue a propaganda tool for them, he noted. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, ministers Dullas Allahapperuma and Wimal Weerawansa were among those who endorsed the views.
There were ministers who were also worried that the opposition would make use of the situation to campaign for the postponement of the parliamentary polls. However, no such move is likely to succeed. The health guidelines have now been gazetted.
Unlike before, as Premier Rajapaksa noted, the opposition did voice serious concerns. Former Prime Minister and United National Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickremesinghe called for a postponement of the parliamentary elections scheduled for August 5. He said he feared a spread of the deadly virus. He urged that 5,000 persons be subject to PCR (polymerise chain reaction) tests a day, a difficult task. Besides qualified personnel for such a major exercise, kits are in demand. The United Nations Foundation has already put out an urgent appeal for one million much wanted test kits to help the World Health Organisation (WHO). It said: “Over 500,000 people worldwide have died from COVID-19 — and that number is still rising. These past few weeks have shown that complacency is dangerous. This pandemic is far from over, even as some governments and individuals look to return to normal life.”
Premier Rajapaksa declared that the recent spike in Covid-19 cases could be coped with by the health authorities and added that “the situation should be explained to the country.” The next day (Wednesday), he convened a breakfast meeting of national newspaper editors and heads of electronic media. He emphasised two key factors. Contrary to claims, he said, quite rightly, that there was no such thing called a ‘second wave.’ It was a case of the outbreak continuing. The other, he said, the health authorities were confident that the recent spike could be managed in addition to suspected persons being quarantined. For good measure, the ruling SLPP alliance, suspended its polls campaign till last Friday. Some opposition parties followed suit.
This does not take away the credit entirely from the government for efficiently managing the Covid-19 outbreak in Sri Lanka. Yet, there have been noteworthy defects. One was when over 900 Navy personnel were affected. Though an inquiry was conducted to ascertain how it came about, its findings are unknown. There sure was a command and control issue. Exactly, what happened at Kandakadu (in Welikanda Divisional Secretariat area), a rehabilitation centre for drug addicts, where more than 500 contracted the deadly virus overnight, reveals a serious lapse. Since they inhale such substance, their lungs are more susceptible for infection is common sense. Was it not the lapse of someone? That is one aspect. The issue is raised in the national interest since more Sri Lankans will otherwise become vulnerable. That those infected at Kandakadu had visited more than ten different districts is known.
Another aspect is more disturbing. Public information, since the outbreak, has been largely in the form of SMS messages on mobile phones. It has focused almost entirely on statistics -- the number of affected cases, those quarantined and those released after treatment. Over a period of time these lower figures heightened public confidence. It also came as a political spin off for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa among the public. His popularity rating saw a new high.
Accompanying this were reports from personalities engaged in the anti-Covid-19 campaign. Such reports, sometimes exaggerated, further enhanced public confidence. And suddenly, when the Kandakadu spurt came in, that confidence was shaken. The stories were first broken in the social media and the news spread like wildfire. Other than that, those feeding information, who did not expect the Kandakadu episode, went on the offensive. Then a Police spokesman castigated the social media for spreading misinformation. It became a psychological war on the media and amounted to a fear psychosis on the public. The CID, the spokesman said, was probing how misinformation originated and warned it would arrest those concerned. A western diplomat I spoke with said that the Police dictating the media agenda gave the impression that the state was run by them. Obviously, such diplomats would report such situations, like before, that Sri Lanka was becoming a Police state.
True, there are some social media which spread falsehoods and worked to the agenda of different political groups, some even for ‘donations of different kind.’ But many are committed to the truth. Days later, the same Police spokesman said publicly that they (the Police) have identified a person at the Kandakadu centre who had leaked medical records to the media and waxed eloquent about media ethics. The assertion that documents have been leaked confirms that the social media reports on Kandakadu were accurate but the identification of the source facing action is a veiled form of threat and intimidation on the media.
This is at a time when the social media in particular are playing an increased role in reporting election campaigns and carrying propaganda ads. Does the government or the public benefit from such remarks however well meant they are? Such acts only erode the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government’s credibility and create doubts in the public mind. This is not the first time such counterproductive remarks have been made by Police spokespersons, some who have a penchant for television cameras. They became so well known; some even became candidates at elections but lost. To say the least, this is a total lack of professionalism.
It is exacerbated by the absence of one single state mechanism to disseminate information about Covid-19. The magnitude of the crisis demands that the government speaks with one voice over such an issue of national importance, possibly through one knowledgeable spokesperson. Dissemination of information of the scourge is now carried out by the military, the Department of Information, the Health Ministry (Department of Epidemiology), different government officials and the Department of Health Services. There have been noticeable contradictions which become causes for doubt. This is notwithstanding the fact that a National Operations Centre for Prevention of Covid-19 outbreak was set up after the disease was discovered in Sri Lanka.
That it has become a self-created situation in the light of the upcoming parliamentary elections, would no doubt, be welcome by the opposition. That the government has unwittingly paved the way for it appears ironic. Making it worse is the message it sends to foreign governments about Sri Lanka being very economical in reporting developments. This perhaps is the main reason why there has been no worldwide endorsement over Covid-19 figures being kept remarkably low in Sri Lanka.
Another decision made by ministers at last Wednesday’s meeting was to encourage youth representation in many spheres. It came on a cabinet memorandum submitted by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The project covers ten years and will be directly under him.
The same ministerial meeting also saw Minister Wimal Weerawansa raising issue over the government confiscation of 65 containers with ten tons of turmeric. The public demand for this commodity grew manifold after the outbreak of Covid-19 in Sri Lanka. An essential component in almost all Sri Lankan dishes, turmeric powder mixed with water is used as a disinfectant. This has led to a shortage. Weerawansa urged that the Sathosa be called upon to do the distribution. He also proposed that 5,000 tons of Ulundu (Black Gram) be imported to meet a prevailing shortage. President Rajapaksa was, however, not in favour of imports since it would affect local production. Hence, no decision was taken on the request.
Rise in prices of essential commodities or shortages of them have not been made key issues by the different opposition parties contesting the parliamentary elections. When campaigns do resume in the coming week, one of the main issues for them would be the rise in Covid-19 cases and the difficulties arising from them besides economic hardships.
UNP manifesto focuses on Covid-19, economy
Other than that, one main contender -- the United National Party -- released its manifesto this week. The 17-page document gives the party’s solution to the ‘economic crisis’ and promises an allowance of Rs 10,000 for the recently unemployed. This will cover those abroad who have lost their jobs. A further Rs 10,000 is to be paid to families who have been affected by the recent lockdown.
The UNP manifesto also deals with measures to overcome the “coronavirus challenge.” They are: While steps will be taken to prevent an economic downfall and implementing measures to revitalise the economy, the government’s attention will also be focused on minimising the adverse economic impact a second or third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic could have on the country.
5000 PCR tests will be carried out daily. At least 10 million face masks will be provided to schools, higher education institutions and other such facilities.
2,000 ventilators will be purchased for hospitals.
A new programme will be implemented for quarantine and security purposes.
A special compensation payment will be made to any worker who dies while engaged in providing services to overcome COVID19. Such individuals will be offered the same facilities offered to military personnel killed during the war.
Personal Protection Emergency kits will be made freely available.
The number of ICU beds in the country will be increased.
A special laboratory to conduct tests on diseases will be established. The Public Health (Emergency) Act will be enacted to legalise lockdown mechanisms and to provide the required powers for disease control. Sri Lanka’s economy, the UNP manifesto notes, is facing a grave danger of falling down an abyss. It adds: “The retrogressive aspect of this crisis is the unbearable increase in the cost of living that has resulted in a large number of families in the country facing financial difficulties. The country as a whole is recording a decline in the per capita GDP. It has been predicted that over one million will be jobless by 2021. The level of unemployment in the country is expected to sky-rocket with a fall in the Middle East employment. Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves are also depleting. Printing Rs. 450 billion is no solution to the crisis. We are falling from the frying pan to the fire.”
Economic revival requires us to focus on a few salient issues. The most being that both global economy and national economies been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Firstly, the manifesto says:
We must ensure that the country is not hit by a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. If this were to take place the economy would be dealt a further devastating blow. We need to win the support of the international community. We cannot overcome this challenge by becoming a hermit state.
We have to ensure that the democratic freedoms enjoyed by our citizens are protected and promoted.
The future generations are empowered with knowledge and skills of the 21st Century.
We have to build a united, like minded and peaceful nation in order to preserve the Sri Lankan identity. The need of the hour is a country that has discarded the divisions of the past. The manifesto adds: “A disease cannot be cured without a proper diagnosis. Then we can promote the remedies. It is estimated that Sri Lanka will lose US$ 7 billion in foreign revenue this year having to pay US$ 3 billion for debt servicing. The United National Party in calculation has revealed the need for US$ 6 billion for the next two years of which US$ 3 billion is required immediately. Many countries have already received international assistance to fund their immediate financial requirements. Countries like Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Maldives, Egypt, and Kenya have begun the process of securing financial support from the International Monetary Fund.”
Police action questioned
Contrary to its own claim, that the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) manifesto will be released last Monday, it has been delayed. Last week General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara said it would be released on Monday. As previously revealed, the manifesto of the SLPP-led alliance is Saubagye Dekma, the programme of work announced when Gotabaya Rajapaksa contested the presidential election. Even without repetition of the pledges made in that, the SLPP-led alliance appears to be harvesting a windfall. These are the two major operations initiated by President Rajapaksa. One is against the illicit drug trade. This has laid bare an unsavoury and damning revelation -- the Police who were tasked to fight against illicit drug peddling had turned couriers and were carrying out a lucrative trade. Police officers and constables had acquired property, motor vehicles and stashed away large sums of money in their private bank accounts. They had also staged smoke trails by periodically organising raids, often on those of rivals with whom they colluded, and launched a publicity blaze thereafter. Imagine the Police being the pivot of drug distribution network transporting illegal drugs in official vehicles?
That the Police are taking a strong, unprecedented beating has become a subject of serious public concern. In Angulana, a fisherman who was in his three-wheeler scooter had an altercation with the Police. He was allegedly shot dead. Public anger took the form of storming the Angulana Police Station and hurling stones and missiles. The Police Narcotics Bureau is embroiled in an embarrassing scandal. Despite the crackdown on illegal drugs, there are areas in Colombo where the industry is thriving. The Police Commission has been able to do little if anything over the rapid drop in discipline and politicisation.
It is a damning indictment that such a scandal had occurred in the Police Narcotics Bureau -- the Police arm that was tasked to curb the use of illegal drugs but was doing just the opposite -proliferating its distribution and use. Embarrassed by this unprecedented development, senior Police officers are now demanding that those in their ranks involved in the illegal trade be charged in courts, and if found guilty, be sentenced to death. Adding his own voice to the call is Minister Wimal Weerawansa, who is considered close to President Rajapaksa.
He told a meeting of a small group of supporters in Kotte that President Rajapaksa should sign the warrants if a court decides on death sentence for police officers involved in the drug trade. “I am making this plea because I do not want the future of the youth of this country destroyed,” he pointed out. He heaped praise on President Rajapaksa and said, “no other President had given the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) a free hand to investigate the Narcotics Bureau.” The twelve-point objective of the National Freedom Front (NFF) which Weerawansa leads includes a pledge to support the President’s efforts to “put an end to the drugs menace and underworld crime.”
Easter Sunday massacre probe
Ministers expect the final report of the Commission of Inquiry into last year’s Easter Sunday massacres to be released ahead of the parliamentary polls. Whether this will materialise or not, is unclear. In April, the warrant issued to the Commission was further extended by six months. In terms of this, it will now expire on September 20. The findings of the Commission, some ministers believe, will enhance the accusations they made earlier that the involvement of some politicians of the previous regime has been downplayed or covered up.
Even whilst the Commission’s hearings are proceeding, the CID is continuing to investigate several aspects related to the massacres. One matter that has surfaced is the alleged involvement of a close relative of a politician. Perusal of telephone records have revealed that when Muslim extremists had spoken to the relative, he had immediately contacted the politician. It is only thereafter that he had given them guidance. This is one of the elements that has established the politician’s involvement though the previous Yahapalana regime went out of the way to exculpate him.
There are other political developments too. There are ominous signs that trouble is brewing between that the SLPP-led Sri Lanka Nidahas Podujana Sanvidanaya
(SLNPS) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) even before the elections. Minister Prasanna Ranatunga, an SLPP frontliner, has been firing salvos at election meetings, week after another, against former President and SLFP leader, Maithripala Sirisena. Ranatunga has asked at many a meeting, “Can you trust this man? We should not vote for anyone who is even remotely connected with Sirisena.” Surprising enough, this has gone unchecked by the SLPP leadership.
Ranatunga told a string of meetings that Sirisena ate hoppers when he visited then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. “The next day, he stabbed him in the back. He left the party and the government,” he said. That is why, Ranatunga said, that SLPP members demanded that we should put forward candidates who will be under Pohottua (lotus flower bud). However, most of our party members were of the view that we should join hands since the minority groups may not back Gotabaya Rajapaksa. “I did not favour the idea. We have no issue with the SLFP. Though we formed an alliance, we have not mentioned anywhere that they would be given any portfolios,” he said. Our agreement says that we should face the parliamentary election as an alliance, he pointed out.
The remarks have made the SLFP livid. Prof. Rohana Luxman Piyadasa, Senior Deputy Leader of the SLFP, called a news conference at the party’s Darley Road headquarters last Tuesday. Noting that the Chairman and the General Secretary are engaged in the polls campaign, Piyadasa declared, “Our party is contesting the parliamentary election under SLPNS in most districts. However, we are contesting under our own SLFP in three districts. We are together in the alliance with 18 political parties. Even Gotabaya Rajapaksa told his presidential inauguration at Ruwanweli Seya that he won with the SLFP support too.”
Piyadasa said “whilst our campaign is under way, we are witnessing several conspiracies. It is happening as the SLPP Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa said a couple of weeks ago. He pointed out that “as a result of conspiracies carried out by different powers in 2015, it led to President Sirisena removing Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in 2018. Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed. That government existed only for 52 days.
“We are also witnessing conspiracies aimed at us though they are cloaked in friendliness. They are trying to break the alliance. We will not reply to all the charges they are making. We urge all SLFP supporters to cast their votes to the original party. We ask our supporters to see whether there are people who have allegations of theft, bribery, and corruption and those who are facing charges in courts. We are asking the government to hold an election without corrupt people. We as a party will institute legal action against defamatory remarks and allegations. The party’s lawyers are discussing the matter.”
The internecine rivalry does raise questions over two issues. One is over how many seats the SLFP will be able to muster on its own or within the alliance itself. The other is its entitlement to portfolios. Naturally, a few being elected would trigger a debate between the two sides. On the other hand, a higher number would raise fears of a possible crossover in the event of a crisis.
The developments in the past days have made it abundantly clear that in countering Covid-19, there is an imperative need for the government to ensure that its communications machinery works harmoniously with other efforts. As the elections near, well-intentioned pundits, who know little or nothing about media relations, can make it worse for them and the country. Herein lies a grave fault which could be costly when the whole world is fighting Covid-19.
A new feature in the upcoming parliamentary elections is the fact that it is being conducted under two different laws. One is those relating to elections. The other the newly gazetted health guidelines though they do not specify what penalties would be enforced on violators. Election meetings have been restricted to 200 people. Where a political party leader or an independent group leader is taking part, it will be 500 people. House-to-house campaigns could be carried out by a maximum of five people. Undoubtedly, the new guidelines will dampen an already lacklustre campaign with 16 days to go for the polls.