Prudent policies to tackle Covid 19 | Daily News


 

Prudent policies to tackle Covid 19

The uncertainty over the resumption of normal life in the country remains this week while the Covid-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc with the best laid plans of Governments across the world, with Sri Lanka being no exception.

The number of those infected with the deadly Coronavirus continues to rise. At the present time, 765 cases have been detected in Sri Lanka and two more deaths due to complications from the virus have been recorded, bringing the death toll from the pandemic to nine.

On Tuesday, many more potential clusters of infection were detected in areas such as Rajagiriya, Modera and Kolonnawa in Colombo and Kolabissa in the Kandy district, leading to hundreds being quarantined in these regions. In Modera alone, 1200 persons were asked to self-quarantine.

On a more positive note, the number of tests being carried out has increased. Nearly 28,000 tests have been performed. However, health authorities have urged the Government to continue to adhere to the mantra of ‘test, test and test’, a strategy that has yielded positive outcomes in other countries.

The demographics of the pandemic in Sri Lanka would have been quite different if not for the transmission of the infection among Armed Forces personnel. Of the 765 cases recorded in Sri Lanka so far, it is noteworthy that 338 are from the Armed Forces, most of them from the Navy.

This is in keeping with the trend of the virus spreading exponentially in populations that are contained in a limited area. This was also noted in Singapore, where a cluster of migrant workers were infected, leading to a ‘second wave’ of the pandemic, after a well-controlled first wave of infections.

The Government meanwhile is grappling with the twin tasks of restarting the economy which has come to a halt following the ‘lockdown’ and also resuming political activity in preparation for the General Election, which was originally scheduled for April 25 but has now been fixed for June 20.

By way of restoring normalcy in the country, the process of lifting of the curfew has already begun. The Government is now keen to restore normal activity in the four worst affected districts- Colombo, Kalutara, Gampaha and Puttalam- by next Monday, May 11.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa met with provincial governors, ministry secretaries and other officials to finalise arrangements in this regard this week. It was decided that each institution head would have discretion as to how that institution would streamline activities, when functioning resumes on May 11.

For example, the number of employees at work would be decided so as not to disrupt the service provided by each institute. Duty shifts can be decided based on its organisational structure. The time to report to work could be staggered among employees according to the requirements of the institute.

President Rajapaksa had also emphasised the necessity to adhere to health guidelines in providing public transport. This is to avoid overcrowding in buses and trains which could become a major source of spreading the coronavirus infection, if it is not managed according to the guidelines.

An earlier plan to re-open schools has now been deferred. Although there was some consideration given to re-opening schools in May earlier, that has now been halted following the recent surge of Coronavirus infections. A new date is yet to be decided, the Ministry of Education has announced.

The Ministry was responding to ‘fake news’ reports that suggested that schools would re-open on June 1. “No such decision has been taken by the Ministry,” it said in a statement and noted that the date of reopening schools will be decided on the instructions of the Ministry of Health.

It was against such a backdrop that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa met with parliamentarians who represented previous Parliaments earlier this week. The meeting itself became a subject of controversy with some opposition parties declining the Prime Minister’s invitation.

At the outset, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) declined the invitation stating that it served no purpose when the Government had declined a proposal to reconvene Parliament. Having an ‘unofficial’ discussion with the Premier was of no value, they said.

The United National Party (UNP) initially agreed to attend the meeting. However, it changed its stance when it was informed that Parliamentarians from previous legislatures (other than the Parliament which was dissolved in March) were also invited for the meeting.

The meeting however went ahead and was attended by some opposition parties such as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the All Ceylon Muslim Congress (ACMC). TNA leader R. Sampanthan handed over a set of proposals to Prime Minister Rajapaksa regarding dealing with the pandemic.

Meanwhile the political tug-of-war over the conduct of the General Election continues. The current status of the poll is that, officially at least, the Elections Commission has fixed June 20 as the date of the election. This would of course be subject to the state of play vis-à-vis the Covid-19 pandemic.

Last week, several leaders of opposition political parties- Ranil Wickremesinghe, R. Sampanthan, Sajith Premadasa, Rauff Hakeem, Mano Ganeshan, Champika Ranawaka and Rishard Bathiudeen- wrote to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa requesting him to reconvene the dissolved Parliament.

In doing so, they pledged that they would offer unconditional support to enact whatever measures that were required to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. They also pledged not to defeat the Government in Parliament during such a process and agreed not to draw their salaries.

However, President Rajapaksa has maintained his stance that, having dissolved Parliament he can only summon a newly elected Parliament. This was conveyed to the Opposition parties by Secretary to the President P.B. Jayasundara in a letter addressed to the former Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa.

“The dissolved Parliament cannot be reconvened and the election was scheduled to be held on 25.04.2020 according to the dissolution notification issued via the extraordinary gazette on the 2nd of March 2020 and subsequently it was postponed to 20.06.2020,” the letter states.

It also notes that “it is evident that the parties who have signed the statement do not believe in holding elections and instead engage in a narrow political agenda at a crucial time when the Government is striving to safeguard public health, social security and welfare”.

From this exchange of views, it is evident that the President and the opposition parties hold different views on reconvening Parliament. Earlier, President Rajapaksa had also declined a request by the Elections Commission to refer the issue of postponing elections to the Supreme Court for an opinion.

The Elections Commission has meanwhile made no formal announcement yet regarding the feasibility of polls being held on June 20. Previously, Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya has indicated that the Commission requires a period of at least five weeks of ‘normalcy’ to prepare for the election.

With May 11- the date on which the Government hopes restore a semblance of normalcy, with the easing of restrictions- falling just beyond the five-week period from June 20, much will depend on the outcome of the measures initiated on that day and whether it results in a spate of fresh infections.

As the consequences and eventual outcome of the measures initiated on May 11 will not be known for several weeks, it would be optimistic to expect the Elections Commission to conduct the General Election on June 20. Therefore, as of now, a further postponement may be the most likely outcome.

However, the Commission may have other issues to contend with. That is because several parties are likely to seek legal redress for what they argue are violations of the Constitution. Several Fundamental Rights petitions are likely to be heard in the Supreme Court in the coming weeks in this regard.

One petition, filed by Attorney at law Charitha Guneratne argues that the extraordinary gazette notification published by the Elections Commission postponing the poll to June 20 is unconstitutional as it exceeds the three-month time frame after dissolving Parliament stipulated by the Constitution.

Other petitioners, including veteran journalist Victor Ivan and Centre for Policy Alternatives Executive Director Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, have submitted similar applications. These petitions will be called before the Supreme Court on May 11, the day when courts resume hearings.

There has indeed been much discussion and debate ever since the Covid-19 pandemic hit Sri Lanka and confounded its election plans. Legal experts have argued about the constitutional requirement for a poll to be held within three months. Others have noted the practical difficulties involved. In such a scenario, a notion has emerged that it is best if the issue is finally determined by the Supreme Court which can recommend a way out of the conundrum which protects the constitutional right of sovereignty of the people but at the same time takes into account the harsh realities of an unprecedented pandemic.

However, Sri Lankans can take solace from the fact that the country has dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic with a high degree of professionalism, despite the odd incidents every now and then, and has been able to keep at bay a deadly virus which has killed thousands in more advanced nations.


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