Gearing up for pandemic recovery | Daily News


Gearing up for pandemic recovery

Supreme Court
Supreme Court

More struggles lie ahead as the country strives to “re-start” after being crippled for seven long weeks by a debilitating virus.

The resurrection of the economy lies at the heart of the decision to relax the curfew and re-open the country for work and business enabling a phased return to work for the country’s workforce.

The gradual relaxation of tight restrictions on movement was possible because of the persistent efforts of the thousands of frontline workers including the Health staff and the Security Forces personnel who had been working day and night in the field risking their own health.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa issuing a statement on the eve of re-opening the country stressed the importance of striking a balance between preventing the spread of the coronavirus on the one hand and restoration of normality on the other.

If everything goes well according to the plan, the country will be fully functional in a couple of weeks. However, there is a rugged road ahead than what existed in the pre-crisis period. Prudent decision making, efficient management, not forgetting citizen responsibilities, unity and above all political will matter as the nation faces an uphill task of standing up as a stronger entity.

Top officials change

On the same day the activities of the country resumed, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa reshuffled the secretaries of seven ministries. The appointment of a top military doctor as the new secretary to the Health and Indigenous Medical Services Ministry replacing Sri Lanka Administrative Service (SLAS) officer Bhadrani Jayawardena, was the highlight.

Major General Sanjeewa Munasinghe assumed duties as the Health Ministry Secretary shortly after his appointment. In his military career spanning 34 years, Major General Munasinghe has proven his mettle as the Director General of Army Health Services, President of Sri Lanka College of Military Medicine and Colonel Commandant of Army Medical Corps. He is a Consultant Radiologist by profession who had completed the MBBS degree at the University of Ruhuna.

Bhadrani Jayawardena has been given a new appointment as Secretary to the Internal Trade, Food Security and Consumer Welfare Ministry. Among the new appointees was another retired military officer. Major General (Retired) Sumedha Perera has been appointed as Secretary to the Mahaweli, Agriculture, Irrigation and Rural Development Ministry held by Minister Chamal Rajapaksa.

The other ministries of which the secretaries were changed are the Justice, Human Rights and Legal Reforms Ministry, Public Administration, Home Affairs, Provincial Councils and Local Government Ministry, Tourism and Aviation Ministry and Women, Child Affairs and Social Security Ministry.

Legal battle

Meanwhile, the matters of the General Election and Parliament have now entered the Hulftsdorp premises opening up a new battlefront on Constitutional Law. Seven Fundamental Right petitions filed by political activists and members affiliated to the Opposition parties challenging the dissolution of Parliament and fixing the General Election date have been fixed for support on May 18 and 19 by the Supreme Court.

At the outset, Attorney General (AG) Dappula De Livera informed the Court that the AG’s Department was not in a position to appear for the National Election Commission (NEC) and its members in the FR application filed challenging the date of the Election. The AG’s decision could be because the Department is appearing for the President, who is also a respondent in the same case.

This development leaves the NEC to decide its own course to walk safely through the legal and political minefield it is in. The Election Commission Media Spokesman and Acting Director Channa de Silva told the Daily News that the members of Legal Division of the Commission would represent it at the Court.

Saddled with the task of holding the General Election amidst the coronavirus pandemic, the NEC members held a crucial meeting yesterday and met with the political party representatives thereafter to agree on the date and other connected matters. The decisions of the meeting were not known when this was written.

Dr Jayasundara’s request

Secretary to the President Dr P B Jayasundara stirred controversy in the Opposition camps with his request from the public servants to donate their May salary, or a portion of it, to tide the Government coffers over the present crisis.

In a four-page letter addressed to all public servants starting from top rank Government officials, Jayasundara, who had previously worn the mantle of Treasury Secretary for over a decade, has reminded that a staggering sum of Rs 100 billion is spent monthly to pay the salaries and allowances of the public sector workers whom he admired for their contributions at the frontlines to fight COVID-19.

The Secretary, laying bare the hard realities the cash-strapped Government is facing in the fiscal front due to the global pandemic, has made the above appeal from the public sector workers, while setting an example by donating his salary for the month of May to Widows’ and Orphans’ Pension Fund.

Commenting on the letter, JVP member Sunil Handunnetti said it was on an official letterhead and was copied to Auditor General and Attorney General. Handunnetti argued that this request came at a time the Cabinet had approved billions of Rupees for road development projects, which could not be categorized as priorities before the country now. He was also critical of the recent Cabinet decision to allow former state ministers to use official vehicles and residences for election campaigns after a payment. These are perks previously entitled only to the Prime Minister, former Opposition Leader, former Speaker and ministers.

In this context, there were mixed reactions to Dr Jayasundara’s request, and mainly the Opposition parties and trade unions took arms against it with slogans such as “don’t touch the public servants’ salaries”. However, some saw it in a different light as a timely and sensible request given the predicament the country’s economy is in.

Govt responds

The Government chose to tread lightly on the matter knowing it was a sensitive topic which the Opposition could easily capitalize on for political gain with a General Election at hand.

Cabinet Spokesman and Minister Dr Bandula Gunawardena emphasised that the Secretary’s letter is purely a personal request and that it is not mandatory for public servants to donate their salaries in part or full. At the same time, the Minister defended the right of Dr Jayasundara to make such a request as the Head of all state employees.

In relation to the Cabinet approving a borrowing of approximately Rs. 31.7 billion for the construction of the first section of the Central Expressway, Dr Gunawardena explained that the project has to go ahead as otherwise the Government has to pay compensation for any delays. This was in response to the criticisms of allocating a colossal amount of money for road development at a time of economic distress.

Some observers in the mainstream and social media have expressed the notion that if ministers and former MPs can collectively donate a month’s salary/pension or more for the sake of the country or forego the many allowances they are entitled to, such a top-down approach will give a strong message to the citizenry. In fact, some ministers and former MPs have already come forward in this regard and some have also generously contributed to the ‘COVID-19 Healthcare and Social Security Fund’. Leading by example has always been an effective way to win the hearts of the populace. 

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