A battle on two fronts | Daily News

A battle on two fronts

The Government was battling on two fronts this week, dealing with a Covid-19 pandemic that was threatening to escalate out of control and at the same time attempting to keep the momentum in its attempts to ratify the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution. 

Previously, Sri Lanka had been hailed as a model for keeping the Covid-19 pandemic in check, earning plaudits for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and health authorities. Now, a ‘second wave’ is threatening the country, triggered by the outbreak of Coronavirus infections in a garment factory. 

The infection that spread in the garment factory is being thoroughly investigated. More than a thousand employees employed by leading garment manufacturer Brandix have tested positive to the virus triggering fears that they could have spread the infection to many more people. 

Indeed, several institutions reported the detection of individuals infected with the virus. Among them were the National Hospital, the Panadura Hospital and the Lady Ridgeway Hospital, the Kelaniya and Sri Jayewardenepura universities and SriLankan Airlines. 

Despite the detection of these individuals, health authorities were quick to reassure the public that there was no community transmission of the virus. Community transmission is when the virus is detected in people with no known contacts, suggesting the prevalence of the virus in the community. 

“As of now, the amount of cases being reported form the Minuwangoda factory cluster is comparatively reducing,” Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Sudath Samaraweera explained. He said that although several positive cases were reported, extensive preventive measures had been taken. 

However, Dr. Samaraweera stressed that the public must comply with health guidelines and urged prompt measures should be taken if they were found with any respiratory symptoms. “All possible measures are being taken to contain the spread of the virus, there is no need to panic,” he said. 

Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi was also asked about the issue in Parliament. Sri Lanka has not reached the fourth stage of the pandemic as there is no situation where the spread of the disease has become uncontrollable with large numbers of cases being reported, the Minister explained. 

However, sessions in Parliament were conducted on a low-key. Party leaders decided to confine sessions to oral questions and postpone condolence votes to the next Parliamentary week. A majority of MPs present were wearing face masks and many prominent ministers were not present. 

Brandix, the centre of  the outbreak 

Meanwhile, Brandix, the garment manufacturer at the centre of the outbreak in Minuwangoda said that it had followed all protocols in dealing with its employees who had returned from a visit to India. In a statement, the company provided details of the quarantine measures adopted for these employees. 

“We have not had any visitors or travellers from India enter our Minuwangoda facility during the past two months. We also reiterate that our facility in Minuwangoda did not undertake any orders for our Indian operation nor does it use any fabric from India,” the company said in its statement. 

“Recent media reports also expressed concerns over the matter of employees who had tested positive not being available for immediate quarantine or hospitalisation. We would like to clarify that we are working with state officials in this regard and that the situation is being resolved,” Brandix said. 

As of Tuesday, another 49 persons tested positive for the Coronavirus from the Minuwangoda cluster increasing the total case from the cluster to 1,446. Thirty-two tested positive from quarantine centres while seventeen were close contacts of Brandix factory employees, the Government said. 

The Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA), the trade union of doctors has expressed fears that this ‘second wave’ could spiral out of control. “Authorities won’t be able to control the pandemic as before if the virus spreads exceeding health care resources,” the GMOA cautioned. 

There were also indications that the ‘second wave’ of infections could become a political issue. In Parliament, Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella accused Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi of being complacent after the initial wave of infections were brought under control. 

Kiriella claimed that people were misled by the minister who said in September that Sri Lanka is the only country which has been able to prevent a community spread of the disease. “I only said that the spread of the disease is controlled, the MP should refer to my full statement,” the Minister replied. 

Outside Parliament, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) also accused the Government of underestimating the enormity of the pandemic. “The government was acting as if the pandemic had been wiped out recently,” JVP Propaganda Secretary Vijitha Herath told a news conference. 

20th Amendment 

The main opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) meanwhile has said that it has decided to stop all public agitations against the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution due to the latest outbreak of Covid-19. The decision was announced by its National List MP, Eran Wickramaratne. 

“We have cancelled the programmes planned earlier against the 20th Amendment and decided to confine our agitation campaign only to the platforms of social and mainstream media,” Wickramaratne explained but stated that the party stood opposed to the proposed Amendment. 

Had circumstances been different and had there been no ‘second wave’ of the Covid-19 pandemic, the SJB was planning to mount an all-out campaign to agitate against the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution, using street protests and public rallies coupled with an extensive media campaign. 

However, the ‘second wave’ has meant that the SJB has been compelled to shelve these plans, at least temporarily. Such a campaign would have helped the SJB raise its profile when it is aiming to assert its role as the principal opposition party in the country in preference to the United National Party.  

While dealing with the fallout of the upsurge in Covid-19 infections, the Government was also kept busy dealing with various issues that were emerging as a result of its attempt to pass the 20th Amendment through Parliament, for which it appears to have the required two-thirds majority. 

The Amendment is in the stage where it has been gazetted. That allowed the public to make representations against it in the Supreme Court. These submissions have been concluded. The determination of the Supreme Court will be communicated to the President and the Speaker.  

Media reports, purporting to be sections of the Supreme Court ruling appeared in the mainstream media this week. These reports suggest that most of the amendments have been approved by the Supreme Court which has however suggested that some provisions require approval at a referendum. 

These clauses reportedly included the restoration of presidential immunity, denying the public right to file Fundamental Rights cases against the President, repealing the President’s responsibility to conduct free and fair elections and the dissolution of Parliament one year after a General Election. 

The accuracy of these media reports has not been confirmed. However, neither the Government nor officials acting for the Supreme Court have confirmed or denied the veracity of these reports. The Court determination should reach the public domain when it is announced by the Speaker. 

The Chairman of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), Education Minister G. L. Peiris was asked about these reports at a media briefing. The Minister wouldn’t be drawn in to commenting about the specific aspects of the Supreme Court ruling, until the ruling was officially announced in Parliament. 

However, Minister Peiris was to say that the Government would amend the proposed 20th Amendment in such a manner that a referendum would be avoided. “Once the Speaker presents the Court Ruling to Parliament, dates could be agreed on for debate and a vote on the 20th Amendment,” he said. 

It is becoming evident that the 20th Amendment will lead to more robust discussions in the weeks to come. Mainstream media outlets carried footage of a monk from the Amarapura-Ramanna sect, Ven. Aththangane Rathanapala Thera, purporting to represent the sect, expressing opposition to the Amendment. 

However, this was followed by a statement by Ven. Ganthune Assaji Thera, also of the Amarapura sect, stating that the councils of the sect had not formally met to arrive at a decision. The monk went on to express his ‘personal opinion’ saying that the Executive Presidency should be strengthened.  

New Constitution 

Meanwhile, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference stated that what the nation required was a new Constitution, not an amendment to the Constitution. “The 20th Amendment should not be proceeded with, in its entirety, and instead a new Constitution needs to be the national priority,” it said. 

“A two thirds majority of members in Parliament based on political parties does not necessarily manifest the true conscience of the people,” it said in its statement, requesting Parliament to draft a Constitution which “ensures transparent democracy, the rule of law and the equity of all citizens”. 

The next few weeks will be critical to the country in many ways. On the one hand, time will tell whether health authorities will be able to contain the ‘second wave’ of the Covid-19 pandemic. On the other hand, long lasting legislative changes are likely to see the light of day.