Defensive measures up against Coronavirus | Daily News

Defensive measures up against Coronavirus

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa chairing a meeting of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 Prevention.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa chairing a meeting of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 Prevention.

Arresting the second wave of COVID-19 has become a Herculean task for the Government due to its high transmissibility, and as new infections shot up the Government was forced to go for tougher actions this week.

Things came to a head when it was learnt, through a comprehensive study by an academic team attached to Sri Jayewardenepura University, that the new strain of the Coronavirus has a high viral load and therefore is highly contagious than the previous strain of the Virus found in the country.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa once again pulled the entire State machinery together to face the monstrous crisis and after evaluating the situation over the weekend decided to extend the quarantine curfew in the Western Province until November 9.

It was a hard choice for the Government as the Western Province is the heart of economic activities of the country with a share of about 38 percent of the Provincial Gross Domestic Product as per Central Bank statistics for 2018.

The President took several concrete decisions at a meeting of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 Prevention on Sunday to contain the spread of COVID-19 while trying to minimize disruption of public life and the economy, well aware that the country’s ailing economy has already taken a severe beating throughout this year, and that daily wage earners and low income earners are bearing the brunt of extended lockdowns.

Swift decisions

Accordingly, it has been decided to provide the Rs. 5,000 allowance again to low-income families that have lost their livelihoods in the Western Province. A pack of essential food items worth Rs. 10,000 will be distributed for those under self-quarantine. The Government assured that the home delivery system would be revived in the curfew areas in the same manner as earlier for the distribution of essential goods.

At the same time, the Police have given permission for employees in nearly 100 public and private institutions, including banks, insurance companies and the media, to use their office IDs as curfew passes to report to work as assigned. This could be perceived as a step to keep the country’s wheels turning amidst the epidemic, and it helps to maintain essential services without interruption. This was a different approach compared to the experience in March, where the country virtually came to a standstill due to the islandwide curfew that dragged on for weeks.

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and his colleagues in the Samagi Jana Balawegaya were waiting in the wings to find fault with the Government’s efforts to manage the situation and they kept on complaining about inadequate PCR tests, hospital facilities and financial support for affected families.

The United National Party (UNP), probably feeling left out of the equation, also issued several press statements on COVID-19 related matters to get media attention. The UNP in its statements called on the Government to present its plan to control the spread of the Virus and be more transparent on how the foreign funds received for that purpose were utilized.

Budget up next

In the meantime, the Parliamentary business was limited to two hours this week as it also felt the Coronavirus heat. As a police officer attached to Parliament Police and two lobby correspondents were found to have contracted the Virus, additional precautions were needed for the safety of more than 1,000 staff and auxiliary staff members in Parliament.

Accordingly, the Parliament complex was closed for two days last week for disinfection. Parliamentary business was rescheduled to cut down the number of sitting days this week. For the first time in recent memory, journalists were not allowed in Parliament, but media coverage was facilitated through live streaming.

Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi moved two Gazettes on Regulations under the Medical Ordinance in Parliament yesterday for the purpose of maintaining minimum standards of medical education. The set of Regulations was gazetted by her predecessor in January 2018 but its Parliamentary approval had been pending.

Minister Wanniarachchi in December last year issued another Gazette pertaining to the same Regulations revising the minimum qualification required to follow a medical degree programme to ‘two credit passes and a simple pass’ for a subject combination of Biology, Chemistry and Physics’. In the previous Gazette, this qualification was ‘two credit passes in Biology and Chemistry’.

The Regulations, covering a wide range of areas from curriculum model to physical facilities and from academic staff to management, apply to both State and private universities and institutions which confer medical degrees alone or jointly with foreign universities or institutions. Back then, regulating private medical colleges was a topic that earned much attention, but amidst the pandemic the topic yielded less interest.

The Parliamentarians, who were scheduled to speak in the debate, were asked to attend and only a limited number of staff members were summoned for duty. It was also announced that ‘Budget 2021’ has been rescheduled for November 17. Discussions were on to limit the Budget debate to a few days. The Budget for this year, which could not be presented in Parliament due to the postponement of the General Election as a result of the pandemic situation, would be presented on November 12 and passed on the same day following a six-hour debate.

Given the precarious position the country’s economy is placed in, managing the public finances without putting an unnecessary burden on the ordinary public has been a daunting task for the Government. No doubt this is the country’s hardest financial year in decades.

Parliamentary Council

Moreover, the five-member Parliamentary Council is expected to get down to work shortly as the first step of implementing the 20th Amendment to the Constitution (20A) which became the country’s supreme law with the Speaker’s official endorsement last week.

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa are ex-officio members of this new observatory body which replaces the 10-Member Constitutional Council. It was reported that Prime Minister Rajapaksa had named Minister and EPDP Leader Douglas Devananda as his nominee, and that Opposition Leader Premadasa had also sent the name of his nominee to the Speaker on Monday. As all the ex-officio members are from the majority community in this instance, 20A requires the two nominees of the PM and the Opposition Leader to be from the minority communities.

The Council can submit their observations on high profile appointments, including Independent Commission Members and Superior Court Judges, but the President has the final say. Under 20A, the number of Supreme Court judges has been increased from 11 to 17 while the number of Appeal Court judges has been raised from 12 to 20.

Accordingly, the naming of new Supreme Court and Appeal Court Justices can be expected in the near future. Justice Minister Ali Sabry pointed out that it was a long overdue measure to clear the backlog of cases as these two apex court benches remained unchanged for more than four decades since the proclamation of the 1978 Constitution.

Hats off to ‘Mako’

Meanwhile news came on Monday that National Election Commission (NEC) Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya, a much-respected and much-loved public official who had received public accolades for his integrity and committed public service, was preparing to bid adieu to his 37-year-long career at the Elections Department/Commission after having successfully completed his tenure. Everyone began to fondly call him ‘Mako’ after a Sinhalese newspaper abbreviated the Sinhalese term “Mathiwarana Komasaris” (Elections Commissioner) to ‘MaKo’.

The term of office of the NEC ends this month and a new five-member Commission will be appointed as per the provisions of 20A.

Deshapriya earned the admiration of all for a job well done at all elections held under his watchful eye. He did not buckle under pressure and was resilient in the face of criticism. A gem in the country’s public service, Deshapriya, with his unique personality traits and wit, has raised the bar for his successor, or for that matter, any public official. Journalists loved him as he answered all questions posed without deflecting any, cracking a joke or two in the process. His love for cricket shone through in some of his answers as he often used cricket analogies to explain various points at press conferences.

Soon after the last General Election, Deshapriya spoke of his retirement plans stating that he was longing to go back to his home turf in Ambalangoda on the Southern Coast.