The government must face up to national and international challenges

Sri Lanka appears to have finally turned a corner in its battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, with health authorities expressing hope that the coronavirus crisis is now at a manageable level, although the government faces other challenges on several fronts, both nationally and internationally. .

The reason for the current optimism among health experts is that uptake of the third dose (or ‘booster’) of the coronavirus vaccine has now increased significantly with increasing numbers of people choosing to get vaccinated. . The booster vaccination rate is now about 46%.

It will be recalled that Sri Lanka entered a prolonged lockdown when the COVID-19 pandemic swept through a significant portion of the country’s population, particularly when the deadly ‘delta’ wave emerged, threatening the capacity of the health system. which was almost at breaking point.

What then made possible a return to near normality was the country’s highly effective and efficient vaccination program against COVID-19, undertaken initially by the health sector but then delegated to the armed forces who were able to implement it across the country in a very short time. .

Booster dose, myths and misconceptions

However, in recent months, even as the ‘omicron’ variant of the virus infected large numbers of people, the public was reluctant to get the ‘booster’ dose of the vaccine. This was due to a variety of myths and misconceptions about the alleged long-term effects of the vaccine.

This led the government to launch an extensive public awareness campaign to overcome the ‘stigma’ associated with the ‘booster’ dose. This campaign is ongoing and appears to have paid off, with uptake of the vaccine showing a sharp increase over the past two weeks.

Health authorities warn, however, that the “omicron” wave is continuing and should do so for at least several more weeks. Although less virulent, this variant is highly transmissible. As a result, the number of people hospitalized and people succumbing to the virus could still be high, they say.

The Ministry of Health, at this time, has therefore advised against the lifting of restrictions related to COVID-19. This advice follows measures adopted in the UK where British Prime Minister Boris Johnston authorized the lifting of all COVID-19 restrictions.

At present, although highly restrictive practices are not enforced in Sri Lanka, individuals should continue to adopt simple but effective health safety measures such as wearing face masks in public and practicing social distancing and distancing. hand hygiene, Health Ministry officials have advised.

Variant ‘Omicron’

This week, the country passed the grim milestone of 16,000 COVID-19-related deaths. More than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 continue to be reported daily in recent days, most of them with symptoms suggestive of the “omicron” variant. Around 20 to 30 deaths also continue to be recorded daily.

The news of the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic is encouraging for the government, but it has a different kind of challenge to face in a few days as the sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) begin. in Geneva, Switzerland, where Sri Lanka figure prominently.

The 49th session of the HRC begins on February 28 and will run until April 1, 2022. During the session, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, will present an update on Sri Lanka to the Council and there will be an interactive dialogue on Sri Lanka. the 3 of March.

Foreign Minister Prof. GL Peiris will lead the Sri Lankan delegation to the HRC. During the visit, Foreign Minister Peiris will address the high-level segment of the 49th session of the Council and later speak at the interactive dialogue on Sri Lanka, a session that attracted a lot of attention.

It is no secret that several groups have lobbied the UNHRC, urging the Council to put pressure on the Sri Lankan government. Among the demands is a request to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) which the government considers essential to maintain national security.

Another issue debated by HRC lobby groups is the outcome of the investigation into the 2019 Easter Sunday terrorist attacks. Lobbyists claim that despite numerous commissions of inquiry and the institution of legal proceedings, the real perpetrators attacks have not been punished.

In this context, it should be noted that the High Court in Colombo last week acquitted former Secretary of Defense Hemasiri Fernando and former Inspector General of Police Pujith Jayasundera, who were charged with more than 800 counts of accuse each of negligence which allowed others to carry out the attacks.

Lobby groups are also reportedly active, urging the European Union (EU) to withdraw the Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP Plus) concession currently granted to Sri Lanka. These lobbyists see in this economic strategy a means of pressure on the government of Colombo.

It is in such a context that Foreign Minister GL Peiris will lead the Sri Lankan delegation to Geneva which should also include Justice Minister Ali Sabry, PC. Minister Peiris has already started engaging with diplomats in preparation for the mission, Foreign Ministry officials said.

Meanwhile, on the economic front, the government was also taking steps to prevent a foreign exchange crisis, ensuring sufficient reserves and thus facilitating the continuation of international trade which is done on the basis of dollar values ​​in the majority of transactions.

Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal said that as a steady inflow of foreign currency is expected in the near future, pressures on the economy will ease and Sri Lanka will avoid a default. The flow of foreign currency is closely monitored, he said.

Foreign exchange reserves

“Sri Lanka’s overall reserves are bolstered by several swaps, particularly from China, India and Bangladesh. These have been useful and helpful to us to be able to deal with the current situation but at the same time, we would prefer to have more reserves, ”explained Governor Cabraal.

While several discussions are underway to obtain more funds, the Central Bank hopes to obtain inflows that do not create debt. “We would prefer new non-debt inflows, through the securitization of our remittances and the sale of some underutilized assets. These are now on track,” Cabraal said.

With careful management of foreign currency until tourism inflows materialize, the Governor was confident to meet the current challenges. Sri Lanka needs about $2.8 billion in additional financing for the year to pay off its external debt and that amount can be increased, Governor Cabraal said.

The tight economic management put in place by the Central Bank meant, however, that there was another problem the government had to deal with: the growing electricity crisis. The Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) lacks funds to purchase the fuel needed to generate electricity.

This situation is further aggravated by an increase in fuel consumption in Sri Lanka. CPC Chairman Sumith Wijesinghe said demand for diesel has now increased from 5,500 metric tons per week to 8,000 metric tons and gasoline from 3,000 metric tons to 4,500 metric tons.

Speculation of an impending fuel shortage for day-to-day operations is contributing to this surge in demand, although there is no basis for such a scenario to occur. This has led to increased demand and panic buying by consumers, which can only make the current situation even worse, officials said.

A ship with a cargo of diesel was moored at the port of Colombo. The CPC was unable to unload it due to lack of foreign currency to pay for it. Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal said banks would not release currency without rupees based on the exchange value.

This forced the government to reluctantly introduce power cuts for several hours a day. For several weeks there were reports that such shutdowns of the electricity supply were necessary, but the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) had resisted these calls and maintained the supply. However, from this week that was no longer possible and power cuts had to be resorted to, officials said. Therefore, electricity supply is interrupted for two hours in some areas and for three hours in other areas on a rotational basis with the permission of PUCSL, officials said.

Meanwhile, on the orders of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, President’s Secretary Gamini Senarath issued an extraordinary gazette this week declaring the supply of electricity as an essential service. This is to avoid disruptions to the power supply due to work stoppages and strikes.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and ministers in charge of relevant portfolios are closely following these issues related to currency, fuel supply and electricity. These were also the subject of a special Cabinet meeting earlier this week.

At this special Cabinet meeting, it was decided that the government would settle an outstanding payment of Rs 80 billion owed to the CPC to ensure continued fuel supply. Cabinet has also decided not to revise fuel prices for the time being. Previously, the Lanka India Oil Company (LIOC) raised its prices.

There is no doubt that as the country emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, a host of other challenges confront the government. These issues are being addressed as they arise, but it is a delicate balancing act that government is called upon to perform and it is neither a simple nor an easy task.