Vaccine drive ramped up during lockdown

The Government ultimately took the hard decision to impose the fourth nationwide lockdown last Friday in a last-ditch attempt to arrest the COVID-19 Delta variant, which has been wreaking havoc in the entire country.   

All essential services as well as some economic activities have been facilitated within the period of the Quarantine Curfew to keep the wheels of the country and economy turning, and the Government has decided to give a Rs. 2,000 allowance for those who are deprived of any income during the 10-day curfew. On previous occasions, the Government doled out a Rs. 5,000 allowance to low-income families who depend on daily wages, as they are the ones who bear the brunt of the curfews. But Rs. 2,000 is for one week or so, as against the Rs.5,000 for a month.  

The Quarantine Curfew was surely not the most preferred option for the cash-strapped Government, but it had been inescapable as the numbers of COVID-19 cases and fatalities were increasing at an alarming rate.

Health sector professionals had been advocating tougher restrictions on people’s movements, to bring those to a halt at least for two weeks, to break the chains of transmission of the Novel Coronavirus. The incubation period (the period between exposure to an infection and the appearance of the first symptoms) of the novel Coronavirus is said to be 2-14 days according to expert medical opinion.   

In many towns, traders’ associations decided to close their shops and business establishments before the Government’s decision, in a move similar to a self-lockdown, thinking about their own safety as well as that of the consumers. Not only the Opposition parties, but also the coalition partners of the Government made a request to tighten travel restrictions considering that the resources at hospitals were fast running dry in the face of the raging pandemic. The Most Venerable Chief Prelates of the Malwathu and the Asgiri Chapters too threw their weight behind the growing calls for an islandwide lockdown last week and the Government heeded those, ending weeks of dithering and speculation.

Targets set

Walking on a tightrope with a frail economy on the one hand and the highly contagious COVID-19 pandemic on the other, the Government has counted on the national inoculation drive to lift some of its burden.  

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa addressing the Nation last Friday.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last Friday gave explicit orders to the relevant authorities to complete the vaccination of the elderly population (over 60 years) before September 1. The Army, with its mobile units, is contributing towards this task. While maintaining a steady supply of COVID-19 vaccines to the country in the coming weeks, the Government hopes to provide COVID-19 jabs to all above 30 years by mid-September and all above 18 years by October.

Acting Epidemiology Chief Dr. Samitha Ginige told a press conference on Sunday that 55 percent of the country’s entire population has already got at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while one quarter of the entire population has received both doses.

According to the analysis of COVID-19 confirmed deaths prepared by the Epidemiology Unit of the Health Ministry, approximately 77 percent of those who had died of COVID-19 had been 60 years or older. At the same time, the Epidemiology Head underlined that 91 percent of those who had succumbed to COVID-19 had not received at least the first dose of any COVID-19 vaccine.     

Tough times

On the night of placing the country under lockdown, President Rajapaksa addressed the nation to set the record straight on the Government’s economic revival efforts and the pandemic control measures.

Highlighting the consequences of previous complete lockdowns of the country particularly to the apparel, tourism and construction sectors, small and medium enterprises and self-employed people, the President said, in no uncertain terms, that the country is in no position to afford extended lockdowns.  

“Today, except for a few countries, most others including economically powerful ones have fully opened up. All the countries are adapting to ‘New Normal’ conditions. The Tourism industry in the world is gradually recovering. Our country should also take advantage of this opportunity. We cannot allow the country’s economy to collapse by refusing to take required action.

“This situation is not a rivalry or conflict between different ideologists, trade unions, doctors, other health officials and the Government. We have to understand the reality. It is clear that this is not a time for strike actions and protests. Do not attempt to destabilize the country.

“Although the Health sector looks at this issue from one angle, the Government has to think about managing the small economy in our country if we are to continue to pay off foreign debts, pay salaries, and provide subsidies without interruption.

“I request everyone in the country to be prepared to make more sacrifices, if the country is to be placed under a lockdown for a longer period of time in the future. At this crucial juncture, everyone should take the country forward strategically by acknowledging the gravity of the situation. Therefore, I respectfully request everyone to work together in unity as a team to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic,” the President emphasized in his 17-minute televised statement.


In the meantime, a suggestion of pay cuts by Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga has become a talking point among the people. Writing to the President, Minister Ranatunga has proposed slashing 75 percent of the Parliamentarians’ salary, 50 percent salary of the public and private sector employees (except healthcare workers) and 30 percent from other workers to make up for the impact of the lockdown on the economy. Pointing out the hardships faced by informal sector workers and the overall economic woes of the country, he had also been vocal against a full lockdown.

The Minister’s proposal has received mixed reactions. When it comes to the MPs’ income, the critics point out that their salary, which is about Rs. 54,000 for a Parliamentarian and Rs. 65,000 for a Minister, is only a small part of it and the rest comes from other allowances and perks they are entitled to. It is an open secret that some politicians have lucrative businesses of their own and other unspecified sources of income. Therefore, forgoing 75 percent of their salary would not mean the same as public and private sector workers having to sacrifice half of their salary, which is the only income many of them have.       

However, the Government has not decided on anything of the sort yet, and despite the pandemic, it has so far forked out enough money to pay full salaries and allowances of the public service cadre, numbering more than 1.4 million, at due time.    

Even before Minister Ranatunga’s proposal, Trade Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardena came forward to donate his one month’s salary to the ‘COVID-19 Healthcare and Social Security Fund’. Several others in the Government ranks including State Minister Sisira Jayakody followed suit. As the saying goes, ‘Example is better than precept’.

The Cabinet of Ministers on Monday gave the nod to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s proposal to donate their August pay to the COVID-19 Fund. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Parliamentary Group has also decided to contribute to this cause with their August salary. Among them, Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said he would continue to donate his MP salary to provide relief to the needy people until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, State Minister Piyal Nishantha said he was not in a position to donate his salary for anti-Covid efforts as most of it was deducted for a loan. He however has arranged for some of his associates to donate various amounts to the Covid Fund, he said. 

The main Opposition Party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MPs have decided to donate their one month’s salary for purchasing medical equipment required to treat COVID-19 patients. The SJB led by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa launched a social service programme named ‘Vipakshayen Husmak’ (Breath of Life from the Opposition) in May to donate essential health supplies and protective equipment to hospitals from the funds collected by the Party. SJB MPs Harin Fernando and a few others have already donated their one month’s salary to continue this programme.

Mangala’s passing

In another shocking development, former Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera (65) passed away yesterday due to Covid complications at a private hospital in Colombo. Known for his forthright views and opinions on political and social issues, Samaraweera had semi-retired from politics and had withdrawn from the last General Election in August 2020 although his name was on the nominations’ list from the Samagi Jana Balawegaya. He did give press conferences from time to time on various issues. Earlier, former Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara and former MP Dr. Neville Fernando too succumbed to Covid.

Samaraweera, an old boy of Royal College, Colombo, has held important ministerial portfolios including Telecom, Media, Foreign and Finance in a 30-year political career. He left the UPFA over certain differences with the leadership and later joined the UNP. Upon the splintering of that party, he joined the SJB and was one of its leading campaigners until he decided to quit mainstream politics. He was a design consultant before entering politics in the footsteps of his father, the late Mahanama Samaraweera.

– Daily News Sri Lanka

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