Defensive measures against the novel Coronavirus ‘COVID-19’ reached a peak this week with an islandwide curfew and the Government taking swift decisions pulling together its apparatus in the face of uniquely challenging times.
True to the saying ‘desperate times call for desperate measures’, the order of the day was to arrest the spread of Coronavirus, so that normality can be restored, and nothing really mattered than that.
As social distancing was the golden rule to prevent the spread of the disease, the Government heeding the advice of health specialists, imposed a curfew over the weekend, then extended it, and declared the country’s first-ever ‘work from home’ week.
The Special Task Force of professionals, headed by former Western Province Governor Dr. Seetha Arambepola, and the National Operation Centre, headed by Army Commander Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva, were in full swing mobilizing Security Forces, health officials and other stakeholders at the ground level to prevent the COVID-19 contagion in Sri Lanka.
It was encouraging to see how people disciplined themselves to maintain one-metre distance at many supermarkets in the areas where the curfew was temporarily lifted on Monday and yesterday. This was in stark contrast to how people behaved last Friday. The amazing public cooperation shows that the people have started acting more responsibly when they got the message right.
At the same time, the Government had to make sure that all essential services and the supply chain of food and Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) continue with limited manpower. Lagging behind in technology, many state and private firms were not in a position to cope with a novel concept of ‘work from home’, but the attempt says that it is not impossible for the country’s workforce to get there.
Those in the informal sector, who depend on daily wages, were badly affected due to the unprecedented obstacles and risks posed by the epidemic. Understanding the need to lessen the burden on them, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced a host of relief measures, while also setting up a special fund named “COVID-19 Healthcare and Social Security Fund” with an initial capital of Rs. 100 million from the President’s Fund.
The relief measures include extended grace periods for payment of utility bills, taxes, credit cards, loan instalments and lease on three-wheelers. Samurdhi beneficiaries will be provided an interest free advance of Rs 10,000 and they together with other low-income families will receive essential food items weekly through ‘Food Cards’.
The Cabinet last week approved Rs. 500 million to be immediately utilized for the purpose of combating Coronavirus, while rolling out a stimulus package for those involved in the tourism, garment and Information Technology (IT) industries and migrant workers, and small scale industrialists and entrepreneurs, who have been dealt a severe blow due to the global pandemic.
The President, using the provisions in the Constitution that gave him the authority to approve necessary funds when Parliament is dissolved, warranted obtaining required funds from the Consolidated Fund for the above measures and paying out the previous government’s unsettled bills.
These measures were despite the fact that the country’s economy was melting down and Sri Lankan Rupee was fast depreciating against US dollar, a common plight faced by many economies including developed ones around the world amidst the Coronavirus outbreak.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, making special statements, emphasized that the Government had paid great attention to the people’s lives and was trying to minimize discomfort for the people.
Responding to the calls to convene an ‘All Party Conference’ to discuss the situation, the PM yesterday convened a Party Leaders’ Meeting at Temple Trees.
At a time many politicians, irrespective of party lines, admired and extended their support unreservedly to the Government’s efforts, UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and its break-away group ‘Samagi Jana Balavegaya’ (SJB) Leader Sajith Premadasa were seen nit-picking.
Wickremesinghe argued that no expenditure could be incurred from the Consolidated Fund after the Vote of Account lapses on April 30. He contended that Parliament should be re-summoned to get the funds approved.
PM Mahinda Rajapaksa locked horns with Wickremesinghe over the above claim stating that it was “a dastardly attempt to use legal arguments to block Government finances and sabotage the anti-Coronavirus campaign”. He reminded that it was the same Opposition that blocked the Government’s attempt to pass the necessary funds in Parliament on February 20.
He pointed out that former Opposition Leader Premadasa was also repeating similar claims via the social media. “It can be seen that the two factions in the UNP are vying with one another to make political capital out of the Coronavirus epidemic. The public should not entertain any fears about the availability of funds for the anti-Coronavirus campaign and to maintain other Government services,” the Premier said.
Premadasa, who was posting videos one after the other to social media, recently added a bizarre video where he thought fit to “advise” the Government on the medication that needs to be prescribed for Covid-19 patients in Sri Lanka. Later, medical professionals pointed out that those claims were misleading and unproven.
Campaigns on hold
The political landscape was in a lull as all trained their guns on the Coronavirus determined to win the battle against it. Sanity prevailed as National Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya announced the indefinite postponement of the General Election previously scheduled for April 25. He made the announcement soon after he received that authority after the nominations were closed on March 19.
The Chairman said in no uncertain terms that holding the election would solely depend on how effectively the country would fight ‘COVID-19’. The Commission on Saturday issued a Gazette stating that the election would be re-fixed to a date coming after May 14.
In a Facebook post, Deshapriya said that the preferential vote (Manapey) numbers of the candidates would not be issued until a new date is fixed for the election.
“We can think about fixing a new date only after April 20. That is after the Sinhala and Tamil New Year season, and about one month since the postponement of the election. Therefore I request all political parties, candidates, their supporters and political activists to suspend all political campaigns and help combat our common enemy ‘COVID-19’. I also request them not to engage in any indirect propaganda during this period by way of distributing freebies. They are also requested to halt propaganda through the media,” Deshapriya said.
Many candidates, except few callous individuals, had put their campaigns on hold even prior to this announcement mindful of their social responsibility.
Over 7,400 candidates
Meanwhile, according to the Election Commission, a total of 7,452 candidates are contesting this year’s General Election, an increase of 1,301 candidates compared to the last General Election. Out of them, 3,652 candidates are contesting from political parties and the rest from independent groups.
In the 2015 General Election, a total of 6,151 candidates contested from 21 political parties and 201 independent groups. A record number of 7,680 candidates entered the fray in the 2010 General Election from 36 political parties and 366 independent groups.
Accordingly, the total number of candidates in the forthcoming election has exceeded the 2015 number and has come close to the record in 2010. Only 196 electorally successful candidates will get the opportunity to represent the country’s Legislature together with another 29 appointees from the National List.
Like in the last Presidential Polls, where a record number of 35 candidates vied for the country’s highest office, the large number of candidates at the upcoming polls will spiral the cost of election, which will have to be obtained from the public purse. The Cabinet last week approved Rs 8 billion to the Election Commission for the expenses of holding the General Election. This money is being forked out by the Treasury when there is an economic downturn owing to COVID-19. Also, the higher the number of candidates, the higher the burden on the Election Commission to coordinate the election-related activities. But now is the time to focus solely on containing COVID-19, leaving politics aside.