President Gotabaya Rajapaksa chairing a meeting on COVID-19 impact containment measures
Today we are witnessing a new risk experience, a global pandemic which one gets to experience in a lifetime. Sri Lanka has experienced many natural and manmade disasters and has successfully recovered most. Therefore, the lessons and experiences gained during the disasters will certainly help them recover from these risks to some extent; however the coronavirus infection which is spreading today is new risk which has affected not only developing countries, but many developed countries as well.
In this context, the economic and human losses of many countries have been a major challenge globally, and as IMF warns will be a too larger damage to recover from due to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Due to the whole of Government and whole of the society approach that Sri Lanka took we have been able to successfully contain the disease to a certain extent.
The immediate measure we took is an example for other countries i.e. immediate lockdown, initiating quarantine, relief measures to solve economic problems. As the WHO Chief has alluded, Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to take proactive steps against the coronavirus, well before it was declared a pandemic by the WHO. This is an indication of great leadership of our country in this disaster situation.
Leadership and international cooperation
Only a sober leader can bring the country under control. Also, good partnerships with other countries and agencies can only be mutually beneficial. Our President Gotabaya Rajapakshe set an example by demonstrating this in the absence of a parliamentary function in the country today.
He has continuously emphasised that during this situation what’s most important is that the people of the country should be saved – although some continuously seem to lack understand the gravity of the situation and are trying to politicise the situation. Given are below some good decisions and measures that were taken by the President to restore the country.
Firstly, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa proposed to leaders of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to formulate a collective response to combat COVID-19. He further called for a SAARC Ministerial Meeting to discuss measures to overcome this deadly health threat.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made this point clear in the teleconference with SAARC leaders, where he pledged $ 5 million towards mitigation efforts. So now, people realise that today “we have a great leader from a small country”.
Sri Lanka has used its powerful quarantine laws and the well-established free healthcare system to take all measures to prevent the spread of the pandemic. It was an added advantage that Sri Lanka already consisted of a good network of healthcare facilities and preventive health network that could be utilised.
In a further sign of international recognition of Sri Lanka’s handling of this unprecedented crisis, the World Bank too has pledged $ 128.6 million (approx. Rs. 25,000 million) to Sri Lanka. The new fast-track package will benefit the entire Sri Lankan population and prioritise stopping or slowing the spread of the virus, reducing case numbers, and preventing outbreaks in communities.
On 23 March, a relief fund called ‘COVID-19 Healthcare and Social Security Fund’ was launched to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic. The President himself contributed about Rs. 100 million from the President’s Fund. Additionally the general public was given the opportunity to delay the monthly electricity and water payments until 30 April.
Further the Government did not neglect the agriculture and services sector and has taken necessary actions to resolve the issues faced by them by allowing farmers, estate workers, bankers, fishermen and cleaners to carry on their duties amid curfews. The benefit of this was twofold, the services were not interrupted and the daily earnings of these people was not affected.
Government immediate measures
Work from Home: The ‘Work from Home’ action taken by the Government to control the disease highlights the fact that learning from global counterparts we too initiated the immediate measures. Public gathering were banned and that public and private sector were urged to use technological means such as e-mail, SMS, telephone, and e-meetings. These new technologies were incorporated to our system with ease, something which should have done long time ago to cut down unnecessary expenditure. A leader with a global vision could only do these and although being a resource poor country our President Gotabaya Rajapaksa laid the ground for this. Work from Home assures public services continue without any disruption meanwhile essential services including health, public administration, transportation, banking, food, water, electricity, etc. intact.
Reduced essential goods prices: Considering the urgency and the economic hardships of the people, the President has reduced the cost of many essential goods. It is a great comfort to the people i.e. price controls on lentils, capped at Rs. 65 a kilogram, and fixed a maximum retail price of Rs. 100 for canned fish. Maximum retail price of eggs has been reduced to Rs. 10.
Home delivery services: While the curfew was in force, the program of providing essential services at the doorstep of the people was begun and people did not need to go out to meet their needs. That is commendable. The Government has also urged the main supermarkets of the country such as Cargills, Arpico, Keells Super, Sathosa and LAUGFS to sell the products to the customers via home delivery methods. It’s better late than never. Sri Lanka never had these facilities earlier. However the majority of countries had such facilities and it would be helpful if these are continued even after controlling the disease.
The President’s relief measures for import and export goods and others: The President has issued directives to the Central Bank Governor, all ministry secretaries, chief secretaries of Provincial Councils, heads of all banks and leasing companies to grant these relief measures for the economic recovery of the country’s people. Listed below are the most important decisions so far:
- In the interest of the public, the Sri Lanka Ports Authority, Sri Lanka Customs and all other regulatory bodies have taken all measures to continue the issuance of all essential food items, fertiliser, medicine and fuel – uninterrupted.
- Clearance of imported essential goods: Arrangements have been made to facilitate the clearance of imported essential goods such as food items, perishable goods, medicines, medical devices and related items. Further, bulk cargo such as gas, petroleum, fertilisers, cement, etc., and any raw material or commodity intended for the production of essential goods shall also be cleared during this period.
- Clearance of urgent exports: Arrangements have been made to facilitate the clearance of urgent exports. However, a limited number of exports will be facilitated per day to prevent unnecessary overcrowding.
- The trainee salary of Rs. 20,000 for the month of March, of all graduates who were recruited, will be deposited to their bank accounts.
- The benefits of the ‘Agrahara Insurance Claim’ at the National Insurance Trust Fund, for all State employees in the sectors of health, police and civil security forces will be doubled.
- The charging of leasing instalments of three-wheeler owners have been suspended for six months while the charging of loan payments in instalment basis of non-executive staff of both public and private sectors, from their salaries has been suspended till 30 May 2020.
- The charging of personal loans below Rs. 1 million granted by all banks has been suspended for three months.
- The six months grace period or the debt moratorium for the tourism, textile, small and medium scale businesses will be implemented and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka will undertake the refinance of that money.
- The settlement of all revenue and Value Added Taxes, payment of renewal of drivers’ license, payment of electricity and water bills that are below Rs. 15,000, payment of rates, the validity of bank cheques, payment of monthly credit card bills of below Rs. 50,000, extended until 30 April.
- An advance of Rs. 10,000 free of interest to be provided for all Samurdhi recipients and those holding the Samurdhi card.
- Lanka Sathosa Ltd. and all Co-operative stores in the country will be released of Value Added Taxes and other divisional taxes and charges.
- Sri Lanka Samurdhi Authority must immediately issue certificates of the beneficiary for all Samurdhi recipients and low-income families, to facilitate the issuance of nutritious food. Rice, dhal and onion must be provided for those families, elders and those with a low income, weekly, through food cards.
- A special account has been opened in the President’s Fund at the Bank of Ceylon to provide concessions to ensure the health and security of the society, in preventing the spread of COVID-19. A sum of Rs. 100 million has already been deposited to the account from the President’s Fund.
- The Government has announced a fresh measure to establish a task force to be headed by former Minister Basil Rajapaksa to deliver parcels of goods to households
Parliament and Provincial Councils are defunct. The President of the country is leading the fight against the coronavirus, combining several advanced measures, including State and private sector employees, with the three forces.
Due to the timely good measures, this pandemic has caused a very few deaths and the number of cases has not surged compared to other countries.
This would not be possible without a strong leadership. This is the trust that our people placed on him; a good leadership to steer the country towards development. However it also has to be mentioned that the President makes all his decisions based on the facts and figures the technical people whom he has placed his trust in give him.
It’s our duty to carry on the task duty bound and not breaching the trust he placed on us without vested interest. Otherwise, it would be catastrophic like other countries and the generations to come would have to bear the brunt. We as citizens in this country appreciate his leadership in this crisis.
(The writer is Assistant Director, NHRDC, Ministry of National Policies and Economic Affairs.)