BY UDITHA KUMARASINGHE
Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said he has pleaded with the Opposition not to get involved in politics with the Covid-19 pandemic. The Opposition, somehow, wants to get onto a platform either within Parliament or outside to criticise and drag the Government into unnecessary arguments on this issue.
The Minister, in an interview with the Sunday Observer, said he requests everyone in the Opposition to set aside green, blue or red party colours and other petty political differences and concentrate on the Covid-19 management system that the Government has put in place. “We urge the Opposition if there are serious shortcomings on our part, point them out without resorting to negative criticism.
We are prepared to accept that as long as the management of Covid-19 is carried out within the framework of the WHO guidelines,” he said. The Minister said Sri Lanka’s vaccination program is at its best, and we are within the first five countries in terms of vaccination. He said the inputs, capacity and the leadership by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa towards the vaccination drive should be appreciated.
Q: You have told UNICEF that Sri Lanka has reached an important milestone in combatting the Covid-19 pandemic. Could you explain?
A: There are certain guidelines to be practised if we have to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic. We had a few hiccups at early stages. We were struggling to get vaccines among other issues. Then public awareness was not as much as it is now. We remember how the public behaved during Sinhala New Year with all the health guidelines given. They ignored health guidelines and didn’t take much care. Today, the scenario is different. Our vaccination program is at its best. We are within the first five countries in terms of vaccination. The majority of the people are trying to adjust to the new normal and accept certain things and behave with the acceptance of Covid protocols.
Q: How do you view the success of the Government’s Covid-19 vaccination drive?
A: The President himself took this as his personal responsibility. He mustered all the people who were needed to make this exercise a success. He spearheaded the program. Its results are seen today. Down the line, we all have contributed to it. It is my duty to mention the inputs, capacity and the leadership by the President towards this vaccination drive. That has to be remembered, respected and appreciated.
Q: Health experts have said that the people should work with responsibility rather than engaging in activities that would lead to another Covid-19 outbreak? Would you like to comment?
A: We have kept on saying that. We will be doing so in the future as well. Because it may be for another one year, we need to respect and accept the mechanisms that are in place as Covid protocols. People have an important role in this whole management of the Covid-19 pandemic. That is where we stand.
Q: Attempts are made by certain groups to speak against some vaccine brands by spreading misconceptions. Your views?
A: We are not isolated in that whole issue. Because in the world, you have one or two segments who are vehemently working against the vaccines with various beliefs and rumours that are spreading. We are not scared of in that exercise. We are doing propaganda campaigns and pushing the people to get their vaccines. If you take the statistics of the Covid-19 related deaths, nearly 75 percent of those who died had not received even one dose of the vaccine. Only six or seven percent of the people who died had taken both doses of the vaccine, but all of them had various comorbidities.
Q: Is there any truth in the international reports that the UK is yet to approve Sri Lanka’s vaccine certificates, while the US has stated it will not recognise the Russian-made Sputnik V Vaccine?
A: Certain countries do not accept whatever the guidelines issued by the WHO. The European Union says one thing. The UK says something else. We are having certain issues with regard to that. The WHO’s guidelines should followed globally. With regard to the UK, there are certain errors on our part as well, which we are trying to correct. The technology part of this was handled by one of the foreign companies. However, Minister Namal Rajapaksa gave me the assurance that this will be corrected within the next few days. The certificate holder’s date of birth is not mentioned in our QR code. That is the reason for this issue. I am sure it will be corrected within the next couple of days.
Q: You have said that during the past few weeks, the Government observed that many youngsters were hesitant to receive Sinopharm, AstraZeneca and Sputnik V Vaccines due to fears of not being eligible to enter certain countries?
A: There are certain countries which have made certain announcements despite the WHO’s recommendations. But gradually, they all are coming to one stand and say if WHO accepted vaccines are taken, they would accept it. However, it will take some time, but we are doing our best to sort that out on our part.
Q: Is there any truth in the speculation that university students have turned down getting Covid-19 vaccines as they preferred Pfizer vaccines to Chinese vaccines?
A: Yes. There had been some discussions, protests and disagreements in taking any other vaccines except Pfizer. But there is no scientific proof except for those of the ages of 12-15 and 15-19 with comorbidities. We have accepted that and are administering the vaccines.
Q: Will the permission be granted to resume tuition classes subject to health guidelines?
A: We are planning to grant permission to resume tuition classes from November 1. We are now monitoring it. We would be able to resume tuition classes with limitations and following health guidelines.
Q: Has a final decision been taken to give a third dose of the Covid-19 vaccine?
A: Yes. We have ordered 14.5 million vaccines for the purpose.
Q: There were reports that authorities were looking into the possibility of making the possession of the Covid-19 vaccination card mandatory. Has any decision been taken in this regard?
A: There is a worldwide discussion about it. Sri Lanka has also joined that. We need to look at the legal system and constitutional provisions for the purpose. It is in a way to encourage eligible people to get the vaccine. You have the right to your life, but you don’t have the right to somebody else’s life.
Q: How do you view the attempts by the Opposition to sabotage the Government’s vaccination drive rather than extending their support to make it a success?
A: I have explained and pleaded with them not to get involved in politics with the Covid-19 pandemic. They, somehow, want to get onto the platform either within Parliament or outside to criticise and drag us into unnecessary arguments regarding this. I request everyone in the Opposition to set aside green, blue or red party colours and other petty political differences and concentrate on the Covid-19 management system that we have put in place. We urge the Opposition if there are serious shortcomings on our part, point them out without resorting to negative criticism. We are prepared to accept that as long as the management of Covid-19 is carried out within the framework of the WHO guidelines.
Q: There are media speculations that the allocation for the health sector in the upcoming Budget will exceed the allocation for defence, and it will be the highest allocation for the next year. Your comments?
A: I suppose. Let’s wait and see as there is a couple of weeks to present the Budget.
Q: The nationalist movements once again raised objections to the holding of Provincial Council elections, claiming the Government should instead focus on introducing a new Constitution, as promised by the SLPP led ruling coalition in the run-up to the 2019 Presidential Election?
A: The President is also of the same view. The President says strongly and precisely that at least the electoral reforms should take place. The President said in two Cabinet meetings that electoral reforms should be brought and implemented as early as possible. Provincial Council elections have been postponed indefinitely by the previous Government. They even tried to postpone the Local Government elections, but we fought and finally got it. We believe in democracy. One of the strong cornerstones of democracy is to have elections at the right time as we did during our tenure in office earlier. Now, we are held up as we are confronted with legal and constitutional issues. Otherwise, we would like to have whatever elections in terms of their stipulated period and go to the public. We are not scared to go to the public. We don’t want to withdraw that right from the public. Unfortunately, the previous Government didn’t think so.
Q: Farmers countrywide engage in protests due to lack of fertiliser to cultivate in the Maha season. Is there any truth in this?
A: I see this is an orchestrated and well-organised movement against the Government. There is a truth to some extent that in certain areas, there is a shortage of fertiliser. At the same time, we have given a solemn guarantee that if the harvest of an acre cultivated by farmers has come down due to the lack of fertiliser or whatever the reason, we will compensate them. However, this transformation period from chemical fertiliser to organic fertiliser is a huge challenge. The President and the Government have taken up that challenge. We will have certain issues, but we are preparing for the transformation and provide solutions to problems.
Q: The Opposition says people are suffering unbearably as the Government has permitted price hikes on commodities. Your comments?
A: The choice was whether we allowed traders to get the realistic prices. Prices on fuel and all commodities have gone up in the global market. Even China says their production has come down. We need to tell the truth to our people. Whatever and wherever we can subsidise, we will do so. But the Government must have an income. Its income has dropped to unbelievable levels. The Government has to manage the situation. However, managing this is not a joke. It is serious.