BY KATHYA DE SILVA SENARATH
It was two years ago that the nation awoke to a new dawn of hope under the leadership of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Two years ago, the country was set in motion towards ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ as directed by the President’s manifesto and it was a journey of triumph and tribulation since then.
The Government was not without criticism during this period, marked by hardship and economic stagnation resulting from a global pandemic. This can be called one of history’s hardest periods for the entire world and the most challenging for a Government to take over. Although the Government had to face disappointment and frustration along the way, achievements during this period are many too, which also need to be highlighted.
Among the highlights are the Government’s efforts to control the spread of Covid-19. Immediately after the first patient was detected, the country’s health sector set the precautionary measures in motion. Lockdowns were imposed throughout the country, concentrating on the risk areas and the Government was able to control the Covid spread without letting it go out of hand. Early precautions proved effective and the nation was able to come out of a lockdown quite quickly compared to other countries.
It was only with the Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebrations this year that Sri Lanka saw a surge in the number of cases. Alongside the vaccination program to control this, the Government adopted other measures such as home-based care so that the Covid spread in the community was minimised. Intermediate care management centres were also established and hospitals undertook serious cases.
Significantly, the 1390 hotline operating 24/7 with over 50 call centre agents, provides information and guidance to Covid patients. It is also a monitoring system with qualified doctors.
Sri Lanka has a vaccination drive hailed by the international community including the WHO as one of the most successful compared to other countries. Priority was given to frontline workers including the healthcare staff and the Government successfully carried out its island-wide vaccination program.
As of today, over 13.8 million people were vaccinated with the first dose and over 11.12 million with the second dose, according to the Ministry of Health.
Commending Sri Lanka’s vaccination drive, Dr. Alaka Singh, WHO Representative to Sri Lanka said, “it has been successful both in terms of coverage as well as preventing severe disease and hospitalisation”.
Considering only the eligible population, she noted that Sri Lanka has vaccinated over 85 percent, administering more than 14 million doses. “This is a remarkable achievement,” she said.
The third dose of the vaccine is now being administered to frontline workers while children above 12 years are also in the process of getting their first dose prioritising at-risk groups.
Education is another area where the Government adopted innovative and creative changes to face challenges that came with Covid.
To continue with education in the midst of curfews, the Government promoted distance learning using technology, supported children with special needs, and ensured safety in schools before opening.
It was even more challenging for the Government as it had to face a teacher and principal strike in the midst of the pandemic. To ensure that students are not left idle as a result, the Government made use of state media channels to air educational programs for all age groups despite the boycott by teachers. The Government also ensured that important national examinations were held so that students faced all educational milestones.
After numerous discussions with trade unions, the Government came up with a plan to meet teachers’ demands by providing salary hikes. The annual cost for the Government for the proposed salary increases is Rs.33 billion for teachers and principals combined. Of this, Rs.32 billion is for teachers alone. It was also declared a ‘closed service’as per the trade union demands.
After overcoming the hurdles one by one, the Government was able to open schools again on a priority basis, ensuring that children get a holistic education despite the many challenges.
The country’s economy was hard-hit due to Covid although most problems had been visible for decades before the pandemic.
The Government is now tasked with reviving the economy by creating an investor-friendly environment while opening up the country safely for tourism. It has already ventured on this path with tourist-friendly policies in place to make Sri Lanka an attractive destination.
All eyes are on the Port City Colombo that predicts Sri Lanka to become the gateway to South Asia within the next couple of decades. Therefore, an enabling environment is being created for investors through the Port City Economic Commission for ease of doing business.
The reclaimed land of Port City Colombo was declared as a part of Sri Lanka and amalgamated into the Colombo administrative district through a Parliament resolution in 2019. Moreover, the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill recently passed in Parliament makes it clear that Port City would be under Sri Lanka’s jurisdiction busting many myths surrounding the project.
As a measure to support those affected by the pandemic and recognising that the Small and Medium Enterprises are the backbone of Sri Lanka’s economy, the Government took several relief measures by introducing a wide range of fiscal and financial concessions. Daily wage earners and low-income groups were also supported through grants of cash and dry rations during lockdowns, adding significantly to state expenditure.
Even in the midst of a pandemic and the resulting negative outcomes that previous Governments never had to grapple with, the Government under President Rajapaksa did not shy away from its responsibility to the environment and global commitments to climate change. As he told the UN earlier in September, Sri Lanka adheres to the Buddhist teachings that gives guidance on environmental protection. “The Buddha has laid importance on spreading loving kindness to all beings and coexisting with nature rather than conquering it,” the President stressed.
Sri Lanka is a Commonwealth Blue Charter Champion and leads the Action Group on Mangrove Restoration. Through the adoption of the Colombo Declaration on Sustainable Nitrogen Management, which seeks to halve nitrogen waste by 2030, Sri Lanka has also contributed to global efforts to reduce environmental pollution, the President told the UN.
It is to this effect that the Government took a very unpopular decision on the fertiliser issue, halting all chemical fertiliser and pesticides from overseas and encouraging farmers to go back to their roots where sustainable farming practices were the order of the day. To reduce the burden on farmers, production and adoption of organic fertiliser, as well as investments into organic agriculture, are being incentivised.
Upholding Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and ensuring national security had been the hallmark of this Government since its inception while security and stability are core elements of its economic policy.
In keeping with its non-aligned policy, the Government strives to further the goals of accountability and reconciliation through home-grown mechanism and engaging domestic stakeholders rather than leaving room for foreign interference.
In that sense, the Government is indeed a people’s Government; a Government that holds its head high in the face of any challenge.