Written by Staff Writer
25 Apr, 2020 | 3:39 pm
An excerpt from the interview of the former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with The Hindu, on the current situation in Sri Lanka and South Asia’s humanitarian response to the COVID-19 pandemic:
What is your view on Sri Lanka’s Election Commission scheduling the general elections on June 20? Many opposition parties have opposed the move.
Looking at the numbers now, I am not sure, it is left to the medical experts. What we have suggested is keep testing. Start with a minimum of 3,000 tests and then you will know. If life comes back to normal you can hold elections. And you should. We also want elections. But let the testing go on. Firstly, the economy must start. People are not going to come running out and vote when they can’t eat. The economy must start. And with that people will then come for elections. Key to that is testing, testing, testing! And we are saying start with 3,000. That is not enough. But at least build the capacity for that and then keep doubling it.
At the moment Sri Lanka does about 1000 tests a day, isn’t it?
Yes, they are now trying to come to 1,000. But they have to keep increasing.
Are there enough testing kits?
You can buy, there’s enough in the market — you may have to pay a bit more — even if it takes a bit of time. What if there’s a second wave? Or a third wave? Japan is looking at a second wave, South Korea is looking at a second wave, Germany, China, England is talking about it.
You emphasise the SAARC’s role in combating COVID-19. Countries in the region have each pledged funds – Sri Lanka has pledged $5 million, for instance – to the recently set up SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Fund. However, each country is administering its funds based on requests made bilaterally, rather than through a common pool.
There has to be a common centre. The SAARC Secretariat and someone who is in charge. The Secretariat itself has limited staff, so you must have someone in-charge of it. I think it may be better if they are placed somewhere more centrally, working with relevant medical authorities.
We should also ask countries such as Japan for contributions. I am sure Japan would like to come in. Any other country as well – whether it US or China or anyone else willing, then the World Bank, ADB [Asian Development Bank]. We should get together and work on this. India is a member of BRICS, so let them also make some contribution. That would set an example. The EU is still fighting on a EU fund.
What are the prospects for re-activating the tourism sector in the region?
We need to work on regional tourism, we can keep moving around and encouraging that. Indians come here, they are the largest [source market], Pakistanis also come here. To boost tourism, we need more testing, and the economies must go ahead because tourists need money. People aren’t going to come from a distance. Europeans may not come. Maybe some from the Middle East. But this [region] is where the numbers are.
You referred to Sri Lanka’s strong public health system earlier. Sri Lanka’s response has been relatively effective mainly because of the inherent strengths of your public health infrastructure. Do you think going forward, there’s a need for greater public investment in key areas like health?
We have to go in for preventive health. But again, we must look at the shortcomings. At the moment though we have been strong on having the lockdowns, we have not got on to testing. Testing is what we all have to do. If governments get into testing, that is a big opportunity to create employment – while addressing the need for medical equipment, the demand for hand sanitisers. India is a big market, so is Pakistan, so is Bangladesh – now that’s larger than China.
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