A commendable gesture | Sunday Observer

A commendable gesture

18 April, 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected all segments of society in every country, regardless of whether they are rich and poor. But it is the economically deprived segments in every country that has felt the most severe effects of Covid-19.

Not only are they more susceptible to Covid-19 itself due to cramped living conditions., but also the lockdowns and other restrictions imposed in the wake of the pandemic affected their day-to-day livelihoods.

Hence the disproportionate effect of Covid-19 on the marginalised and the poor in societies around the world. It is no secret that the poor bear the brunt of any disease and Covid-19 is no exception.

But only a few countries have had a formal system to extricate the poor from this Covid-19 induced plight.

Sri Lanka is a prime example of a developing country that took care of its underprivileged segments from the very start of the pandemic back in March last year.

Sri Lanka has several pillars of strength that make this possible. First, Sri Lanka has an enviable Universal Health Care (UHC) system that is free for all citizens (regardless of income levels) and even for foreigners who use its Government healthcare facilities.

In fact, every Government has invested in and developed the free healthcare system which is almost on par with those of the developed countries.

Some of its health indices match or even exceed the similar indices for developed countries. This means that any Sri Lankan, rich or poor, who gets Covid-19 is assured of the best possible treatments and care at a Government-run hospital somewhere in the island.

Those who had come into contact with Covid-19 infected persons were quarantined at Government-run centres free. This way, poverty is no bar to receiving the best medical care for Covid-19 in Sri Lanka.

The country’s vaccination drive (which has now been temporarily halted due to factors beyond the Government’s control) is also entirely free for all citizens, rich or poor. Once the Covishield and Sputnik V vaccines arrive in their numbers, Sri Lanka would be on track to inoculate all its citizens except schoolchildren and pregnant women by the end of the current year.

Besides the free healthcare system, there are other fallback systems that take care of our poor and vulnerable citizens.

The Samurdhi (Prosperity) poverty alleviation drive is one such program. It is aimed at ultimately achieving self-reliance for poor people who are Samurdhi recipients rather giving them a ‘dole’ per se monthly.

Sri Lanka’s poverty rate has come down drastically over the decades, but there is still a substantial number of people who depend on this program.

Having realised the difficulties faced by the underprivileged communities due to the complexities of the pandemic, the Government paid multiple allowances of Rs.5, 000 for millions of Sri Lankans during the lockdown period that began in March 2020.

This was much appreciated by all, as they would have become destitute otherwise, their daily vocations having disappeared owing to the strict lockdown. Moreover, the Government granted concessions for vehicle leasing, bank loans and tourism activities due to the economic difficulties faced by the populace.

This time too, the Government has not forgotten or neglected these communities.

Although there is no lockdown, the economy has not rebounded completely and some segments of economic activity are at a standstill.

Hence, there was an acute need to help them to tide over the Avurudu period and enjoy the festivities unhindered.

It is with this aim in mind that the Government expened Rs. 15 billion to pay a Rs. 5,000 allowance to three million low-income families for the Sinhala and Tamil New Year.

This initiative was mooted at the request of the Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on Poverty Alleviation, Basil Rajapaksa and on the instructions of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Former Minister Basil Rajapaksa had suggested that this allowance should be paid as a solution to the economic difficulties faced by the people during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year season.

Families belonging to seven categories received this benefit. There may be families belonging to several categories but each family receives only one allowance of Rs.5, 000.

This facility has also been extended to low income earners in the Muslim community who are fasting during Ramadan, which is now under way. This is a great gesture from the Government especially at a time when it faces economic constraints precipitated by the Coronavirus pandemic. This shows the Government’s commitment to the underprivileged communities who would otherwise have been left out of the Avurudu celebrations countrywide.

One could argue that Rs.5, 000 is not much given today’s economic climate, but that is better than nothing and can be a lifesaver for many families who lead a hand-to-mouth existence in these pandemic times. The Government alone cannot battle the scourge of Covid-19. The entire society must fight it by observing the health guidelines to the letter.

We must remember at all times that we are experiencing a “New Normal” period which might continue at least for two more years.

Even if vaccination is 100 percent successful, it will not necessarily mean that the danger is over as the virus is mutating and variants are arriving at a rapid pace. It is, therefore, advisable to follow health guidelines such as wearing masks, washing hands frequently and social (physical) distancing at all times.

It is only through a combination of vaccination and preventive strategies that we can hope to defeat the contagion and get the economy back on the correct track towards prosperity.