Colombo Telegraph

Ebola, Globalisation And Sri Lanka In 2039

By Charitha Ratwatte –

Charitha Ratwatte

The Ceylon Chamber’s 175th anniversary celebration

At the recent 175th anniversary celebrations of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, its Chairman Suresh Shah provided a ‘fast forward’ , describing how the business community wished Sri Lanka would be in the year 2039, when the Chamber will celebrate its 100th year of existence.

In summary the picture the Chairman presented was of a country having a strong globalised and regional presence in the worlds markets. He said: “Sri Lankan brands are on the shelves around the world and components made by our companies are in high demand. Many Sri Lankan firms have a strong regional presence and whilst some have a global footprint.” In essence the Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce emphasised the need for Sri Lankan policymakers and businessmen to accept and fully buy into globalisation and position the nation as a key player in the world market.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was the Chief Guest at the event, also spoke in a futuristic context: “When taking political decisions we always took a very long term view of issues, and did not focus merely on the immediate and short term time horizon. When we developed the infrastructure of our country we were not thinking of the next five years or the next election, but about the next 100 years and beyond… When we built ports, airports, highways roads and power plants, we were not thinking only about you and your children, but also about the unborn generations of all Sri Lankans. When we made massive investments in education and health, we were not only thinking of our present generation of young persons, but also about the future work force, that is needed to face the challenges of the 21st century… Our country has reached its present level of development and success as a result of that long term vision, as well as the tremendous sacrifices and efforts millions of our people, over the past several years.”

The implementation of universal franchise, the investments in free education and free healthcare, land settlement schemes, integrated rural development, etc., integrated rural development schemes and poverty alleviation projects all played a vital role in this long and arduous journey described by the President.

However, speaking further the President cautioned: “However, we must all remember that there is still a lot more work to be done. The massive investments our country has made so far must now be utilised more effectively to generate greater economic benefits to all our people. The wider opportunities that have been created must be distributed in a fair manner among all our stakeholders. The 6% of our people, who are still in poverty, must be targeted for upliftment very quickly so that they would not be left behind, when our country moves to greater heights. The developments of the future must be made sufficiently inclusive to touch the lives of all our people in all our districts in a uniform and fair manner… On this happy occasion, let us firmly dedicate ourselves to contribute our diligent efforts to develop our beloved motherland to reach even greater heights, in the years to come.”

Both the leader of big business and the leader of the nation therefore were unanimous in placing Sri Lanka on a futuristic trajectory towards a holistic inclusively developed nation, well positioned in a globalised economy.


One of the most practical definitions of globalisation is one composed by Narayana Murthy, one of the founders of Infosys, the Indian software giant, whose company was one of the pioneers in India’s tsunami of software development companies which dominate the world stage. Simply put, he said globalisation in essence is ‘procuring your raw material and human resources from the most competitive location, as regards price, manufacturing, processing  or adding value, at the least expensive location and selling for  the highest possible global price, without paying any heed to national boundaries’.

For nations not only to survive, but even to thrive, in the future, globalisation is the challenge which must be faced up to, internalised and, measures put into place to win in the global market. Language skills, communication facilities, infrastructure, sensible border controls, improving transparency and reducing corruption, sensible rules as to foreign investments , including ownership of land in the long and medium term are all factors which will play a role in how a nation is placed in a globalised context.

Ebola epidemic

However globalisation also has a downside, such as the internationalisation of crime, including drug trafficking and child pornography and abuse, betting syndicates corrupting international sports competitions, etc. But nothing symbolises the dangers of globalisation more that the present epidemic of the Ebola virus spreading in West Africa, which the world is trying desperately to stop spreading out of the ‘Black Continent’.

The first case in the present epidemic was discovered in Kailahun District of Eastern Sierra Leone in late May this year. The Government immediately put out a series of messages advising people on how to recognise and avoid the disease – among other things by avoiding exposure to the victim’s blood, sweat, and saliva or to dead bodies. However the people took little notice and the virus spread rapidly. It has already killed at least 670 people in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

Many health workers have expressed frustration at what they see as villagers’ unreasonable refusal to accept advice that could save their lives. But in truth, access to state services in rural areas in the countries in which Ebola is spreading still barely exists. Also government medical services have done little to win the confidence of people who often prefer to use traditional healers.

So far this year there have been more than 1,200 confirmed, suspected or probable cases of Ebola in West Africa. Ebola has no vaccine or known cure and kills up to 90% of those infected. It is transmitted to people by wild animals or by other infected patients. Fruit bats, often eaten by people living in that region of West Africa, are thought to host the Ebola virus, which starts with flu-like symptoms but can impair the kidney and the liver and may also damage blood cells, causing external and internal bleeding. The maximum incubation period is three weeks. The present outbreak was confined to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea until 25 July, when the first case was reported in Lagos Nigeria, when an American of Liberian origin, who had flown in from Liberia, died.

Containing Ebola’s spread

The spread of this current outbreak of the Ebola virus, which originated in Sierra Leone, from Guinea to Liberia in March this year, shows how tracking the finite details of affected people’s life patterns, relationships, reactions, etc. will be fundamental in containing Ebola’s spread.

Experts have found that the first case in Guinea had been a woman who went to a local market and then returned unwell to her village in neighbouring northern Liberia. During her sickness, the patient’s sister cared for her and in doing so contacted the Ebola virus herself, before the sister died of the haemorrhagic fever the Ebola virus causes. The surviving sister, feeling unwell and fearing death wanted to see her husband – an internal migrant worker then employed on the other aide of Liberia on a Firestone rubber plantation. So she took a communal taxi, with some others, via Liberia’s capital, exposing the five other people in the taxi to the virus. The five later died of Ebola.

In Monrovia she changed to a motorcycle, riding on the pillion on the motorcycle of a young man who agreed to take her to the plantation and whom the health authorities are, when last reported, trying desperately to trace. The woman later died of Ebola. Liberia’s Ebola case count, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reports, is at 329 including 156 deaths. WHO Director General Margaret Chan has lamented that the measures taken up to now are ‘woefully inadequate’.

Sweeping measures to contain virus

In the meantime Liberia has announced sweeping measures to contain the Ebola virus. In a statement President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf announced mandatory quarantine for several villages and counties that have been affected by the deadly virus. In addition, she declared 1 August as non working day to be used for the disinfection and chlorination of all public facilities and placed all non-essential government workers on a month-long mandatory leave.

Liberia further announced the compulsory cremation of all victims of the virus. Funerals of Ebola victims have been identified as a particular problem because the bodies of the deceased are traditionally washed by hand before wrapping in the shroud and burial and this puts the mourners at a high risk of infection. The Government in Monrovia also announced that all schools, without exception, would be closed until further notice and ordered the closure of several markets. These steps were taken as international health charities warned that the current outbreak was ‘out of control’.

The WHO has put the death toll as of 30 July at 672 people with roughly 1,200 infected, among them doctors, nurses and other medical staff. This death toll is well above the previous record of 425 deaths in Uganda in the year 2000 and the 280 victims who died in the first known outbreak in 1976, in a remote village near the Ebola River, after which the virus got its name, in what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A doctor, the lead virologist in Sierra Leone, who was leading the battle against the current outbreak of Ebola in Sierra Leone, Dr. Sheik Humar Khan, died in less than a week after contacting the Ebola virus. Multinational companies and foreign corporates operating in the affected countries have imposed travel restrictions on their workers and in some cases evacuated some staff. Emirates Airlines has been the first to announce that it will not fly into the worst hit countries.

Subsequently the three leaders of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia met at Conakry, the Guinean capital, and agreed on a number of new measures to halt the outbreak of Ebola. The Information Minister of Liberia said: “Unless we eliminate the disease in the three countries, we are in danger because our borders are very porous we are expecting that measures to contain the disease will be ramped up in the three countries.”

Sierra Leone President Earnest Bai Koroma said: “All epicentres of the disease will be quarantined, public meetings and gathering will be restricted. Ebola poses an extraordinary challenge to our nation. Consequently I hereby proclaim a state of emergency to enable us to take a more robust approach. The disease is beyond the scope of any one country, or community to defeat. Its social, economic, and psychological and security implications require scaling up measures at international, national, inter agency and community levels.”

International medical charities have been for weeks urging these West African Governments to step up their response to the Ebola outbreak.

Impact of globalisation on spread of Ebola

To appreciate the impact of globalisation on the spread of Ebola, a visit to the Lungi International airport near Freetown in Sierra Leone is instructive. This is the only airport which operates flights from West Africa’s Ebola affected region directly to London. Britain relies on its teams of security officials to screen passengers for Ebola as they board the four times a week flight to London Heathrow.

Last week the airport required passengers to wash their hands in chlorinated water before they embarked on the ferries which carried passengers across the estuary from Freetown to the airport. Only passengers with valid airline tickets could enter the terminal, before which they had to wash their hands again in chlorinated water.

A masked official with an infra red temperature gun – which requires no bodily contact – then assesses passengers for any signs of fever. Anyone with a temperature of above 101.6 F (38.7C) will be banned from boarding the flight. But given that Ebola has an incubation period of up to three weeks before symptoms appear, there is in reality nothing to stop passengers carrying Ebola boarding the British Airways flight 136 to Heathrow.

Yet, health experts felt that there was no need for an immediate ban on direct flights. Dr. Derek Gatherer, a specialist in the evolution of viruses at Lancaster University says: “If the disease does continue to spread through West Africa, there will be probably be sporadic cases arriving at Heathrow via direct flights… but infected areas are mainly villages in remote areas, where people are not international travellers.”

Cases have been reported in Spain and Saudi Arabia, and patients stricken with Ebola have been taken to the US for treatment. The WHO has declared an international health emergency and authorised the use of an experimental antidote not yet fully tested.

Upside of globalisation

Reflecting the upside of globalisation, international donor agencies are pouring assistance to the affected countries. The WHO has launched a new $ 100 million fund appeal. The European Commission has also ramped up its assistance.

The US Peace Corps has withdrawn its volunteers from affected areas. Two Peace workers are already under medical observation for symptoms of Ebola after coming into contact with a victim. An US Aid worker, whose name has not been released, was flown to the USA in a special isolation aircraft to a special unit at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, which has been set up in collaboration with the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. Another US Aid worker, Dr. Kent Brantly, has also been flown to the US in similar circumstances and is receiving treatment. They are both in ‘a stable but grave’ condition.

The US National Institute of Health has begun testing an experimental Ebola vaccine, after seeing encouraging results in pre-clinical trial on animals. These patients in the US have been treated with this experimental drug causing controversy. Ebola is now in Nigeria too.

Sri Lanka a case study on effects of globalisation

So the spread of the Ebola virus is a flag carrier for this globalised world which both the Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and the President of Sri Lanka both wish to have our nation placed at a strategically-advantageous position by the year 2035.

Historically, Sri Lanka is a case study on the effects of globalisation. Author Nayan Chanda in his book ‘Bound Together’ identifies traders, preachers, adventurers and warriors as the main drivers of globalisation. Sri Lanka, located on the southern tip of the Asian land mass and on the crossroads of the trade winds, has had an excess of these types visiting our shores from time immemorial.

Economist John Maynard Keynes, writing in 1919, on the Economic Consequences of Peace, described globalisation thus: “The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep, he could adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises in any quarter of the world.”

This is the world community that Sri Lanka’s business and political leaders envisage for our island nation by the year 2039, when the Ceylon Chamber will celebrate its 100th year. We have natural and manmade advantages. Our geographical position, at the crossroads of the world. An economy that has been open and trading with and manufacturing and producing for the world for centuries. Talented capable healthy people, who are serving as a global workforce, thanks to the early investments in health care, education and women’s empowerment. The challenges are keeping ahead of the competition. Constant improvement of the infrastructure for business and primary production. Improving human resource capacity. Reinforcing the rule of law, transparency and accountability. Giving people the freedom and space to innovate and be creative. Building barriers to keep out the negatives of globalisation, disease and infections such as Ebola, drug abuse, child abuse etc. Accelerating national reconciliation. Building confidence and reducing distrust between the various communities.

The spread and the globalised response to the Ebola virus have important lessons in this regard. The Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber put it succinctly, when he said: “United we win, divided we fail.” The effort requires a strategic, determined, national commitment by all the diverse stakeholders of the Lankan nation. Are we up to the challenge? That is the billion rupee question.

Back to Home page