Towards a localised economy | Sunday Observer

Towards a localised economy

10 May, 2020

The post-Covid-19 world will be very different from the one we used to know at the beginning of this year, when the coronavirus was just emerging in China. Today, the virus has spread to every corner of the world, infecting 3.7 million people and killing 270,000. Here in Sri Lanka, more than 800 infections have been reported, while nine have died. These are indeed very favourable figures compared to the rest of the world, but we cannot afford to rest on our laurels as we battle the virus. We managed to achieve these figures thanks to the pro-active measures taken by the Government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The islandwide curfew no doubt helped to stem the tide – as social distancing is the most effective way to keep this disease at bay. If infected people can be quickly identified and isolated, that prevents the spread of the disease to his or her prospective contacts. In fact, contact tracing by the Intelligence authorities has been the other main reason why Sri Lanka has experienced a relatively lesser number of infections. These measures must be continued in the foreseeable future in order to ensure the safety of the wider society.

But now it is time to look beyond the curfew. In line with most other countries that are gradually relaxing their lockdowns, Sri Lanka too will be gradually loosening up some of the restrictions in effect. The curfew has been imposed only at night in 21 districts for quite some time and now it is the turn of the three districts in the Western Province (Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutura) as well as the Puttalam District to gradually open up. Still, the curfew is likely to be imposed at night and also at any other time if the situation worsens by any chance.

But this does not mean that we can do as we please. The public in these four districts (and indeed everywhere else) have to strictly follow the health guidelines issued by the authorities, at home, in the offices, in stores and supermarkets, Government offices, banks and also in public transport. From washing hands and keeping the distance, we have to adhere to these measures at least until scientists find a viable vaccine, which could be at least 18 months away. In any case, there is no guarantee that we will get immediate access to a vaccine as soon as it is manufactured.

In the meantime, attention has been drawn to revamping our import-driven economic model. This was in the works even before the coronavirus struck, but these plans have now been expedited. There is no question that we can no longer afford to depend on so many imports. From import substitution to boosting local agricultural and industrial production, the time has come to think of a totally new indigenous economic model that also gives pride of place to exports, tourism, foreign investment, and local agriculture and manufacture. In fact, this was the conclusion of a recent economic task force meeting chaired by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

In this exercise, it is necessary that we change our attitudes and mindsets. We have been conditioned to believe that foreign products are inherently superior to local ones, despite a somewhat successful “Ganna Apey De” (Buy Local Products) campaign by several local industries in recent times. Given a choice at the supermarket, many people still buy the equivalent foreign product sometimes even at a higher cost. Now that the Government has anyway stopped the import of many non-essential items, at least on a temporary basis, this is a golden opportunity for all of us to “buy local” and support local producers and manufacturers.

Another crucial point raised at this discussion was the outflow of foreign exchange for overseas education of Sri Lankan students. This can be evinced from the simple fact that a large number of Sri Lankan students stranded abroad are yearning to come here. Some foreign university courses require in excess of US$ 50,000 (Around Rs.10 million) per year in tuition and other fees - one can imagine the forex outflow even if just 1,000 students go for studies overseas every year. Even the language proficiency and placement tests that students can do from Sri Lanka costs around US$ 150. It is time that we seriously pursue opening up the higher education sector so that more students can engage in higher studies here, which has the added advantage of actually getting foreign, especially South Asian, students to study in these institutions. That will help us earn foreign exchange, as opposed to sending it abroad.

As pointed out during this Task Force discussion, more pharmaceuticals can be manufactured locally. A recent article in our sister paper the Daily News, quoting local pharma industry sources said they are capable of manufacturing generic versions of at least 60 percent of the most commonly prescribed drugs locally. This will help save at least part of the US$ 450 million spent annually on pharmaceutical imports by Sri Lanka. Furthermore, the local industry should be able to export more medicines at least to the region.

Agriculture must be given priority in the national renewal drive. For far too long, we have been importing foods that can be grown locally, at enormous cost. The Government is spending Rs.2,700 million just for seeds for 14 crops for which self-sufficiency can be achieved.

Going forward, self-sufficiency should be our keyword, our mantra. An independent, localized economy should be the ultimate aim.