President of the OPA, other officials of the OPA, My dear friends.
I am thankful to all of you for the invitation extended to me to participate as the Chief Guest at the 33rdAnnual Conference of the Organisation of Professional Associations. I am also aware that you are having this Conference at a time when the world is facing a deep crisis. Sri Lanka is no exception. In that respect, I am pleased that you are searching for opportunities to “bounce back”from the present disaster / and wish to congratulate you for taking that interest.
As we all know, in the period of 5 years from 2015 to 2019 our country had been sliding downwards politically and socially. The economy had been crashing rapidly with a sense of hopelessness. In response, at the Presidential Election on the 16th of November last year the people of our country elected Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the new President of Sri Lanka. With a massive majority, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa offered a new and fresh path to the country renewing hope that the economy will return to a period of fast growth with political stability.
At that time, however, the Parliament was under the control of the Yahapalanaya regime. And although I was appointed Prime Minister in keeping with the massive mandate received by the new President the hostile Parliament was not inclined to support the President to pass laws or allocate funds for expenditure already incurred or urgent initiatives as proposed by the new administration.
In that background, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had no alternative but to dissolve Parliament at the earliest opportunity in keeping with the Constitution. On that basis, he dissolved Parliament on 3rd of March this year and called for a General Election on 25th of April. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 global pandemic broke out immediately thereafter resulting in the election being postponed by the Elections Commission that lead to a period of major political and economic uncertainty.
Through all those political, economic and health challenges, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his government was able to deal with the pandemic with outstanding result. Current data show that Sri Lanka has been able to contain the pandemic to just around 2000 cases in a population of 22 million people with only 11 deaths.
In contrast, New Zealand, the country which the international media regularly recognises as being the nation that has most effectively managed the pandemic has so far recorded around 1500 COVID-19 patients in a population of just about 5 million people with 22 deaths. That is double the number of deaths in a country which is less than one-fourth of the population of Sri Lanka.
That comparison clearly indicates that Sri Lanka has done extremely well in containing the pandemic even though what we have today is an interim government, until the new Parliament is established. In fact, it may be said that what is most vital now is to prevent the economy from weakening, maintain stability, and ensure that the country returns to normal as fast as possible.
My dear friends, as we all know, due to the impact of COVID-19, many important sectors of our economy have faced serious risks. Sectors such as tourism, apparel, manufacturing, remittances and several industrial and service sectors have seen significant vulnerabilities and setbacks. The adverse impact of these setbacks has had a harmful effect on the overall Gross Domestic Production in our country.
In this background, for an economic revival and turnaround to take place after COVID-19 we must ensure that these affected segments of the economy are supported in a revival plan to ensure accelerated growth. Hence, immediately after this crisis, the country must be prepared to get to work to receive local and foreign investments in sectors such as infrastructure, information technology and transportation.
We must also be ready to pursue opportunities to provide outsourced and online services to more advanced nations and to establish new ventures that use Sri Lanka’s mineral resources effectively. Focussing on the education and health sectors will also yield favourable results. In particular, we must concentrate on supporting our Small and Medium Enterprises as those enterprises are at the very core of our economy and livelihood of our people.
My dear friends, as the IMF Managing Director has already said, it will only be through extraordinary initiatives that the world could successfully emerge out of the current economic crisis.
It is also no secret that our government too is today grappling with many issues. These issues include the need to increase revenues, enhance growth activities, reduce imports, increase exports, stabilize debt burdsns, address increasing unemployment, and revive businesses. In addition, we also need to support the increased needs of vulnerable people, particularly, the children.
Even in the midst of all this turmoil, we must, as a global community, ensure that children across the world continue to enjoy universal child benefits without interruption. That would indeed be the challenge all developing nations, will encounter in the face of the serious economic pressures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic fallout.
My dear friends, in order to allocate the necessary funds for this vital need at this point of time, the global community will need to come forward to assist all developing nations. One important intervention through which this could be done will be for the IMF and the World Bank to provide a "Debt standstill" to all developing nations for a period of around two years. If that is done, those developing nations could allocate the resulting savings of the cash flows towards providing relief and much needed benefits to their children and other vulnerable sections of the population. The provision of such relief will lead to the stimulation of the respective economies and a faster recovery as well, and we believe the global community should seriously consider such a move at this point in time.
COVID-19 has battered the world with its deadly impact with millions of people being affected and hundreds of thousands dying. The IMF and the World Bank have predicted a contraction of the global economy by around 3% in 2020, which is a huge setback to the entire world community. Sadly, the virus and its aftermath have seriously damaged the economies of almost all countries, advanced and developing, and left a devastating trail of bankruptcies, livelihood losses, evaporation of savings, debt defaults, economic and corporate collapses and hopelessness.
The Sri Lankan health professionals and the government administration have responded admirably to defeat the virus and its highly contagious spread. We must be grateful to all those men and women who battled the virus so bravely and effectively in our country. They have given us the confidence to restart our normal work and engage in our normal activities. Their contributions have also led to Sri Lanka being recognised globallyas having fared very well in responding to the virus outbreak from a health perspective.
We now have to get down to work to implement a focussed and practical plan of action for the country to deal with the significant challenge before it, from an economic perspective as well.
The OPA has identified the need of the hour as being to “bounce back”. The OPA has also rightly pointed out that “disasters” are “opportunities”. While it is true that there would be several opportunities to “bounce back” from, those revival strategies can only be effective if such plans are fresh and innovative, and we act fast to implement those strategies.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has already asked all authorities to think “out-of-the-box”and implement strategies that would have a favourable impact on our country and economy. This is now the major challenge that is before the professionals of our country. I am aware that the professionals of our country are keen to participate in the effort of rebuilding the nation after the economic devastation caused by the Coronavirus. As professionals, all of you have very important roles to play, as you are key stake-holders in this very important exercise.
As a Professional Member of a Founder Member Organisation of the respected and influential OPA, I am personally aware of your collective strength, experience and dedication. Therefore, I ask you to come forward at this moment of need to contribute your ideas and efforts to face these challenges faced by our beloved Motherland, confidently and effectively. I have no doubt that you will respond positively. Your positive response will send an important message to the rest of the country as well, and assist in the revival and rebuilding effort significantly.
My dear friends, I congratulate you for coming forward to assist the country in this hour, and I wish your Conference all success.
May the Triple Gem bless you all.