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The exodus of expertise

It is not those who want to play god, but those who know that they know little, but that they know that little very well, that bring about progressive changes a nation needs in order to stand out. At present, during a pandemic, it is medical experts who can bring about that change.

This week saw the stepping down of two medical experts – National Institute of Infectious Diseases Hospital (IDH) Senior Consultant Physician Dr. Ananda Wijewickrama, and Senior Consultant Anaesthetist Dr. Asoka Gunaratne – from the Health Ministry’s Covid-19 Technical Committee, which had been tasked with making recommendations in connection with Covid-19 management efforts. Even though what triggered their decisions remains unclear, the health authorities have expressed hope that they might reconsider their decision. 

Uncorroborated media reports claimed that the duo had stepped down from their memberships of the said expert Committee due to certain external parties taking Covid-19 pandemic-related decisions which should have ideally been taken by the Committee of which the two doctors were a part of. The media reports further alleged that among these decisions were decisions relating to the vaccination drive.

Their resignation from the said expert Committee is a cause for concern not only due to their importance in Covid-19 management endeavours or the reasons behind their decision, but also due to the message it gives to the pandemic-affected public.

There is a background to this alarming development. During the past few months, especially after the second wave of the pandemic broke out in October 2020 and after the vaccination campaign was launched, allegations that the Government and decision-making health authorities did not pay heed to medical experts’ opinions when taking decisions pertaining to the management of the pandemic, mounted. In addition, the country saw how certain Covid-19 management efforts were monitored by certain ruling party politicians who have absolutely no medical background, and how Keheliya Rambukwella, who also does not have a medical background, was appointed as the Health Minister when the Government has not one but several medical professionals in its ranks. 

However, the Government maintained that they always allowed independent medical experts and associations of medical professionals to be a part of these efforts whenever there was an opportunity to do so.

Putting medical experts’ knowledge and experience to good use at this juncture is of utmost importance. However, appointing them as members of various committees that have no real power to take or weigh in on decisions that actually matter to the country is just a waste of these experts’ time and taxpayers’ money.

If the alleged reasons behind the two doctors’ decision are accurate, it also shows another disgraceful face of Sri Lanka’s political culture, i.e. influence superseding qualifications, because at the end of the day, the majority of final decisions are taken by politicians. Unfortunately, Sri Lankan politicians are under the impression that they are qualified to make all decisions regarding all matters that come under their remit just because they have the power to do so. Also, they often show a lack of ability to understand that a political leader is not a person who should know everything, but a leader who knows how to use the right person for the right job and heed professional advice. This has led to a situation where those with knowledge have had to bow down to those with power and influence.

At this juncture, no country can afford to let its health sector down, especially a country like Sri Lanka that has a health sector nearing collapse. The two doctors leaving the said Committee is not a matter of merely losing two members of the Committee, as it gives a negative message to their peers who are to take those positions next and also the people who are expecting the Government to make decisions based on experts’ opinions. Perhaps it is time for high-ranking authorities to understand that giving the right person the right job can in fact save the country.