Sri Lanka’s business chambers and industries led by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce yesterday expressed their fullest support to the government to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the country.
In a letter dated March 18, addressed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, while appreciating measures so far taken by the government to fight the deadly virus, the chambers made immediate, short and mid-term recommendations to be included in the government’s action plan going forward.
The letter was sent by the following chambers: The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, Chamber of Young Lankan Entrepreneurs, The National Chamber of Commerce, Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Sri Lanka, National Chamber of Exporters of Sri Lanka, The Ceylon National Chamber of Industries, International Chamber of Commerce Sri Lanka, Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce Sri Lanka and Chamber of Construction Industry Sri Lanka.
Your Excellency, At the outset we wish to convey our fullest support and appreciation for the timely action taken by the Government under your able leadership to contain the spread of the COVID-19 in Sri Lanka. We strongly believe that the measures taken by the Government have and will contribute significantly to prevent the virus spreading at a much faster pace. We are cognizant however, that in spite of the best efforts taken by the Government of Sri Lanka, the risk of further escalation remains alongside the consequential disruption to livelihoods and medium to long term impact to the national economy. In this context we recommend that the following actions be included in the action plan of the Government of Sri Lanka going forward.
Immediate: Continue the containment strategy currently in place until Sunday (22nd) and review the need to extend it for a further period thereafter. The strategy should include identification of key hotspots through the use of Geographical Information System (GIS) tools combined with Big Data Analytics. Further, the strategy should include: - Stoppage of all foreign travel to and from the country virtually shutting down the airport and port for passenger travel. - Suspension of all non-essential business other than those engaged in essential services and in the supply of food, medicine, fuel and banking services. This will compel citizens to stay at home curtailing movements except for essential purposes.
- Implement a unified and central system for publication of information on the current and future action. A 24-hour Media response centre should be established to respond to false reports that create fear and concerns among the general public and employees. An update could be provided at a pre-determined time and at 12-hour intervals.
- In order to ensure that there is no disruption in supply of goods to retail stores with special emphasis on food and medicines, the government should have special procurement measures so that the private sector is able to source from different sources such as economic centres. Special attention should also be given to the smooth running of logistics during the period of containment.
- Border agencies should provide uninterrupted services albeit with a skeleton staff and maximum precautionary steps taken to ensure their safety. To facilitate this process, customs and border agencies should deploy a less stringent regime with respect to examination checks - for example, reduce referring the cargos to grey line 1 and 2 or red channel and so on.
- Priority should be given to the facilitation of local production of essential safety items (such as masks, gloves, hand sanitiser liquid) to meet the demand. In this respect, it is recommended that Page 2 of 3 the government waives or relaxes the licensing requirements placed on the importation of raw material required to produce such items. • Safety of all employees in essential business services (such as healthcare, pharmacy and retail) be mandated via the compulsory adoption of safety measures including the use of masks, gloves, thermometers.
- For worst affected industries like Tourism and Construction, the government could consider in consultation with the Banks to look at short term working capital loans to ensure payment of wages etc. The criteria for working capital loans could include demonstration of a certain threshold of orders/business lost due to COVID-19. The working capital loans should be timebound so as not to have an overall impact on the financial sector and fiscal position of the economy.
- For the industries affected the most, the government in collaboration with the EPF and ETF could consider a three-month moratorium on EPF and ETF contributions.
- The safety and well-being of the tourists who are presently in the country should be looked at by the relevant tourist authorities so as to ensure there is no negative impact on the image of the country.
- The Government to outline a policy framework with the stipulation of necessary regulatory approvals so that the private sector healthcare providers would be ready to augment the country’s capacity in terms of testing and treatment, when called upon to do so.
- The Government to consider extending the package of concessions given to SMEs (Debt moratorium, etc) which lapsed on 29th February for companies with a turnover of less than Rs. 750 million, subject to demonstration of being impacted by COVID-19.
- Activate foreign missions in key markets so that Sri Lankan businesses can seek/access foreign buyers that would be an alternate to imports from countries like China. The missions can also facilitate exports (such as Tea) from Sri Lanka which are held up in ports overseas.
- Deploy strategic procurement strategies to exploit the sharp fall in global oil prices. The benefit of low oil prices can be translated in to targeted benefits to consumers and targeted activities and sectors. Such measures can ease the financial burden on low income households, companies operating in impacted sectors and in particular SMEs impacted by COVID-19.
- Accelerate the programmes and activities identified by the Task Force for Poverty Eradication and Livelihood Development. The activities/programme proposed should include low-income earners and own-account workers (32% of the employed workforce as at 3Q 2019) whose livelihoods are impacted due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Medium-term
- Establish a committee with representatives across all sectors to strategize Sri Lanka’s response to the demand slowdown that is expected to take place in key export markets as a result of COVID19. The committee could also look at opportunistic strategies (to grow exports) in taking advantage of organisations looking to diversify their supply chain and mitigate geographical risk linked to high dependency on countries like China.
- Initiate a focused programme to access multilateral funds made available to help countries manage with the fallout from COVID-19:
a. World Bank Fund through IFC- focus on impact on economies, sustain supply chains, and limit downside risk
b. IMF – If financial market conditions and the external accounts of Sri Lanka deteriorate further, Sri Lanka could potentially face a Balance of Payment crisis. The IMF has a Rapid Funding Instrument (RFI) for member nations in such emergencies in particular during COVID-19.
- Increase overtime (OT) limit from current 60 hours to 80 - 90 hours per month for a limited period for industries like apparel when raw mterials become available again.
- It is our belief that above actions if implemented will help to arrest the rapid spread of the virus and help stabilise the economy in the coming weeks and months