Several of my double-vaccinated and boosted friends have come down with COVID in the last few weeks, all with one thing in common: airplane flights. One friend’s wife and teenage daughter caught it on a flight back from London— business class but with everyone feeling very entitled and not wearing masks. I hope they sue the airline. Another friend got a bad case immediately after flying from San Francisco to Seattle. He’s been down for the count for 2 weeks. And another had a mild case that he caught flying from L.A. to Portland. Believe me, nothing’s getting me on a plane any time soon.
Roland, on the other hand, just flew to Southeast Asia on JAL, business class. He said every single person on the flight was masked. Asians have no problem with masking. He’s been in Singapore and Thailand and travelled overland from Bangkok to Vientiane in Laos. I’ve always wanted to go to Laos; still haven't made it though. He said everyone he's seen so far is masked. He also said the power keeps going off in Vientiane. They're having problems.
Inflation is through the roof (23.6% this year). In September, you would get 9,300 kip for a dollar. Now you get 15,000 kip for a dollar. The price of gasoline has more than doubled. The country is on the verge of default. But Laos wasn’t Roland’s first choice for his trip. When he was still trying to talk me into coming, he was proposing we go to Sri Lanka. I’ve been there 3 times and he’s been there twice. We both love the place and have been to every corner of the country. I was tempted-- but not enough to leave L.A. and get on a plane.
The first time I went was in the early 1970s. I had driven my van overland across Europe and Asia from London and in those days the island was still Ceylon, not Sri Lanka. Also in those days you could put your vehicle on a ferry in Rameswaram in southern India, chug across the narrow Palk Strait and arrive in Talaimannar just south of Jaffna in no time. The ferry service ended in the 1980s, started up again very briefly, shut down and is said to be starting up again “soon.”
But that won’t happen too soon. Sri Lanka is in major turmoil again. Lucky for Roland he’s in Laos. Sri Lanka's economy is in worse shambles than Laos' and Sri Lanka, which defaulted on its debts in May, declared bankruptcy last week. Today a massive mob stormed and ransacked President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s official residence, demanding he resign. He's from one of the nation's wealthiest and most politically powerful families. The prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, resigned as I was writing this post.
Colombo, the capital, seems to be in a state of anarchy. CNN reported today that “Anger reached unprecedented levels in the South Asian nation of 22 million on Saturday, as more than 100,000 people amassed outside President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's residence, calling for his resignation. Video broadcast on Sri Lankan television and on social media showed the protesters enter President's House— Rajapaksa's office and residence in the commercial capital— after breaking through security cordons placed by police. Images show demonstrators inside the building and hanging banners from the balcony, as well as swimming in the residence's pool. Rajapaksa is not at the site and has been moved elsewhere, security officials told CNN. It is unclear how many security personnel are present at the location. Protesters then also breached Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's official residence, known as Temple Trees, according to local media reports, while video of protesters entering the gates to Wickremesinghe's residence circulated on social media on Saturday.”
You can follow the situation minute by minute live on Twitter. Besides Wickremesinghe, several cabinet ministers resigned today and I’m pretty sure the president, currently in hiding, presumably on a military base, will resign today as well. Uditha Jayasinghe, reporting for Reuters from Colombo yesterday and today noted that “Soldiers and police were unable to hold back the crowd of chanting protesters, who also forced their way through heavy metal gates into the Finance Ministry and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s sea-front offices… The crisis comes after COVID-19 hammered the tourism-reliant economy and slashed remittances from overseas workers. It has been compounded by the build-up of hefty government debt, rising oil prices and a ban on the import of chemical fertilisers last year that devastated agriculture. The fertiliser ban was reversed in November. However, many blame the country's decline on economic mismanagement by Rajapaksa and there have been months of largely peaceful protests demanding his resignation… Discontent has worsened in recent weeks as the cash-strapped country stopped receiving fuel shipments, forcing school closures and rationing of petrol and diesel for essential services.”
Today that all came to a head. I suspect that Sri Lanka isn't going to be the last country where governments are going to be overthrown. Forbes' analysis is useful. "Sri Lanka long had a stable economy with a growing middle class but conditions quickly deteriorated this year— and Sri Lankans are pointing the finger at what they say are corrupt leaders who wasted the country's wealth."
The country's economy is a disaster by any definition: the Sri Lankan rupee has lost more than 80% of its value, food costs have skyrocketed by over 50% and tourism— one of the country's main revenue sources— has significantly diminished due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sri Lanka shut off fuel sales to most residents last week over concerns it would run out of petroleum, becoming the first country to broadly restrict fuel sales since the oil crisis of the 1970s.
Sri Lanka also owes more than $50 billion in debts and has been unable to pay interest accrued on its loans.
The country is reportedly in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a $3 billion bailout package, but the deal is expected to come with many strings attached to ensure the money is not mishandled by politicians.
...Saturday’s storming of the palace capped months of regular demonstrations throughout the country calling for Rajapaksa’s resignation. Rajapaksa has declared national states of emergency on multiple occasions in response, while calling up the country’s army and imposing curfews in an attempt to contain the protests. Demonstrators claimed a major victory in May, when Mahinda Rajapaksa— the president’s older brother— agreed to step down as prime minister following mass resignations from Sri Lanka’s cabinet.