By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
Not a day passes without a news item highlighting the exodus of various professionals, especially doctors. In fact, the editorial “Brain exodus and ‘loincloth remedies’” (The Island, 17 August) which focused on the exodus of doctors, concluded with following paragraph, justifiably laid with sarcasm:
“Perhaps, one only hopes against hope when one asks the government to make an intervention to stop the exodus of doctors, for it is doubtful whether the ruling party politicians are aware of the value of qualified physicians; it may be recalled that they promoted a herbal syrup produced by a shaman called Dhammika Bandara as a cure for Covid-19. Maybe they think they will be able to run the government hospitals with the likes of Bandara, who even took the then Health Minister Pavithra Wanniaarchchi and Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena for a ride. Else, they would have gone all out by now to prevent the government doctors from migrating.”
What stimulated my interest on the issue, however, was the penultimate paragraph which stated:
“The phenomenon of brain exodus is multifactorial, and the tackling of it requires a proper study thereof and a multi-pronged strategy. Not all reasons that doctors and other professionals have given for their hasty migration are acceptable or convincing, but the fact remains that the government is driving them away and therefore duty-bound to clean up the mess of its own making.”
I wish the editor did not single out the government, as it is politicians of all hues that are driving the professionals away, as stated in my article “Brain drain: who should be blamed?” (The Island, 16 January 2023):
“If, instead of working to their own agendas, had all these politicians got together and formed a national government, a plan for recovery would have been in place now. What is sadly lacking is hope. If there was hope, all the professional classes would not be leaving in droves. Perhaps, politicians do not mind the intelligentsia leaving!
“I do not think it is fair to blame anyone who is attempting to leave Sri Lanka, at this moment, as it has transformed from a ‘land like no other’ to a ‘land with no hope’! The blame lies entirely with the politicians, who are self-centred and devoid of any patriotism!”
Some may accuse me of hypocrisy, stating that I too contributed to the brain drain and have the audacity to write judgemental pieces from the comforts of a foreign home. Here is my defence.
Having qualified in 1964 and obtained the postgraduate degree MD (Ceylon) in 1967, I was in the UK on a departmental scholarship to obtain the Membership of the Royal College of Physicians to be recognised as a fully qualified specialist, when the first JVP insurgency occurred in 1971. I could have easily stayed behind after paying the value of the bond, which would have been easy enough with the NHS pay I would have got, but I decide to return, against better counsel. Having visited Sir John Kotelawala previously during my stay, I thought it was prudent that I visit him prior to my return to Sri Lanka, after obtaining MRCP. When I went with my wife to his country estate, in Biddenden in Kent, and told him that I am due to leave shortly, he blurted “Are you mad? The country is in a mess. You better stay here”. I said, “That is exactly why I am returning sir; I have to do my bit for the country.” “Don’t be silly,” he retorted.
I worked as Consultant Physician in the Badulla Hospital from01 February 1972 to 31 May 1973, when I took a step down to pursue my interest in Cardiology by joining Dr N J Wallooppillai as his registrar in the Cardiology Unit. I succeeded him in June 1985 but left for the UK in May 1988, when the JVP started its second killing spree. Hospitals were run by the JVP! I am not sure whether I would have survived if I had decided to stay. Anyway, I have no guilt as I served Sri Lanka for 24 years before migrating.
Our children shied away from medicine but the children of many of my friends and colleagues became doctors. They now hold consultant posts and have been inquiring from the young doctors who arrive from Sri Lanka, the reason for their leaving. Interestingly, most of them state the fear of a JVP government as one of the main reasons for leaving. I agree that it is not a scientific study in finding the multifactorial causes of the brain drain but looking back at the events, starting with the Aragalaya, it seems quite a plausible explanation though not much talked about.
Let us not forget that though the JVP has metamorphosed into a political party, it has never taken responsibility for the past misdeeds. Most importantly, it is pretty obvious that it has not given up violence as a means to achieving power. What started as a protest campaign by the suffering masses was hijacked by the JVP and its cousin, FSP. The invasion of the offices and the residences of the President and Prime Minister cannot be considered a form of peaceful protest. The ill-judged responses by some members of the government were reprehensible but the immediate and widespread retaliation including the brutal murder of an MP bore the hallmarks of meticulous planning.
Thanks to JR, liberal private practice has been enjoyed by all doctors and it is no secret that most of them are rich. Therefore, it is natural that they fear the JVP. Even if they do not go to the extent of eliminating the intelligentsia like Pol-Pot did, what prevents the mobs that attacked MPs houses from attacking doctors’ houses? Who wants to risk that?
Even in the dark days of JVP insurgencies and Tiger attacks, there were two powerful political parties; one in government and the other in the opposition, to take over if and when the government failed. What have we got today? A divided government and a weak opposition! Many professionals fear that the JVP JVP would make their lives miserable.