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“Agony at the Airport”: A short story

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Travel in the COVID era is refined bureaucratised purgatory

Kumar David

This is not a personal story though it’s based on experience. Hundreds even thousands experience it every day. Nor is it a complaint-filed grumble; actually, it has made me a minor celebrity among friends and family. It’s a story about how COVID (CV) has stood everything that has long been taken for granted on its head. It’s a story about an inconspicuous chap KD who made a trip from CMB to a destination further east HKG. Our intrepid warrior tilted not at mere windmills but took on airports, airplanes, healthcare bureaucrats and government bullies. Come on, give him two cheers.

The first shock was before he purchased the air-ticket. Though starting point and destination are five hours apart on a non-stop hop there are no direct flights from CMB to any neighbouring Asian city – Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Taipei or Jakarta. The only way to get anywhere in the region is to take a Middle East carrier to Dubai, Doha or Abu Dhabi (call it DZZ) and then fly all the way east again to the destination. Hence a one-way economy ticket to any of these destination from CMB which used to cost about Rs 50,000 is now between Rs 145,000 and Rs 230,000. It’s crazy! The same carrier will fly you from CMB to New York or Los Angeles westward via the same Middle East hub for about Rs 90,000; there is no logical or illogical explanation airlines attempt to offer.

The second experience in this droll story unfolds two days before departure from CMB. A CV-negative certificate from an ISO Certified (that is a recognised) hospital or clinic, issued within 72 hours of boarding is a must. Ha you think three days, that’s easy! Keep dreaming. Say you make a 7 am appointment at reputed institution, say AsH on Milk Mansion Rd. (Kirula) which promises the certificate by 6 pm. With his flight scheduled for 2 am next morning AsH kept KD on tenterhooks prevaricating with one excuse or another. He finally had it in hand at 10pm and rushed directly to the airport. The staff at AsH are most courteous and helpful; they kept bugging the laboratory and did all they could to keep KD’s spirits up. (Thank you Roshani, Dinky and Angelo if you read this). The problem is the AsH administrative system; it’s just chaotic. You may say “Come on, your sample was taken at 7am, the flight is at 2 am early next morning; that’s 19 hours, so it’s safe”. Not so; read on.

To emplane for HKG you have to get your smart-mobile on-line, log into HKG Immigration and navigate till after a godforsaken search you locate a form to be perfected and submitted online; not at leisure but only within 48 hours of departure. A QR-code is promptly returned. (QR is the box with mangle of worms in it). Carefully save that till you reach HKG or else no one knows what torture one will be subjected to; maybe drawn, sawed and quartered. In any case the airline will not let you board till it sees the QR. Then comes another hiccup. Whichever outward flight one takes to DZZ, arrival is at about 5am, but all HKG connections depart at about 2am (plus or minus an hour or two). Hence KD had a 21 to 23-hour layover to next morning’s connection. Adding 23 to 19 means 42 hours between sample collection and departure from DZZ. So, could KD be safely within the 72-hour deadline?

No luck! HKG suddenly reduced the minimum time between CV sampling and boarding of passengers from DZZ from 72 hours to 48 hours. KD now has a six-hour (48-42) window and it was getting scary. International air rules oblige airlines to provide hotel accommodation if a layover exceeds eight hours, but KD had no such luck with airline EK during his 23-hour layover he. Having already walked around the duty-free arcades for 23 hours KD didn’t want to be dragged off to – where, lock-up, asylum? No one knows or will admit to knowing what they do to connecting passengers whose CV certificates expire before the next boarding, due to delays in flight departure. KD doubted they serve scotch and soda with a cube of ice in Middle Eastern dungeons. Thankfully it was only a one-hour delay; so, he managed to clamber on board with four hours to spare on his CV report.

The CMB to DZZ leg was full with every seat taken, mostly were ladies travelling to the Middle East for employment. On arrival KD noted that DZZ was moderately busy, not chock full as before though at times it seemed quite busy. KD has a head for numbers and scrutinising the departure board for 20+ hours he did a bit of mental arithmetic and reckoned there are 200 departures, that is 400 operations, every day. Hence DZZ is far from shut down, unlike the ghost airport CMB. As he later discovered HKG runs about 100 operations a day instead of its pre-CV bustle of maybe 600 or more per day. The flight from DZZ to HKG was via Bangkok; the first leg was three-quarters full but there were a mere 50 people in that 300-seat aircraft on the second BKK-HKG leg.

Now the final act of the drama. HKG is smart and high-tech, its government servants efficient and polite; but CV has sent all overboard. On arrival KD was not allowed to clear immigration or collect luggage; he was steered with the 50 others into the custody of the health authorities who have taken over a whole floor in an airport wing. And here began a ritual. First an officer standing next to KD phoned him to hear the ring and confirm the number. Then he had to get his smart phone to talk to cyberspace and download an app called ‘Stay Home Safe’. Next an interview and the usual questions “where have you come from; where have you been in the last 14 days” etc. A tag with a number was hung round his neck and then watch a video about self-collection of a deep-throat sample; off into a cubicle, spit into a paper funnel and collect in a vial, always obedient to the video. Hand over the sample only to be given a second sample collection pack because on the tenth day a second deep-throat product has to be ejected and the vial sent via a friend to one of several locations (or pay the equivalent of US$ 12 to a collecting agency). A white band with a QR code and a concealed chip was tethered to KD’s wrist to monitor location, rather like a felon on bail. Don’t you dare stray away from the self-quarantine location or Big-Brother HKG-version will find out. He was given a pocket digital thermometer to keep a daily record, facemasks, a 36-page pamphlet of do’s and don’ts and more colourful sheets of guidelines and instructions.

All this done, clear immigration, move to the baggage-hall, claim one’s bounty and board a coach. Arrivals are taken to a government arranged and paid hotel for one night; nice, clean, small room with a spanking clean toilet and shower. Only then does the number hanging round the neck make sense; it’s the hotel room all super efficiently organised in advance. Collect a dinner-box (veg or non-veg) on the way up. But there’s a catch; the electronic door card is set to ‘No-time-only’ to prevent ants-in-the-pants chaps from walking out all over town and infecting the world. The room phone is dead, neither reception, nor operator nor housekeeping will answer. Some super isolation! What if one has a heart attack? Well KD didn’t; a good night’s sleep, snoring till 10.45 next morning. An 11 o’clock call on the hotel phone said the equivalent of “Buzz-off you have been cleared”. A breakfast-box, courtesy the government will be found hanging outside the door. The government does not pay for the taxi home; well never mind everything not Christmas.

There’s more to come – supra-high-tech is a malady in HKG. Once in his flat KD was phoned and told to activate the Stay Home Safe app on the smart-phone, turn on Bluetooth and Location Tracking and present the QR code (see photo) to the phone. The system promptly recognises it and returns a message about hygiene and the dire consequences of straying beyond the front door – a fine equivalent to US$ 3,100. They now have a double check on your location; the signal on the smart-phone and the chip on the wristband. End of story? Not quite; you have forgotten the second sample. On the morning of the tenth day KD dutifully cleared his throat, spat into the vial, put into two Biohazard marked plastic zip bags with some documentation and deposited it outside his front door. The brave agents of the collection agency came for it to earn their $12. As you read this KD is on his eleventh day of self-quarantine all alone in his tiny flat and slowly working his way through a 28-bottle wine cooler and a liquor cabinet. Thankfully stocks are adequate till the end of incarceration.


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development

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There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka

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By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?

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Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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