Dr. Vitarana very simply explains the basic facts about the virus, its current level of transmission in Sri Lanka, the difficulties Sri Lanka will face in obtaining a vaccine for the entire population within a short-time frame, and calls for “community action” to end the pandemic. He calls the current mode of transmission, “uncontrolled community spread.” He suggests there could be 80% asymptomatic transmission and cites a figure of 30% test positivity from a random PCR study in Colombo by the CMOH.
by Rajan Philips
“What I have learned about pandemics is you have to be very humble. There is no mission-accomplished moment.”
Dr. Vin-Kim Nguyen
Perhaps every medical professional would agree with the sentiment in the above comment by a Vietnamese Canadian doctor, who is affiliated to two international hospitals, one in Montreal, Canada, and the other in Geneva, Switzerland. Unlike doctors who would give you the unvarnished truth, governments and politicians generally have different arrangements with truth and humility. Lack of humility and premature celebrations of victory are all too common in government and politics in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. The country seems to be now paying the price for the government’s premature declaration of victory over Covid-19 and prodigal distractions thereafter – changing constitution just for the heck of it and changing the heck out of the positions of doctors in public health agencies. The infection total is now past 21,000 and the death toll is reaching 100. A sevenfold increase in both in just over seven weeks. What is worrisome, apart from the rate of increases, is the absence of any indication that the government is in control and is able to arrest the trend, let alone reverse it.
Sri Lankan numbers are still peanuts in the global context. At Sri Lanka’s rates, the US should have under 400,000 infections and 2,000 deaths. But the superpower has a staggering 13 million infections and over a quarter million deaths. But the finally-on-his- way-out Donald Trump, after single handedly leading America to become the super spreader of the coronavirus, maniacally believes that but for his brilliant stewardship tens of millions of more Americans would be infected by now and a million of them would have died. Americans have managed to get rid of Trump, thanks to their unsung heroes who faithfully counted nearly 160 million votes in the most contentious of situations and the judges who boldly rebuked and threw out every one of Trump’s vexatious pseudo-legal challenges. But America is stuck with the coronavirus which is still spreading in its deadly mutation. And the vaccines, though the result of globally coordinated scientific efforts at the highest level, are not going to be overnight panaceas. Again, every medical professional is saying that.
Logistically, there are several hoops to pass through even after one or more of the three lead vaccine candidates are approved for use. Their mass production, storage and transport are all huge challenges, which can be done but not in any hurry. And worldwide vaccination thereafter will be an unprecedented health intervention on a global scale. Then come the challenges of keeping records for multiple inoculation, verifying vaccine effectiveness, and tracking virus transmission after vaccination by pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers. According to experts the now ongoing clinical trials alone are not sufficient to be conclusive about any of this, given the speed at which vaccine development is necessarily being undertaken. The consensus upshot is that masks and physical distancing cannot be dispensed with easily or quickly even after vaccination programs get underway in different countries. All of this would invariably lead to delaying the resumption of economic activity to pre-pandemic levels. Sri Lanka is not alone in this, but there are many things that individual countries will have to do themselves on their own.
From Infection to Recession
Last week I mistakenly left out what would have been the last paragraph in my article. The paragraph was about Dr. Tissa Vitarana’s statement entitled, “Community action can end the Covid-19 pandemic,” that appeared in the Sunday Island on November 8. That statement is by far the best and the most comprehensive, if not the only, public health policy paper on the subject by anyone who is associated with the present government. There should be no surprise about such a statement coming from a former Director of the MRI and a respected professional and academic. He has also been a Minister in the previous Rajapaksa governments, briefly Governor of the North Central Province, and now a National List MP. What is surprising is that Dr. Vitarana’s expertise and thinking for dealing with Covid-19 are not able to find any resonance at any level in this government.
Dr. Vitarana very simply explains the basic facts about the virus, its current level of transmission in Sri Lanka, the difficulties Sri Lanka will face in obtaining a vaccine for the entire population within a short-time frame, and calls for “community action” to end the pandemic. He calls the current mode of transmission, “uncontrolled community spread.” He suggests there could be 80% asymptomatic transmission and cites a figure of 30% test positivity from a random PCR study in Colombo by the CMOH. He fears that waiting for the vaccine to control the virus could be a “distant dream.” The reason is that apart from logistical delays, Sri Lanka should be in a position to buy the available vaccine for 60% of the population in addition to the expected WHO’s free vaccine for 20% of the population, to vaccinate 80% of the population – the threshold “to break the chain of transmission in a population.”
Until then, it is “community action” that should be relied upon, along with the public health infrastructure and a knowledgeable population observing basic health practices, to contain the community spread of the virus. Dr. Vitarana is confident that “if a good example is set from the top (no large gatherings etc.) and the people follow the health guidelines, the country can get rid of the Covid-19 scourge.”
In fairness to Dr. Vitarana, he is not asking to be in charge of this community action plan, and he is confident in the abilities of doctors in the Epidemiology Unit and of the armed forces for tracking and tracing. And if Dr. Vitarana is just a retired professional without political involvement, no one would be suggesting that he should be recalled from retirement to head this or that coronavirus task force. The only reason that some of us are puzzled about his apparent exclusion, is that he has been so much a part of the PA/UPFA/ULF/SLFP/SLPP governing political formation for 26 years – all the way back from 1994, when some of the current bigwigs were in and out of the country and would not have known the difference between a parliamentary system and a presidential system.
Put another way, the mystifying exclusion of Dr. Tissa Vitarana and the inexplicably ridiculous transfer of Dr. Anil Jasinghe from Health to the Environment, are not signs of a government that is prepared to utilize the best available people and the all the available institutional resources to “methodically” (to borrow presidential terminology) deal with the current pandemic crisis. Equally, if things have been working, and there is no surge of infections, nobody will be talking about Dr. Vitarana or Dr. Jasinghe. And there is no certainty either that everything about containing Covid-19 is going to get better. At least, there are no encouraging signs that things are indeed getting better.
The saving grace for everyone is that the recovery rates are high and the death rates are still low. It would also seem that the symptoms of infected are people are not as severe in Sri Lanka as elsewhere, and hospitalization is not currently overwhelming. Will all these factors hold at their current manageable levels, or can they get out of control? I have not come across any discussion about future projections either through technical modelling, or based on experience and commonsense. The overall uncertainty affects decision making about the levels to which social and economic activities can be allowed to open up or resume. In the absence of certainty and determination, it will not be possible to plan for or promise economic growth, let alone prosperity. Even if Sri Lanka is somehow able to resume significant economic activities, it still will have to face a very sluggish world outside.
It is a sign of the times that the British government has officially declared that it is heading towards its worst recession in three centuries. That last one was in 1709 and was caused by a fierce European winter which ravaged economies and caused famine. This time the British economy is expected contract by 11.3%, worse than every country in Europe other than Spain which is staring at a 12.4% GDP drop. Rishi Sunak, Britain’s Punjabi-Hindu Chancellor of the Exchequer, told the House of Commons last week, “Our health emergency is not yet over, and our economic emergency has only just begun.” The emergency could apparently get worse if Brexit goes wrong. In any event, the British government is not expecting the economy to return to pre-pandemic levels until the end of 2022. That generally is the sentiment in most countries. And China cannot play the same saviour role it played during the 2007-2008 global financial crisis.
This is also the context in which Sri Lankan government leaders should rethink and revisit many of the premises and projections that were included in the new budget. If it is “day-dreaming” to think of buying vaccine to vaccinate 60% of the population, by what yardstick of reality can one expect 60% market capitalisation? Until Covid-19 is brought under reasonable control, it would not be realistic to expect the economy to return to anywhere near full throttle. Clearly, a total lockdown is not the answer, even though it would be the easiest to implement and to claim victory.
Economic targets and infrastructure investments that are inappropriate for the current situation, that are environmentally harmful, and do not carry long term benefits should be avoided. Inappropriate examples include construction of highways and mass paving of 100,000 kilometres of currently unpaved rural roads. The latter would be a drainage disaster. Potential projects that deserve investment green light, are helping garment factory workers to build their own houses, urban and rural water supply and sanitation schemes, countrywide drainage control, and water management as part of agriculture and food production. Such targeted economic activities can go hand in hand with “community action” to contain Covid-19.
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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development
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.
Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka
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!.
Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?
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!