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Life on Earth, Pandemics and the Covid-19 disaster

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Prof. Chandra Wickramasinghe

University of Buckingham, UK and

National Institute for Fundamental Studies, Sri Lanka

Dr. Sarath C. Witana, MD Dr. Ananda Nimalsuriya, MD

Philosophers and political thinkers down the ages, Locke, Kant and Russel among others, have all stressed the importance of preserving personal and individual liberty as a prime goal of any civilised society. Limitations of liberty are of course necessary but only in so far as they prevent violence and demonstrable harm to others. The limitations of our freedoms being enforced on us in relation to the current pandemic have no rational basis whatsoever, and in our view constitute a flagrant denial of our human rights.

The Earth teems with life of all kinds, lifeforms ranging from the simplest microorganisms to the most complex of life forms – plants, animals, humans. Microbial life forms – bacteria and viruses – are present not only on or near the Earth’s surface, on land and in the oceans – but also in the deep ocean floor, kilometres below the surface, and at least 10 kilometres in the atmosphere. We humans – Homo Sapiens – are perched atop this pyramid of Earthly life declaring ourselves to be in command of all we survey.

Over the past century biologists have unravelled the mind-blowing complexity of life at a molecular level as well as its super-astronomical information content as is clearly manifest for instance in the arrangement of amino acids in crucial enzymes. At the same time astronomers are unravelling a universe that is every bit as complex, informationally rich and as magnificent as life itself. For too long, however, we have failed to appreciate that there must exist an intimate and inextricable connection between life on the Earth and the vast external cosmos. Only by acknowledging this link would it ever be possible to fully understand the world in which we live.

For well over a century the concept of life starting by a process of “spontaneous generation” on the Earth in a primordial soup of organics has been firmly locked into the cannon of science. Attempts to synthesize life from non-life have continued in the most advanced biotech laboratories for well over half a century. With the passage of time all such hopes have turned out to be utterly illusory. Every attempt that has been made thus far to replicate the process of spontaneous generation in the laboratory has ended in dismal failure.

 

Four decades ago, the late Sir Fred Hoyle and one of us (CW) had already accumulated enough supportive evidence to state with confidence that terrestrial life must be inextricably linked to the cosmos at large. The main connecting link was comets and cometary debris that continually gains entry to the Earth’s environment. Supportive evidence came from many different scientific disciplines – astronomy, space science, biology and geology. The conclusion that was evident for over four decades was that life is not and cannot be a planet-based phenomenon, but can only be understood as a truly cosmic phenomenon, the Earth being just one of billions of sites on which life has taken root and evolved. The evidence in support of this cosmic theory of life is everywhere around us, but few have had the courage of link it all into a coherent story. This reminds us of the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay whose sonnet “Huntsman, What Quarry?” says it all:

“Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,

Rains from the sky a meteoric shower

Of facts . . . they lie unquestioned, uncombined.

Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill

Is daily spun; but there exists no loom

To weave it into fabric. . . .”

There can be little doubt that the world is now facing a crisis more serious than any it has seen over the past several decades. The Covid-19 pandemic is an indisputable fact, but to face it squarely and deal with the problem in an honest way is of paramount importance for our survival, and indeed the survival of billions of people around the world. This is a pandemic caused by a new virus. But our human species has faced many millions of similar pandemics in the past. Recorded history is in fact full of accounts of past plagues – the plague of Athens, the plague of Justinian, the Black Death come to mind, and there were many others that punctuated our past.

With the dawn of the new millennium in 2001 the unravelling of our genomes – human DNA, as well as the DNA of primates – has shown clearly that as much as 10 percent of our silent (non-coding DNA) has an origin in viruses. The evolution of our primate line leading from early anthropoids to humans have been marked by a succession of viral pandemics each one of which may have been a close call to extinction. However, a small proportion of survivors were left after each such pandemic and it is likely that the viral information carried through the evolving line at times contributed to the development of new traits and biological functions. This radical point of view in relation to scientific orthodoxy, but one that has to be faced.

 

Biosphere reaching to the sky

Before coming to matters directly related to the present pandemic let us note that tons of viruses are actually swept daily into the sky from all across the world. This happens via tornadoes, dust storms and oceanic spray, and the same viruses (along with others from space) continually fall back to ground in mist and rain. Several independent studies carried out over the past three decades have all shown that a variety of bacteria, viruses and fungi can actually be recovered from the stratosphere from heights of up to 40km. These microbial entities are generally similar to those found on Earth’s surface, the obvious inference being that they are transferred from the ground level to the stratosphere. Other investigations including one conducted by balloon sampling of stratospheric air have led to estimates of an infall rate from space of the order of tonnes of microbes every day.

Recently an international team of scientists placed collectors high in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Spain to collect the shower of viruses that falls from the sky. The number of viruses falling upon the mountain tops was mind-boggling – amounting to a staggering 800 million individual viruses that are deposited daily on every square metre of the planet’s surface. These results when combined with earlier studies that show the existence of some ten million viruses in every single drop of ocean water clearly points to the existence of a vast virosphere (an ecology of viruses) high in the sky which continually mixes with our well-recognized ground level biosphere and microbiomes. Scientists have speculated for some time that there is a stream of bacteria and viruses continually circling the planet above the planet’s weather systems, and this is only recently coming to be established as a fact.

In the light of all the available scientific evidence we can imagine a feedback cycle involving interchange of viruses (and bacteria) between two reservoirs – a stratospheric virosphere at and a ground level and atmospheric biosphere that includes plants animals and humans. Both biospheres, at ground level and in the sky, are interconnected and are involved in the onset and continuation of epidemic and pandemic diseases in our view. As early as 1979 Fred Hoyle and one of us published all the relevant data pointing to this connection in the book “Diseases from Space” (a revised edition of which has just been published.)

 

Tropospheric cloud viral reservoir and COVID-19

One of us along with a team of colleagues have studied all the data relating to the origin and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic began and came to a conclusion that the facts are markedly different from the generally accepted orthodox views of this pandemic. We think President Trump came the closest to articulating the truth about the pandemic when he told Bob Woodward in February 2019 that the virus was in the air and people became sick by breathing the virus laden air.

The bare facts are that in late 2019 a large load of SARS-CoV-2 virions (the causative virus) was somehow introduced into the atmosphere in the environs of the Wuhan in Hubei province of China. There have been many theories of the new Corona virus (genetically related to the viruses that caused SARS-1, MERS some years earlier and also to some prevailing zoonotic viruses) came into existence at this moment in time. Our preferred view is that the causative virions first entered the stratosphere/troposphere/atmosphere from an external cosmic source above this region of China from a comet fragment. This was probably related to the Jilin fireball that exploded over northern China in late October 2019.

Whatever happened is now only of academic interest, but the facts are clear. The evidence points overwhelmingly to the introduction of a vast quantity of the Covid-19 causing virus in the Hubei province of China that began to lead to cases of acute disease and death from November 2019 onwards. It is reasonable to conclude that the atmosphere over many thousand square kilometres of the Earth’s surface became thick with the primary infalling virus as well as with secondary replications from human infections over a very short time. Much of this kept recycling through upward currents back and forth into the tropospheric jet steam. Subsequent breakthroughs from the tropospheric jet stream back to ground level are responsible mainly if not entirely for the subsequent sporadic in falls defining hotspots of infection around the world. Person-to-person spreading of course occurs, but the primary cause is viral infall from the streams of fast flowing gas that makes up the tropospheric jet streams.

The initial first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic is well recorded to have occupied nearly a full calendar year, infalls of virus from the troposphere being essentially controlled by local weather conditions. As in the case of other respiratory viruses this process has a seasonal cycle particularly in the north and south temperate latitudes. We believe it is this cycle that we are now witnessing as a second wave of COVID-19 around the world.

This, in our view, is the only model of the pandemic that can explain many facts:

1. The emergence of new expanding hotspots of infection after the intial Wuhan outbreak straddle a narrow latitude belt centred on 30 degrees North (the location of the northern jet stream)

2. Within each “hotspot” clustering of cases over a wide range of distance scales point to patchiness of incidence at ground level. The pattern is similar to a virus laden mist/dust falling to the ground crossing various length scales of atmospheric turbulence.

3. The many instances of infections with no first cause (first case) identifiable, such as in ships at sea or remote islands.

4. Mysterious clusters called community spread, or attributed to unidentifiable “superspreaders”

5. Medical facts point to the availability of a well-defined protocol for early diagnosis and isolation, followed by regimes of treatment that have been attested to alleviate acute inflammatory responses and serious illness that might follow.

All these facts are now clearly staring us in the face and yet we refuse to take note of them. The devasting consequences of a wrong theory of the pandemic that involved huge curtailments in our personal freedom, lockdowns around the world, causing disastrous effects on every walk of human life are now becoming amply clear.

It is of paramount importance that we take note of the facts as we have presented them in this article, and spur governments to act in the best interests of everyone.

Humanity in 2020 deserves no less. The long march to freedom from tyranny must begin – the tyranny of wrong science, and the tyranny of the governments who are being misled.


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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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