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Respect the virus!

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BY Dr. Nimesh Rajapaksa

Let us start respecting the virus at least now. Boastful statements and media circuses will not help get rid of it. No country has been spared. Bigger and more powerful countries than us have been brought to their knees by it. The countries and States that were held as lighthouses of COVID control had to eat humble-pie within months.

Swift and decisive action taken by the President, the Armed Forces, the Public Health and Hospital staff from March to June protected us. We should ensure that the economic hit that we have taken so far should not be in vain. What can we learn from the current outbreak and what should we do?

Did it leak from the airport? Faulty quarantine? Introduced purposefully? Or is there a less dramatic, but a more concerning explanation?

Looking at what happened elsewhere in the world can give us insights. In the initial stage, around March and April this year, there was an explosion of cases and deaths in many countries in Europe and in the US. Evidence is now accumulating that this virus started circulating in these countries three or more months before this happened. Even in initially successful countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Vietnam (including Sri Lanka), mostly unexplained eruptions of cases occurred after 2-3 months of no indigenous cases being reported.

A conclusion that can be drawn from this is that the virus can circulate in the population causing no symptoms or causing minimal symptoms that people ignore for some time. This is borne out even in Sri Lanka where the vast majority of those diagnosed as harbouring the virus having no symptoms or minimal symptoms. Going by news reports, even though over 1,000 workers were infected in the factory at the epicentre of the current outbreak, only a proportion of them displayed symptoms, and only a handful needed hospital admission before it was diagnosed as COVID 19.

When a sufficiently large number say 100,000 in a population is infected, everyone begins to see that it is here. When it reaches such a figure, even if only 1% need intensive care, there will be around a thousand in ICUs. If the mortality even as low as 0.1% (one in one thousand), one hundred people would have died.

These figures are just for illustrative purposes and there are many technical aspects to consider and formulae to be used in such estimations. Mind you, official figures will not show the hundred thousand, because all of them would not have been tested.

For the virus to appear out of nowhere, the virus needs to be circulating in groups that will not show much symptoms, mainly in the younger and fitter people. When it reaches vulnerable groups, such as very old people or those with other conditions, we see hospitalizations.

This is assuming that it is suspected and diagnosed in hospitals. We may have been very lax during the previous three months even on this. In some hospitals even sending a routine PCR sample for surveillance purposes created a major stir, which discouraged the process.

A place where people work in relatively close quarters, regularly, for very long hours and then live in very close quarters in hostels, is an environment where respiratory viruses thrive. Overworked, tired and stressed employees who presumably possess less immunity would also make the virus very happy.

Since we have not been shown of a convincing explanation on how this started, we should not be blind to other other possibilities. If it cannot be proved that the virus was not imported directly to the factory which is at the epicentre of the current outbreak, we have to consider if it was circulating in a small scale outside and suddenly found the ideal nesting ground. It is a very concerning possibility that we should look at carefully.

However, we should also bear in mind that these conditions are ideal even for an accidental leak to this factory from faulty quarantine or any other way. This write-up is not intended to shift the culpability of what happened from anyone. It intends to look at other possibilities that we should guard against.

If this outbreak originated at this premises, we are on much better grounds to control it than in the case of it coming inside from an active asymptomatic chain in the community.

Although there were no reported cases of non-imported COVID in Sri Lanka for a relatively long period of time, there is the theoretical possibility that there could have been low-grade, asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic, and undetected chains of infection during this time.

The real-world sensitivity of the RT-PCR test for detecting the virus is 70-80%. It is much higher in controlled conditions. This means that it can identify 70-80 persons out of 100 persons that are actually having the virus in routine testing.

So, for every one hundred tested we will miss around 20. This is a crude generalization for explanatory purposes. The real technical aspect of this is more complex and nuanced and there are approaches to minimize this. Though a person is even tested three times, there is a statistical possibility of missing positive cases. Compounding this is the behaviour of the virus – the vast majority of those infected and capable of spreading it does not even know that they are infected.

By mid July, the country started working as before, public events were in full swing, and the usual unacceptable overcrowding of public transport and public offices became the norm again. Mask-wearers were rare as wings upon cats. Shows and religious gatherings were the norm rather than the exception.

Amidst this, the Kandakdu outbreak occurred in early July. By the second week of July, the election campaigns were in full swing. This was in the backdrop of infections linked to the Kanakadu cluster being identified in many parts of the country.

If there were a few low-grade chains of infections around, however small and remote, the election campaigns (of all the political parties) would have been ideal foil for amplifying the spread. The campaigning in earnest began around the 20th of July or just before. Large public gatherings with minimal precautions were seen throughout the country. This sense of normality was broadcast unfettered in the media adding to the complacency.

The Ministry of Health has gone on record that the symptoms began to appear in the affected factory around the 20th of September. The virus would have been in circulation in the factory since early September at least, for symptoms to appear by then. Early September is around 6 weeks (three incubation periods) from mid July. Theoretically, if the amplification of the spread occurred during the campaign period, this time line fits for an eruption to occur.

Let us hope that this is not what really happened. If it is true, there can be many other yet-unseen, low-grade chains of the virus spreading without being detected. One more reason to wish that this is not the case is that permission was given quite recklessly to conduct the Book Fair.

This attracted tens of thousands of people daily to gather in a relatively small area and the 18th to 27th of September. All this time, the Minuwangoda cluster was raging undetected and infecting thousands.

Many young people from all parts of the county mingled there daily and went back to their homes and hostels. There could have been many with the virus there, not knowing they had it. One can argue that the elections gatherings were local affairs, and if any chains were active these would be limited to their localities. This does not hold true for the Book Fair.

If another amplification happened there, we will only see the results in mid to late November or early December. Hopefully if any chains were started or amplified during this period they will be detected through intensified surveillance that will follow because of current outbreak. Such chains will appear as unrelated, unexplained clusters, which we may be seeing even now.

So what can be done now apart from the standard advise given to the public?

First, we should start respecting the virus and bring down our ego several notches. Respect does not mean fear, spinelessness or subjugation. We have accepted that we were lax, which is an excellent start.

We should also immediately start assuming that community spread has begun. This is the only way to prevent community spread if it is not taking place, or controlling it if it is occurring.

Most importantly, we should demystify and de-stigmatize the illness. Those infected with the virus are not to blame. Those who had infected others at workplaces and weddings have done so unknowingly. They are victims. Victims of those responsible for controlling the virus, who took their eyes off the ball. Victims of lobby groups that kept pushing for loosening restrictions to keep profiteering as before.

Public support will continue to dwindle if high-handed, uncaring and insensitive action continue to take place “against” such victims who are infected, and those who were exposed.

If the economy is to be protected, we should not allow events or activities that can amplify the spread without giving much economic benefits. Some examples are sports, concerts, events such as weddings, parties and funerals, religious gatherings, university and other higher education activities, tuition classes, continued operations of saloons, spas etc. Each day that we procrastinate, is a day of joy to the virus

We should also seriously consider shutting down the entire epicentre area. There are thousands of more factories and millions of jobs outside this zone. We should not jeopardize all these by obstinately continuing as before within this zone, for a few to profit at the expense of many. Short term pain is much more preferable to long-term agony.

We can minimize crowding in public transport as we did earlier. All institutions should have a business continuity plan – making sure all employees are not exposed at once to any person or group with the virus. Public and private institutions should not have to involuntarily cut down their activities due to unforeseen exposure of staff. It will be much graver than a controlled slowing down according to a plan, operating with minimum staff and dividing staff into groups. This is nothing new. We did all of this only a few months ago.

There is more action that can be taken, although it may not be politically palatable or acceptable to businesses. The businesses that have made huge profits in the past, but refuse to pay their employees and pretend that they will collapse if closed for two weeks.

We should also realize the less effective action. For example, most of the infected do not show symptoms. Therefore, checking temperatures (even correctly) has only a small protective value although it has a large symbolic value.

Through all this, we have been shown very clearly that people should be treated as people. Not “human resources”. Resources are there for exploitation for profit. This is exactly what seems to have happened at the epicentre. It may still be happening. If the workers were treated as humans, this outbreak would have been detected much earlier. Things would have been back to normal by now.


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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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