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A deeply professional Engineer with a strong left Commitment

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The Times of Senthan: Little known Liberator and Silent Giant – Part IV

by Rajan Hoole

Senthan’s Testament

The following from notes made by Senthan was published in the Arrogance of Power in 2001:

“Fear of fascists seems to be a dominant emotion going far beyond even parental or fraternal love. Friendship has become ephemeral. Friend forgets a friend who is murdered. I have seen fathers being forgotten by children and even two wives becoming mistresses of the same killer of their husbands. Lack of devotion even to the inner family makes me wonder what happened to Tamil society which once boasted of its strong family unit. Is it that their earlier devotion to family was no more than manifestly egoistic? How could someone who loves his family at the least not be kind to another man or, in the extreme, not be unkind to him? This is a riddle for me that does not get sorted out easily. Yet I could safely say something – the Tamils have themselves become more rotten inside than being eroded from outside. The Sinhalese, for their original sin, have become the scapegoats for every wickedness committed under the guise of liberation.”

“The only way the community can redeem itself is by developing a social detestation of murder – any murder. I hate this man who has hijacked our destiny not because of something he did to my father, sister or my son. But I hate him with all my heart for the crimes he committed on ordinary people, ordinary boys and girls. If I start by saying that I am concerned only if a calamity overtakes members of my family, I will in time lose even that sympathy for my own family as has happened to the majority, particularly to educated members of this community.”

 

More Rotten Inside

Not long after in 2002 came the Norway-brokered peace process based on foreign expertise on what ails us. This expertise in turn was fed by local scholars estranged from ground realities affiliated to these foreign institutions. It was a peace process in which the only voice that counted as representatives of the Tamil people was that of the LTTE. The conscription of Tamil children into LTTE ranks was tolerated in the name of peace rather than being seen as a warlike action.

Not to probe this phenomenon’s oppressive and criminal dimension, and to fantasise on its political superstructure, enabled a genre of academic research that legitimised the LTTE. It did so by romanticising Tamils under the LTTE as a primitive society, where crime had lost its meaning and any inhumanity was overlooked as justification of a fight for survival. What was painful was to see Tamil expatriate academics either contributing to this portrayal of denying the people agency, or succumbing to silence and shaming. A sizeable local elite component was carried along and its effect on the Western-backed peace initiative was a reversal. One of the Norwegian mediators’ lowest points was turning a blind eye to LTTE’s massacre of children recruited by the Karuna faction in April 2004 as an ‘internal matter for the Northeast’ (UTHR Bulletin 36).’

The way organised scholarship functions, where mediocrity is protected by institutional and career interests, a voice like that of Senthan coming from a deeply analytical mind and finger firmly on the native pulse, has little chance of reaching decision-makers. In 2003, defying the LTTE threat T. Subathiran had worked closely with Mayor Sellan Kandian to reopen the renovated Jaffna Public Library that had been closed after it was wantonly burnt down in 1981.

Not long afterwards Subathiran was shot dead by an LTTE gun man. Although in the EPRLF, Subathiran was widely trusted in the community and militants in other groups have acknowledged the unstinting help he gave them when left abandoned by the march of events. Although the LTTE was wiped out in 2009, its ideology prevails and dissident voices are systematically muffled. The stone in the Public Library with Subathiran’s and Sellan Kandian’s names on it commemorating its reopening was recently removed on the order of the Mayor. Another name on the stone was that of Councillor Iruthayaraj, who was also killed by the LTTE. It may not even be Mayor Arnold’s personal wish. Tamil politics as Senthan said ‘is more rotten inside than being eroded from outside.’

An illustration of fear of fascists that leads people to suppress the truth, and therefore the memory of near ones murdered by the LTTE is illustrated in the case of Principal Sivakadatcham. It was also an instance of elected representatives being used as willing or unwilling minions to doctor history and multiply the grief of a bereaved family forced to sit through a charade of lies.

Kopay Christian College Principal Sivakadatcham was murdered on 11th October 2005 by a lone gunman who called him out of his home and shot him dead. Being zealous for the welfare of the school, he had canvassed funds for the expansion of facilities, including from the EPDP. On 10th October he had addressed the commemoration for Malathy, LTTE’s first woman ‘martyr’, which created the context for blaming the killing on the State’s agents.

The body of the victim was covered by a Tiger flag and the funeral was presided over by three MPs from the LTTE-set-up Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Gajendran, Eelaventhan and Sivanesan, against the wishes of the eldest daughter who was crying. The State was blamed and some students who demonstrated were later killed by state forces. Although in a current UTHR (J) bulletin, based on local information we pointed to the LTTE, I referred to the matter again in my book Palmyra Fallen of 2015. Having talked to the victim’s wife and others who knew him, I gave testimonies which left open the possibility or likelihood of the State being responsible.

A colleague at Jaffna University, who read the book, corrected me and introduced me to a teacher, an old boy of the school who knew Sivakadatcham’s family and was in the midst of the events. He knew the killer and his testimony matched the first accounts that reached us in 2005. A member of the family had recognised the killer on the fatal night. The Principal had ignored instructions from the LTTE not to get help from the EPDP for the school. The killer who had been calling on the Principal had persuaded him to speak at Malathy’s commemoration, as insurance for his safety. The killer, Jeyakanthan (26) was weeks later detained by the Army at Inuvil on a tip off and his was among five bodies of persons shot dead and dumped near Jaffna town on 24th December 2005.

For Sivakadatcham’s family, and his brother, a businessman in Toronto, the need to blame the killing on the Government is an indication of the compulsions of a Tamil society where victims of the LTTE were stigmatised. The family we learn had been divided on the cover-up.

Unlike most crimes of fascism where the victims earned public esteem for their courage and defiance, among Tamils families have to live in dread of the stigma attaching to the departed. It represents vividly the corrupting effect of lies protected by power, which Senthan pointed at.

The LTTE as a force died 12 years ago, but Tamil public life goes on as though its ghostly wishes dictate how people should think and speak. It was easy to commemorate Rajani in Jaffna while there was confusion about who killed her. Once the truth became known, the main obstacles to remembering her came from the University where she taught. Several of those from whom a better standard was expected, turned zombies at the mention of her name.

 

What ails us?

Senthan observed that although we had an educated class in this country our politics has been narrow. Academic life in our small country is governed by unwritten rules of censorship. But it is also smaller countries that have led the way in greater intellectual openness. Two examples Ponnambalam Arunachalam chose as worthy of emulation are Switzerland and Denmark. Senthan felt that we who are lacking in achievement and discipline to negotiate the challenges of the real world, fail to address it objectively. Having had working experience in France and Canada, he felt that we, who run down the West as part of our boasting about ancient achievements, would not catch up with it for a long time. Those in the West, he said were better adjusted, better read and have a broader approach to the world.

He was impressed with a French engineer he worked with, at whose home he discussed an engineering problem after working hours. His young daughter came with a sheet of music. He interrupted the discussion by playing a few bars for her on the piano and explaining them to her. In Canada too he stayed with a hostel run by a priest, where too he was impressed with the attitude to work.

We have a long way to go to learn intellectual independence and intellectual freedom, without which we would fail our people, particularly in the challenge of education. And we fail to see the obvious. Senthan lived the life of a lover of freedom and of humanity. It is significant that as a Marxist he admired Che Guevara as an individual and an exemplar of freedom, but would have resented the regimentation under communist regimes. He admired the West for its relative freedom.

We, Senthan said, have wasted too much time and fought a war over a political settlement, when settlement is very simple. Federalism proposed by Chelvanayakam, he felt is the right settlement, which the Sinhalese leaders have talked around ever since without doing anything about it. This attitude is a manifestation of our backwardness. When our people emigrate to the West, he observed, they take the rights available to them for granted almost immediately. But their warlike attitude springs up emotionally, the moment they confront the situation at home. What was done to the Plantation Tamils, without parallel in the civilized world, was an instance of our pettiness, he explained.

About the Sinhalese, he said, their strengths are in cricket and humour. But as regards political accommodation, he described them in the subtle irony characteristic of him, as ‘kashtamana aakkal’ – ‘a difficult people’.

As regards life as an engineering student at Peradeniya from 1968 to 1972, he is full of praise for the staff and students as generally decent folk and the students in particular, as friendly and fun-loving. Senthan had a good grasp of literature written in several languages and was a reliable judge of the quality of writings and had earned respect for his poetry and writing in Tamil. He said that to reach the world, you should also write in English. He liked to write books in English. That was one aim the circumstances of his life had denied him.

On education at Hartley College, Point. Pedro, Senthan said that under Principal K. Pooranampillai school discipline had a military flavour to it, but the students were taught perfect English which helped them in life. But the high point of his school days was old fashioned teachers like R.M. Gunaratnam, who took a keen personal interest in the students, trying to bring out the best in them.

Senthan was the founder of Skylark Engineering, which concentrated on the design, development and maintenance of machinery for local industries based on produce of the Palmyra palm and other needs. In a region where the only major industry was the government-built cement factory, Senthan’s mechanical engineering skill and innovativeness had great potential and he was confident of being able to expand the scale. But circumstances forced him to restrict himself. Senthan was surprised at the priority given by young engineering graduates to seek work outside the region or abroad. He felt there is so much local scope for creativity, to earn a decent living and pay the employees well.



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Talent Networking Group doing the right thing

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The pandemic has certainly taken its toll of the showbiz scene, especially in our region.

Our entertainers are feeling the heat very badly and so are their counterparts in India, and in the Maldives, as well.

There is absolutely nothing that any of us can do to make showbiz some kind of a happening scene.

All we can do now is…yes, just watch and wait!

In the meanwhile, there are still opportunities for artistes to showcase their talents, so that music lovers would know that their favourites are still very much active, and haven’t disappeared from the music scene…altogether.

What is gaining popularity now are social media platforms where artistes are given the opportunity to entertain music lovers.

The Talent Networking Group is one such setup that has impressed me, and has featured quite a few very talented artistes, especially from India – the Anglo-Indian sector.

I’ve also seen some of our artistes doing their thing, on this platform, via TNGlive.

What makes this TNG group extra special is that the people involved are innovative and are coming up with new ideas, on a regular basis.

Yes, they are expanding in order to give other talented folks the opportunity to come on the scene and display their culinary skills, dancing, etc., in addition to singing.

This is the new weekly setup, as indicated, on social media, by those responsible for the Talent Networking Group.

Says Derek J. Wheeler, one of TNG’s liverwires…

“It’s been an eventful year for all of us and, boy, what a ride it has been at TNG! But, time to shake things up a little and inject some new life, as we look at another long lockdown ahead.

“We are spicing up the weekends at TNG – throwing it open to the whole family to rock the joint, with your singing, your instrumental gigs, cooking, baking – whatever rocks your weekends at home. Time to share it with the rest of the family!

“And, this is the new scene:

“TNG Throwback Thursday

– Sing us some old songs, cook us a memory or just go old school on us in whatever way you like.

“TNG FriYAY

– We are just happy it’s a Friday. TGIF and all! So just come on out and do your thing. We are there to support you.

“TNG Saturday Swag

– The spotlight closure to our hip weekends. Calling all you rock stars to close it out with a bang for us all.”

Last Thursday, the spotlight was on Vrinda and Lynette throwing it back with some golden oldies – both in Hindi and English – while on Friday it was Shania, in the limelight, with an exclusive country and western set.

And, on Saturday, the inimitable singing chef Nigel Galway took centre stage, with his extremely talented and pretty daughter Leanne. It was certainly a rocking session!

Remember, TNGlive is not confined to India only. Sri Lankans, too, can show the world that we have got it all and are only waiting for the pandemic to slow down to boom into action…live on stage.

Melantha Perera would provide you with all the details as to how you could be a part of TNGlive. And, it’s all so simple – you do it from home, singing live, of course, to pre-recorded tracks. Yes, it’s as easy as that.

All you need to do now is give a shout to Melantha on 0773958888

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Everyday violence and exclusion at university

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By Ramya Kumar

This week’s Kuppi Talk takes off from an earlier piece on ragging that drew attention to the anti-democratic culture that breeds violence within the university system. Shamala Kumar linked this violence to the lack of democracy within universities, and society more broadly.

When we talk about violence within our universities, the conversation invariably turns to ragging. Some of us also talk about other forms of violence, such as the arbitrary sacking of a vice chancellor or an academic who does not toe the line. But the classed, gendered, and ethnicized forms of everyday violence we experience within the university system remain invisible. Here, I draw on discussions with students and teachers at various state universities to illustrate how gender violence pervades our everyday, and perpetuates exclusion and injustice.

Hierarchical systems

Our education system, whether primary, secondary, or tertiary, coaches students to conform and to not question authority. Non-conformers are penalized, and alternative ways of thinking discouraged within an exam-oriented system that measures performance by grades. On top of that, school curricula reinforce social hierarchies and difference by using myths or tropes like the ancient Sinhala king, the sari-clad virtuous mother, or the meat-loving Muslim.

When they enter the university, students are already saddled with various stereotypes and prejudice conveyed as authoritative knowledge through this system. Many would not have interacted with people outside their frame of thinking/knowing. Ignorance, misinformation (conveyed through the ragging apparatus) and the unfamiliar environment of the university creates conditions for further polarization. An undergraduate talked about the oppressive environment she encountered in her first week at university:

“The seniors harassed the boys [in our batch] if we did something “wrong” like dress “indecently” or behave “incorrectly.” The male seniors had discussions with our boys about how we dress and what was wrong with us….[they were told] the girls were their responsibility… “See, we have our girls in the palm of our hands, they listen to everything we say, yours also should be like that” they said. So ultimately the way we dressed, where and when we went out, and everything we did were to be dictated by a group of boys who were our age, who were strangers … we knew better, but it was very stressful and confusing.”

University authorities have not been able to address ragging because the university itself is built on systems of hierarchy. In fact, our universities are complicit in such acts of violence. For instance, a Muslim undergraduate who wears hijab talked about feeling marginalized after the Easter Sunday bombings when security personnel singled her out to check her backpack, commenting that she looked like “Zahran’s sister,” while letting others pass through.

From second class students…

Students internalize gender and other “norms” with few opportunities or forums to question them. Their activities are often divided along gender lines, albeit varying in different settings. When organizing an event, women tend to take on clerical and accounts work and tasks like serving tea. In some faculties, women attend lectures, dutifully taking notes for men, who are coerced into less mundane engagements by unions (and others) during lectures. Those who fail to conform to this “subculture” are branded as selfish, anti-social, or elitist.

At many universities, women (students) are not considered for leadership positions, such as president of a student union or association, even in faculties where women far outnumber men. “The mental picture of a leader is always male…it is the norm,” said an undergraduate. This “norm” is often justified on the grounds that women cannot travel back home/to their hostels after meetings, a strange notion for the many women who travel on their own. Most elections do not involve voting as decisions are made “unanimously” before elections. When women find themselves in leadership roles, they are often spoken over and not heard.

Women’s attire is strictly under surveillance. A Muslim undergraduate spoke of being banned from the prayer room at her faculty because her skirt did not reach her toes. A Tamil undergraduate who studied in the south described how her (Tamil) friends in another faculty had to wear Salwar, a single plait, pottu and vibhuti to maintain their “culture” in the dominant (Sinhala) environment. Similarly, women Sinhala students in the North are warned by their male counterparts not to transgress so-called Tamil norms by wearing short skirts, or tight clothes, in the name of safety and security.

Gender norms are also reinforced by university teachers and others in positions of authority. A medical undergraduate felt discouraged when a clinician advised the women in her group to think carefully before embarking on postgraduate studies: “[The doctor] said we would get late to marry, that we may not find a husband, and that our studies would interfere with our duties as a wife and mother.” Another student spoke of a clinician who referred to female students, including herself, by body shape and size, making her feel humiliated. Women encounter these forms of violence on a daily basis, making them feel little and unimportant, even as some confront the system head on, struggling to redraw boundaries and trouble the status quo.

… to second class academics

The university hierarchy places temporary and probationary lecturers at the very bottom. A professor described the ways in which younger lecturers, especially women, are silenced at meetings in her Faculty: “They are just not taken seriously … their contributions are ignored or they are simply spoken over.” A temporary lecturer talked about being harassed by a member of the support staff when she commenced work. He was known for treating women disrespectfully, but her complaints fell on deaf ears. A system that favours internal recruitment sustains hierarchy, obliging junior staff to take on additional (uncredited) work and even forego first authorship in publication, to support their seniors in the race to professorship.

As academics, women are frequently excluded from decision-making processes, which usually take place at informal meetings among an “in group” of (predominantly) men, who flock around (and bow down to) the administration. This culture of decision-making prevails at all levels of the university, and, by virtue of its character, excludes women and minorities, who cannot participate in the “machan” talk and camaraderie, for different reasons. Those who speak up or ask questions are delegitimized as fussy, irrational, or troublemakers. “Men throwing a tantrum is totally acceptable, but when a woman does that, she is being emotional,” a senior lecture pointed out. A professor spoke of feeling stifled during Senate meetings where questions and discussion were generally discouraged: “When I pointed to a breach in procedure, the VC asked me to stop raising trivial issues.”

The gender hierarchy is more visible at higher echelons of the university. The UGC and university councils are dominated by men. Although women do hold positions of authority within universities, as deans and, less frequently, vice chancellors, the gendering of academic work continues. In various committees, women tend to take on a lot of coordinating and paperwork, but their contributions remain uncredited as they rarely share the limelight. In fact, many women are faulted for their “family commitments,” and any negative traits attributed to their gender. Yet, the (widespread) mediocrity of men is never attributed to gender.

At the root of all this is pervasive sexism that objectifies and sexualizes women. It is commonplace for women academics to receive comments on their hair do or attire. A professor commented, “There is no understanding of what is appropriate here.” Even when there are serious breaches of conduct, like sexual harassment, there is nowhere to go. “Using established university procedures to address sexual harassment comes with risks that most women are not willing to take,” she continued. Overall, there seems to be very little trust in the system, and, in all likelihood, any incidents, along with their inquiry reports, may be brushed under the carpet.

Consequences

What does this situation ultimately mean for universities and society? Most immediately, it allows university administrators to function in the service of power. Second, rather than pushing the boundaries of knowledge and public discourse, central to their role, our universities reinforce social hierarchies, with accompanying exclusions and marginalisations. Third, by discouraging critical dialogue, the system sustains a disengaged university community that remains paralysed in the face of injustice, and supports producing graduates who easily comply with authority. The consequences are far-reaching, as we see in the unfolding COVID-19 mess.

Clearing up this mess must start from within our institutions. Building on the egalitarian principle of Free Education, we need to create inclusive spaces for students and teachers to come together to dialogue on the trajectory of higher education, and demand justice at this critical juncture.

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies. 

(The writer is attached to the Department of Community and Family Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Jaffna)

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Lockdowns, travel restrictions and basics for control of Covid-19 third wave

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Vehicles moving towards Colombo, along the Negombo Road, during lockdowns

 

By Dr. Pradeep Kariyawasam
Former Chief Medical Officer
Chairman, Standing Committee on Health/CMC

The 14-day ‘Lockdown’ or so called ‘Travel Restrictions’ to prevent the further spread of the Covid-19 virus which later became a 21-day event ended on Monday (21).

The inevitable happened in April this year after we were lax in taking the timely decisions. In January this year I warned through your newspaper about the possibility of the UK variant B 1.1.7. (now called Alpha) arriving in the country. Many who came over from the UK were in protective bubbles or in quarantine centres, before they were allowed out in the community and that included the English Cricket team. There could have been others infected with the virus that arrived from the UK. Considering that the PCR tests show only 70 % of infected persons as being positive for the disease, so many others could escape being detected with Covid-19 and be symptomless carriers.

It is interesting that the virus has spread to a lot of areas before it was found but details are sketchy. We don’t know whether there were unconnected cases in the community. So, maybe it was here for a few months before the existence was confirmed in April this year. What happened to our surveillance system operated by the Epidemiology Unit? The lowering of the number of PCR or antigen tests may be the reason why this was not detected earlier, and lower infection rates that were shown since February this year were not factually correct. Then, when the first notification of the possibility of the arrival of the virus was made on the 8th of April 2021, the immediate reaction should have been to order a total Lockdown at least in the Western Province. Timeliness is the most important factor in controlling epidemics. But then it was important to have the New Year festivities and here we are. We now have to take urgent informed action to control the present outbreak post Lockdown. Otherwise, it would be catastrophic for the country.

Looking at the present situation, the six strains of Covid-19 virus in the country at present are detectable now, and the areas where each is located are mapped at least by the district. When patients were found mainly Grama Niladhari Divisions were brought under lockdown to control the spread. Some were opened after a few days or weeks. This was hardly enough to stop this epidemic spreading. There seems to have been no coordinated efforts by the stakeholders. While politicians have to listen to the people’s social and economic woes, the health authorities have to impose conditions laid out in the Quarantine and Prevention of Diseases Ordinance. The Mayor or the Medical Officer of Health is the Authority to implement the conditions in this Ordinance at local level and therefore it is seen that the Municipal Councils or Town Councils have a role to play during this period, too. But this did not take place and while some politicians had a field day others got into confrontations.

 

Spreading like wildfire

While local lockdowns may have worked in the peripheral areas in the short term, such small lockdowns could have been ineffective, useless and dangerous in areas where large crowds live. These are towns and cities, where a large number of slum and shanty areas and middle-class Housing complexes are situated side-by-side allowing the disease to spread like wildfire. The solution for such areas was vaccination of all people at least over the age of 30. But it did not take place as that was not a priority, and then there was a vaccine shortage. The rich had an unfair share of the vaccines which is happening even today. I hope they will realize that by vaccinating the people in the poorer areas we could stop the spread into their areas. These people live in small poorly ventilated slums or rooms, sometimes 5-6 in a room, that create ideal situations for virus transmission unlike in richer areas. Although mutations take place all over the world creating new variants, and will continue until Covid-19 goes away, most of the vaccines seem to be holding well against them. The infected people plus vaccinated persons will create herd immunity but only vaccinations can prevent massive infections and mutations quickly so that there isn’t much of a damage to the society. The toll of this traumatic experience for many cannot be measured individually or as a society. Families have suffered socially, economically and some have already lost their beloved ones. The deaths of pregnant women and infants show how traumatic the experience could be not only to the family but also to the health staff.

Lockdowns themselves will not stop the spread among the people unless they are properly policed. This is what happened in the recent days where 60-70 thousand vehicles entered the city every day. That is nearly 100,000 entering the city! In poorer settlements life is continuing like on any other normal day with people roaming around within their area. But then they cannot engage in work! So, lockdowns seem to be for the poor and “travel restriction” are for the rich. Scientists have identified that the virus stays alive in the body only for 6-7 days, so a quarantine period or a proper lockdown of 21 days would suffice to clear an area of the virus. We need 21 days as the incubation period could be up to 10-14 days and after getting infected, the virus will be dead by 6 to 7 days. Of course, there are outliers to this range.These days the number of new patients found daily are around 2200-2400 which shows that an upward trend has been checked and that is good news.

 

Achieving good results

To achieve good results the law enforcement agents and field staff of the Health Departments should build positive relationships with their community, respect civil rights and not impose unnecessary hard and fast rules which may be counter-productive. With the threat looming due to the UK’s Alpha and other new variants, we have to prevent the disease spreading but at the same time see that socially and economically people are not that affected, as for more than a year they have undergone immense hardships. This is so, especially with the farmers and middle level traders, who are unable to trade or sell their crops due to sudden closures and lockdowns.

‘Live with the virus’ should be the slogan for the next few months. TV footages showed vendors with perishable items such as vegetables and fruits told all of a sudden to pack up and go from road side, fairs or economic centres. I understand the police have been given orders but then these people should have been handled more humanely. Perhaps they also should be allowed to sell the products while maintaining health conditions. Consumers should be told that only one person is allowed near a street vendor at a time and they should stand in queues with a two-metre social distance between them waiting for their turn. Small scale shops should be allowed to open and only one person per four square metres should be allowed inside the shops, and others should stay outside waiting for their turn so that there won’t be a rush to buy food stuff and other items. This is much better than getting vendors in mobile vehicles from other areas. The government should order that paying leasing charges or rents for vehicles, shops should be postponed or halved for this period and allow the dues to be gradually paid after the lockdown.

 

Communication breakdown

Unfortunately, the communication between the government agencies and the people at large have broken down. There is no direct communication with the poor people, the most vulnerable sections of our society, and they are not organized although civil societies exist. The people are apprehensive about the actions of the law enforcement officers and the Public Health Inspectors. Usually, in Colombo Health Educators and Instructors communicated well with the people, spreading out the health messages in an appropriate manner. We had at least 300 active Community Development Councils in the city before 2015. Today we don’t have that system anymore. The result is disorganized communities in the cities especially in the urban slums and marginalized apartment complexes. During the second wave around 100 people died in their homes in Colombo without medical help. Prevention and control of disease spread therefore has become impossible as there is no community participation. More informal health education actions should be carried out visiting the probable high-risk areas and action should be taken to look into various needs of the people in locked down areas whether it is the rice, fruits and vegetables, dry rations, curry powder, cooking oil, gas or whatever basic things they need, or simply help them to sell their wares.

 

Need for proper data

So, what should be done to rein in the virus and stop this menace? First, in future we have to take quick, strong and timely action to stop the transmission of the disease. For that we need proper data and maps before taking decisions. The government should not allow any organisation impose their will by coming out with various unproductive and social destructive proposals. Years ago, there were so many Epidemiologists who were highly trained, mainly abroad, but I just don’t see the Epidemiology Unit in the fore-front of Covid-19 control now. I think the government should bring back those who have retired and put each province under one of them. The data provided now is not worth to take informed decisions. There should be enough young medical officers with IT knowledge who can bring out great analyzed data and maps who can be put to work at the main Unit. The prevention and control should involve the following actions for outbreak response: surveillance of patients and contact tracing, laboratory testing, case management at home and hospital level, infection prevention and control, travel restrictions, lockdowns, epidemiological and outbreak analytics, dissemination of information to relevant officials and most importantly to the general public, logistics, risk communication and community engagement. Lockdowns are may be a short-term strategy but not desirable in the long-term as a strategy and what should be done is to place systems in place and building up capacities not only of the health staff but also of the general public for short and swift actions to prevent the spread of the virus.

 

How to stop transmission

With regard to travel restrictions the strategy should be based on the notion that when people stop moving the virus also stops moving and if it stops moving then it dies away. Data has shown that 8 out of 10 people should stay at home for the corona virus to be controlled. This is an important message as sometimes even the vaccinated get ill. So, what can be done? What can be suggested is that at any time or any day both the Public and the Private Sectors should have only 20% of their office staff at work at least until the end of September this year. All government departments, businesses or institutions should have their own Covid-19 prevention Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and health protocols in place catering to the specific needs of such places. This is important especially for government institutions. Inter district travel should be only for the essential staff. The manufacturing industry can have all their staff in bubbles by providing the staff with lodgings. The factories should have 50% of the staff but with longer working hours having weekly rotations. The same goes for the building industry. They can have night shifts. The staff can be allowed home once a fortnight after being checked by a physician whether they have the symptoms. They should also be given a place in the priority list for vaccinations. In any case if they have the disease the others also will get ill by that time and then the whole group could be quarantined together. Private transport for the staff is important and that goes for the government workers also. Similarly, others also can make arrangements after obtaining medical opinion by those who are involved in Covid-19 prevention. Those drivers and conductors in the transport services also should be vaccinated as a priority.

The Covid-19 Prevention Task Force should work in smaller sub-committees: Disease Control; Security; Logistics, Vaccine procurement and delivery; Hospital Management; Economics, Manufacturing, Agriculture and Trade; Ambulance Service, etc., and meet the Task Force with their own decisions which should be conveyed at the meetings with the Head of the Government. That meeting should be for only the key officials from these sub-committees or those who are invited specially to hear their opinions. Those who come with different opinions should be given a chance to voice their concerns at each level. Public Health staff should engage with local communities in the MOH areas to build trust for evidence-based actions to detect possible cases and encourage local leaders to support outbreak control response measures. Strategic decisions with regard to control measures should be taken at central level by an Expert Panel comprising of Epidemiologists, Virologists, Public Health and Hospital administrators. Keep out the ‘Wannabe Epidemiologists’ stupid ideas such as vaccinate people in ‘Virgin Areas’. They do more harm than good as too many cooks spoil the soup. A true Epidemiologist with years of experience gets a gut feeling of what should be done next. Ambulance Services should be combined and coordinated by one sub-committee. All vacancies for health staff should be filled at least temporarily especially, those in the public health workforce. Border control should be strict especially in the northern seas to prevent delta virus not entering the country. Fishermen should be told not to mix with Indian fishermen. All decisions should be based on guidelines, policies and decisions of the Task Force or Presidential directives based on worked out strategies, the analyzed information, maps, risk assessments, and the epidemiological situation. The basic messages to the general public should be to wear a mask, wash the hands, keep social distance, get vaccinated, go for self-isolation and get medical help if they suspect they have the disease, home quarantine if required etc.

 

Equitable treatment 

On the side of the authorities, they must ensure equitable treatment of all people, free equitable access to diagnostic tests, therapy, and vaccines, which should be allocated according to worked out criteria and needs. The Local NGOs and INGOs should be roped in to help whatever way without getting involved in decision making and politicians should be involved only for organizing the people for PCR testing or for vaccination programmes.

It is a must to have proper communications with people in the area and the health staff comprising of the field officers are the best to do this. Secondly, in future lockdowns must cover larger land areas than at present. For example, if patients are found in a certain Grama Sevaka (GS) Division then lock down the surrounding GS areas too as obviously people don’t contain themselves to their own areas but would have gone into other close-by areas also even before the virus was detected by PCR or antigen testing. If there is a cluster of GS divisions affected then the MOH areas or even Districts should be locked down. However, the essential health staff should be allowed to go to work and trading of essential items should be allowed. Every household should be issued with a card where only one person at a time is allowed outside to go to buy needed items. If these measures still don’t work out then curfew should be declared in such areas again for at least two weeks and see the progress. What has been mentioned above are the basics that should be attended to stop the third wave but not an exhaustive one.

 

Natural decline or vaccination

What will finally stop this epidemic is natural decline or vaccination of the population as Israel did for their citizens. The latter should be our priority. People should as early as possible get their doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, whether it is the AstraZeneca, Sputnik V, Sinopharm or Pfizer vaccine that is available in their area. If we want to stop large scale deaths as in India this should be done immediately. We don’t want this to happen especially in cities such as Colombo, Kandy or Jaffna. Vaccine mis-use, pilferage, selling, and only the privileged getting the injections should be stopped forthwith. Now that the health and armed forces staff are given the vaccines the next priority should be various field staff, staff members of private and public institutions who are in direct contact with customers, traders, shopkeepers, and people in high population density areas where the disease affected large numbers and decisions should not be based on their connections, power or money. Hope we will stick to basics of epidemiology and control this third wave, and see that all are safe in this country.

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