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‘A two-track approach on COVID-19 to save lives is what we need right now’

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– WHO Director General’s Special Envoys for Covid-19

The world is witnessing the emergence of more infectious variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but a stuttering race to ensure equitable access to vaccines has seen a handful countries streak ahead, immunizing their own populations, leaving many of the world’s vulnerable in their wake.

Communities are struggling with impatience and fatigue, which is understandable. However, easing basic public health measures such as wearing masks and social distancing risks fuelling ongoing transmission. In combination with new more infectious variants and the “me first” attitude of some countries, the unvaccinated and those who have received only one dose of vaccination are at increasing risk.

The world is at a perilous point and we, the WHO Director-General’s Special Envoys, are calling for a renewed commitment to a comprehensive approach to defeating this pandemic. We have to accelerate along two tracks – one where governments and vaccine manufacturers support all WHO Member States in their accelerated efforts to create vaccine manufacturing capacity and vaccinate their most vulnerable populations, and the other where individuals and communities maintain a steely focus on continuing essential public health measures to break transmission chains.

The first track requires immediate implementation of reiterated calls by WHO and its COVAX partners on the best use of vaccines. Almost three billion doses of vaccine have been distributed globally, but only 90 million of those have gone through COVAX. There are at least 60 countries who rely on COVAX for vaccines and those countries have vaccination rates that average less than three percent. The world must implement a strategy at global, regional and national level whereby the most vulnerable are vaccinated first, rather than leaving health workers, the elderly, and those with underlying conditions at risk of severe disease.

It also includes supporting WHO’s call to vaccinate at least 10% of the population of every country by September, and a “drive to December” to vaccinate 40% by the end of 2021. Achieving the September goal means 250 million more people in low- and middle-income countries must be vaccinated in just four months, prioritizing all health workers and the most at-risk groups to save lives.

Such goals align with the bold initiative by WHO, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and the World Bank to call for US$50 billion in increased financing to vaccinate 40% of the world’s population by the end of the year and 60% by mid-2022. Such an investment pales into insignificance against the trillions of dollars of economic losses and costs connected to the pandemic.

WHO continues working to make safe and effective vaccines and other tools available to the world, from issuing Emergency Use Listings (EUL) for eight vaccines so far, to launching the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator in order to spur development of and access to solutions to diagnose, treat and vaccinate vulnerable people in all countries, to enabling developing countries to create their own vaccine manufacturing capacity. Investing in manufacturing and diagnostic capacity, virus sequencing capacity, increased case surveillance and other measures are essential components of controlling this pandemic.

Countries with the greatest stocks of vaccines should not hoard them, and push to cover their entire populations while other countries do without. It is not even in their best interest, since the intense circulation of the virus in countries with no vaccines, increases the possibility of more transmissible and dangerous variants, threatening to make current vaccines less effective. 

At the same time, the world must not lose sight of the second track which requires that all people refresh their commitment to protect themselves and others by continuing to adhere to mask wearing, physical distancing, ventilation and other actions that have been proven to curtail virus spread. Engaging with communities, building trust and empowering people to feel part of the response are the keys to inspiring people to continue, even more than a year into the pandemic.

The urgent call is to save lives. The world has a moral imperative to do so. Global solidarity – even fuelled by the selfish interest of stopping the emergence of new variants – is needed more than ever. By actively calling for a two-track approach of ensuring that the most vulnerable get vaccinated and adhering to sound public health measures, and by calling out those who could be doing more, the whole world can all benefit and save lives. No one is safe until everyone is safe.

* Dr Palitha Abeykoon:  WHO Director-General’s Special Envoy for South-East Asia

* Professor Dr. Maha El Rabbat: WHO Director-General’s Special Envoy for the Eastern Mediterranean

* Dr. David Nabarro:  WHO Director-General’s Special Envoy for Europe and North America

* Dr. John Nkengasong: WHO Director-General’s Special Envoy for Africa (anglophone)

* Dr. Mirta Roses:  WHO Director-General’s Special Envoy for Latin Americas and Caribbean

* Professor Samba Sow:  WH5O Director-General’s Special Envoy for Africa (francophone)



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President instructs officials to vaccinate kids with Pfizer

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Health Ministry still deliberating pros and cons

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had instructed health officers to inoculate children between the age 15 to 19 with Pfizer vaccine, Army Commander General Shavendra Silva said yesterday.

General Silva added that the President had also instructed officials to inoculate children with special needs above the age of 12, with the Pfizer vaccines. He there are around 50,000 children with special needs.

General Silva said Sri Lanka would receive adequate Pfizer vaccine doses in the coming weeks. During the Presidential Task Force meeting, on Covid-19, it was decided to allow the Department of Motor Traffic, and the Land Registry to operate during the lockdown, which was extended until 01 October. However, a few hours before this statement was made, Deputy Director General of Health Services, Dr. Hemantha Herath told the media that no decision had been taken on vaccinating children.

He, however, said that discussions were ongoing about vaccinating children.

“There are a number of discussions on this because this is a serious matter. We have also decided that when we vaccinate the priority will be given to children with comorbidities. Then the rest will be vaccinated based on age groups. But we have not decided on anything else,” he said.

The dates, the brand and other details would be announced once the Health Ministry was done with consultations with experts. Once the decisions were taken the Ministry would prepare guidelines which would then be made available to the public, he said.

“So, I urge the parents not to worry or panic. They can vaccinate their children once we issue guidelines. We will ensure that this will be done safely and with virtually no side-effects or shortages,” Dr. Herath said.

The Deputy Director General of Health Services also urged people not to be misled by claims that those who had been double jabbed and being treated at home were dying in increasing numbers. Some people with serious underlying issues could die even if they were double jabbed, he said.

“However, as we vaccinate an increasing number of Sri Lankans, the deaths and those who need ICU treatment will decline rapidly. Don’t be fooled by various unscientific claims. We are a nation that has universal vaccine rates and we should maintain that tradition with COVID,” he said.

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Sumanthiran demands immediate due process against Lohan

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Immediate legal action including arrest and prosecution must be taken against Lohan Ratwatte and others who were involved in the incidents at Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons, TNA Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran said on Thursday. He said Ratwatte’s mere resignation from one portfolio would not do.

“The Presidential Secretariat has issued a statement that Lohan Ratwatte has taken responsibility for the incidents that transpired at Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons. Although Ratwatte is said to have resigned from his post as Minister for Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation, he continues to be a minister in charge of other subjects. This is not something we can accept,” he said.

The TNA MP said that the State Minister should be removed from all his positions immediately and the pistol he carried with him should be taken away from him.

“Otherwise, it’s a grave threat to the public at large,” Sumanthiran said. There had been other incidents where Ratwatte brandished his weapon in public spaces, he added.

The TNA MP said that an independent investigation should be held with regard to those incidents and Ratwatte and others involved in entering the Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons should be arrested and charged.

“The police have still not taken any action in this regard. The question that must be posed is how he was able to carry his personal firearm inside the prison premises. Prison officials must answer these questions,” he said.

MP Sumanthiran said that given that the prisoners were wards of the state, their security was in the hands of the state.

“Therefore, this is a very serious incident. Action must be taken accordingly,” he said.

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Taking contradictory stand on 2015 Geneva Resolution

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‘Govt. seeking credit for accountability mechanisms set up by previous administration

UNHRC 48th sessions:

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Attorney-at-law Sudarshana Gunawardena has alleged that the government’s stand on accountability issues at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council is contradictory to its much publicised opposition to the Geneva Resolution 30/1 co-sponsored by the previous administration.

Sri Lanka co-sponsored 30/1, on Oct 1, 2015. The then Foreign Minister the late Mangala Samaraweera is on record as having said that the UNP-led government had President Maithripala Sirisena’s consent to go ahead with the co-sponsorship.

Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s media spokesperson Gunawardena yesterday (17) pointed out that the government, at the ongoing 48th sessions of the UNHRC, has reiterated its commitment to key accountability mechanisms set up in terms of the Geneva Resolution.

Civil society activist Gunawardena, who also functioned as the Director General, Information Department during the previous administration said that the assurance given by Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris last Tuesday (14) should be examined against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from 30/1 resolution.

Prof. Peiris’ predecessor, Dinesh Gunawardena announced Sri Lanka’s withdrawal at the Feb-March 2020 sessions.

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) owed an explanation, Gunawardena stressed, urging the government to take the public into confidence. “Stop playing politics at the expense of our international relations,” Gunawardena said, underscoring the need for what he called a national consensus on the post-war reconciliation process.

Responding to another query, Gunawardena said that FM Prof. Peiris in his address to the Geneva sessions discussed the progress in what he described as a domestic process in respect of accountability issues. Reference was made to the Office on Missing Persons (OMP), the Office for Reparations (OR) and the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR). However, the FM conveniently failed to acknowledge that the OMP, OR and ONUR had been established in keeping with the 2015 Geneva Resolution that covered broader understanding of transitional justice.

The SLPP, while taking credit for the ongoing transitional justice process, continued to publicly reject 30/1, the very basis of the solution, Gunawardena said. “In other words, the SLPP’s actions are very different from their pledges before the electorate in the run-up to presidential and parliamentary polls in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

Referring to the assurance given by Prof. Peiris at the UNHRC that Sri Lanka Human Rights Council was carrying on its mandate, Gunawardena challenged the government to prove its sincerity by allowing no holds barred investigation into SLPP lawmaker Lohan Ratwatte’s raids on Welikada and Anuradhapura prisons on Sept 6 and 12, respectively.

The announcement made by the HRCSL regarding its decision to initiate an inquiry of its own in the absence of police investigation received public attention and appreciation, Gunawardena said.

Commenting on the declaration that Sri Lanka was engaged in an integrated process to bring the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in line with international norms and best practices, lawyer Gunawardena urged the government to study the work done by the previous government in that regard. Referring to statements made by then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in that regard, Gunawardena said that the then Joint

Opposition quite maliciously rejected the move. “They should be ashamed of theirconduct,” relevant ministers and the Attorney General Department couldn’t be unaware of the agreement on new anti-terrorism law.

Gunawardena said that the SLPP administration shouldn’t hesitate to appreciate the previous government’s achievements. “We are quite pleased that mechanisms accepted by the previous government continue to be in operation even though the progress seems slow. However, the SLPP cannot deprive the UNP-led administration of the credit it deserved,” lawyer Gunawardena said.

Gunawardena urged the government to examine the report of the Committee appointed by then Premier Wickremesinghe to develop what he called the policy and legal framework of the proposed Counter Terrorism Act of Sri Lanka. He said that a politically motivated campaign derailed that effort whereas the Opposition propagated the lie the yahapalana government intended to deprive Sri Lanka of anti-terrorism law.

Asked to comment on the revelation of the SLPP government having talks with a group of civil society activists to explore ways and means to strengthening the reconciliation process, Gunawardena said that a 13-page Foreign Ministry note dated Aug. 31, 2021 addressed to Colombo-based diplomatic missions acknowledged the pivotal role played by the civil society. Having always accused the civil society of being part of a Western strategy, the same lot exposed their duplicity by meeting a group of civil society activists.

Gunawardena was referring to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ministers, Basil Rakapaksa, Prof. Peiris, Dinesh Gunawardena, Ali Sabry, PC, and Namal Rajapaksa having separate meetings with SLCC (Sri Lanka Collective for Consensus) in the run-up to the Geneva confab. SLCC comprises 16 individuals.

Gunawardena noted the Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, too, in her hard-hitting Sept 13 statement on Sri Lanka referred to President Rajapaksa’s meeting with the SLCC.

Gunawardena said that in addition to the SLCC, another group styled itself as the Civil Society Platform (CSP) in a statement issued on Sept. 13 made its position clear on a range of accountability issues as well as stepped up pressure on the civil society. CSP consists of 30 organizations and 36 individuals.

Responding to declarations by FM Prof Peiris and Foreign Secretary Admiral Jayanath Colombage that external investigations wouldn’t be acceptable, lawyer Gunawardena said that instead of rejecting the investigation the government should furbish whatever information in its hands or had access to the new investigative mechanism. The government couldn’t ignore the fact that the UNHRC authorized the fresh investigative mechanism at the 46th session with an overwhelming majority with 22 countries voting for the resolution, 11 against and 14 missing the vote.

Gunawardena urged the government to take a realistic view as Sri Lanka didn’t have time and space to engage in silly maneuvers. The bottom line was that the March 2020 announcement that Sri Lanka withdrew from 30/1 was nothing but a farce, Gunawardena said.

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