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BEACH BOYS, GROUP TOURS & LOBSTERS – Part 26

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CONFESSIONS OF A GLOBAL GYPSY

By Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena DPhil

President – Chandi J. Associates Inc. Consulting, Canada

Founder & Administrator – Global Hospitality Forum

chandij@sympatico.ca

Some Challenges on the Beach

As the Executive Chef of the Coral Gardens Hotel, I laid a strong foundation for my work in the new environment by learning about the union, the history of the hotel and the work culture of the kitchen. I changed my management style slightly to suit the team of 50 mature employees in my departments. I experienced positive outcomes with the team due to that adjustment. I also enjoyed positive reactions from the customers about the ‘new-look’ products and services. These were encouraging signs, but my optimism was short lived when we experienced a series of hostile encounters on the beach in front of the hotel.

It commenced when a security guard tried to chase away some beach vendors who harassed the hotel guests sun bathing on the beach. The beach vendors had been selling corals. Later when one of the hotel gardeners asked a local fisherman not to keep his fishing boat right in front of the hotel, I heard a loud argument. “Your rich hotel does not own the public beach! My family used this spot on the beach to keep our fishing boat for generations! If you touch my boat, you will not be allowed to come out of the hotel, alive!” the fisherman yelled. The Manager of the hotel, Muna requested the staff to avoid any further confrontations with the locals.

I considered such disagreements as an indication of deeply hostile attitudes of the locals toward the hotels. One day, a well-known local deep-sea diver, drew a pistol and shot the bullseye of the dart board hung in the public bar. I then felt that the situation with the locals was like a time bomb. There were also objections from the locals about the hotel using the public beach for weekly barbecue buffets. Reluctantly, I had to back off and re-locate the barbecue near the beach but, within the boundaries of the hotel. I was disappointed, but learning from this challenge, decided to do some research about the culture of the locals living in the town of Hikkaduwa and nearby villages. Muna and I consulted the local businessmen – Lesley and Dudley, whom we befriended before we took over the management of the Coral Gardens Hotel.

Two Worlds Separated by a Wall

Having spent the first two decades of my life in Colombo, I had to make an effort to learn the culture of Hikkaduwa area. It was small, but a vibrant town in many aspects. It was important for me to understand the attitudes and aspirations, behaviour patterns and belief systems, customs and cultures (ABC) of the local residents. In general, the area was poor and the economy was largely dependent on the co-operative fishing industry owned and operated by small-time local businessmen.

I realised that compared to the locals who were making a living from agriculture, fishermen communities were more aggressive in their nature. Some younger members of the local population attempted to make a living by selling local handicrafts, corals and other items to tourists. They also rented diving equipment to the tourists. The hoteliers called them “beach boys” or “touts”. In the mid-1970s, unlike Bentota, Hikkaduwa attracted many low-budget travellers and hippies, who were served well by these local beach boys, and smaller guest houses.

Showing some respect to the locals, being flexible and having an open dialogue appeared to be wise decisions by Muna. However, I felt that being firm and fair would be an even better approach in dealing with hostile locals as well as the union. I noticed that some people took kindness for a weakness. Muna was not keen on walking outside the hotel. However, on some evenings after dinner service, I used to walk to nearby hotels to meet friends and play cards. I used to walk back to Coral Gardens Hotel during early hours of the morning. During my walks I usually spoke briefly with local vendors and touts. That provided me some understanding of their attitude and mentality.

A string of small tourist hotels mushroomed in Hikkaduwa following the success of Coral Gardens Hotel which set the standards for others to follow. The key common element of these hotels were the names, which all had the word – ‘Coral’ (Blue Corals, Coral Reef, Coral Sands, Coral Rock, Super Corals etc.). These hotels were predominantly owned by rich business people from Colombo. In general, the poor villagers viewed hotels as rich establishments providing luxury products and services to tourists while making lots of profit, without providing any direct or indirect benefits to the locals. A couple of these hotels hired retired army officers to manage hotels. They were considered tough administrators, who maintained connections with the top brass of the army.

Coral Gardens Hotel provided security to its guests with tall walls and gated entrances controlled by uniformed security guards (mainly ex-military men) provided by an agency from Colombo. In general, villagers were not allowed in the hotel. The only exception was the public bar, which had a separate entrance from the car park. As management, our key responsibility was to provide services to our guests in a safe environment. In later years, during my work as a hotelier in other parts of Sri Lanka as well as in other developing countries such as Iraq, Guyana and Jamaica, I always felt that the wider the economic gap between the luxury hotels and the local communities and economy, the higher the tensions were.

The Most Experienced Sommelier

In addition to the union leader Edmond, there were two other Butlers at the hotel. They supervised the restaurant employees during breakfast, lunch and dinner service. The oldest of them, Butler Raman, had gained over 25 years of experience as a Wine Waiter and Sommelier at the famous Galle Face Hotel, prior to joining Coral Gardens Hotel, 10 years earlier. He was reputed in Sri Lanka as the person who had opened the greatest number of bottles of wine during his long career. I learnt from his knowledge of wines.

Butler Raman was a cheerful man. He was loyal to the hotel and respected the management, unlike some of his peers. He was happy when I commenced a restaurant employee briefing prior to each lunch and dinner service. He loved my detailed explanations about the preparations of dishes and how the dishes had been named, particularly the new items I introduced to the menus. He took notes during all my briefings. We developed a mutual respect for each other. Raman was very open to my new and creative ideas. He respectfully addressed me, ‘Master’ and I addressed him, ‘Butler Raman’.

Raman’s customer relations were excellent. He had a good memory and addressed repeat customers by name. All tourists who returned every year or sometimes a couple of times in each tourist season, all knew Raman by name. He quickly became my right-hand man in the restaurant. Often both of us stayed by the entrance to the hotel reception area to greet tourist groups arriving at the hotel.

Categorising Lunch Groups

When the hotel was full, we had only around 100 resident guests for lunch and dinner. On most days, we catered for an additional 150 to 200 tourists who visited Coral Gardens Hotel only for lunch. These ‘lunch only groups’ were on one-week long tours of the island. Coral Gardens Hotel was their first stop and they arrived towards late morning or around noon. After they did the glass-bottom boat excursions to see the underwater Coral Gardens and a quick dip in the sea, they used the large changing rooms with showers and lockers. Then they came to the restaurant for a quick lunch. Speed of service was very important as the European tour leaders in charge of these groups had to manage the time efficiently.

In consultation with the tour leaders, I planned standard three-course lunch menus that can be prepared and served quickly. These menus changed slightly depending on the fresh catch of the day from the sea. Obviously, the restaurant staff provided better service to high spending tour groups who tipped generously. After the welcome, Raman quickly categorised the tour groups into the following four:

a) Wine Party – a group that ordered wine and tipped well. The best tables were allocated.

b) Beer Party – a group that ordered only beer and tipped a little.

c) Soda Party – a group that ordered only soft drinks and pop and hardly ever tipped.

d) Choo Party – a group that did not order any beverages or tipped, but stopped to use the washrooms only.

Selling Lobsters

A month after the tourist season in 1975/1976 commenced, I wanted to introduce a lobster night similar to that Bentota Beach Hotel offered weekly. As most guests were on full-board packages, we charged extra to include a lobster dish on their dinner menu or upgrade the main course with lobster. I planned the additional lobster dishes and briefed Raman and motivated him to take lobster orders and sell wines to match the dishes. I gave him a free hand and he commenced lobster order taking for our first lobster night. The next day, when I checked how many lobsters that Raman had sold, I was disappointed to note that he managed to sell only six.

“That’s OK, Raman. I know that you tried your best”, I told Raman, as he was also disappointed to let me down. “Sorry, Master. As those guests who were satisfied with the lobster dishes you cooked this evening and talked with other guests, I think that we should be able to sell more, next week” Raman told me. I understood that word of mouth is a good form of sales, but I was eager to have some quick results. We agreed that next week, I should join Raman to sell lobsters, as a team of two. “Next week, shall we take lobster orders soon after breakfast?”, Raman asked me. “No, let’s sell when the tourists are hungry, say just before lunch, around noon” I decided on the timing strategy.

The next day just before 12 noon, on my way to meet Raman at the restaurant, I dropped in at the stores. The divers from Ambalangoda were delivering freshly caught live lobster to the stores. “Sukumaran, give me that king lobster”, I told the storekeeper. Carrying that large lobster, I accompanied Raman and went near the beach where most of our guests were sun bathing. As someone in a chef uniform including a white hat carrying a lobster was uncommon, I attracted some attention of the guests immediately. A few guests surrounded me and one guest asked me, “Is that lobster live?” “Henny, you may touch one of its eyes”, I gently prompted. The lobster moved in an aggressive manner when Henny did so. She screamed and all the guests on the beach came to check the commotion.

I knew at once that we had created some interest and now, I had a interested audience. I wanted to strike quickly to take lobster orders for dinner. Raman carried two empty Coca Cola crates from the resident bar, and told me, “Master, stand on these crates so that everybody can see you and the king lobster.” I did the sales talk and Raman wrote down the room numbers and orders. It was perfect team work. When I explained how I prepare our favourite lobster dishes I noticed some guests looking hungrier and clearly indicating their desire to order the most expensive item on our à la cart menu. When I mentioned the price, that became an obstacle for closing the sale. Some guests said that was too expensive for them. I quickly thought of a few problem-solving deals.

Later, privately I told a couple, “Mary and George, I know that these dishes are expensive, but do you want to return to France without tasting a single lobster dish in Sri Lanka?” As they were still not convinced, I then said, “I have a solution for you. I will serve one lobster dish for both of you to share, but served on two large plates, filled with some extra assortment of salads. Two plates for the price of one!” “That sounds great, count us in”, Mary said, even without noticing her husband’s nod of approval. With that confirmation Raman and I reached a record-breaking 50 lobster orders for that evening. We had to buy a few extra lobsters from neighbourhood hotels to meet the demand.

Our lobster nights proved to be popular and successful for the rest of the tourist season. Over the months, we enhanced the promotional tactics. This included taking the lobster orders the previous evening just before dinner. We set up a large sea water tank in the lobby with live lobsters and a colourful poster. At times I did some ‘free’ lobster tasting sessions. I also arranged for the Receptionists at the front office to talk about our lobster promotion to every new guest at the time of their arrival. Due to 10% service charge on bills, which were equally distributed to all full-time employees, I was able get the support of the employees working in different front of the house departments (waiters, barmen, receptionists, cashiers, room boys), for lobster promotion.

AIDA

A few years later, when I had my first course in Marketing at the University of Colombo, some of the best Sales and Marketing experts from Lever Brothers (who were guest lecturers) introduced a concept called AIDA to the business administration students. In explaining this concept, my first Marketing Lecturer and then Chairman of Lever Brothers Sri Lanka, Mr. Stanley Jayawardena told my class that AIDA is the best way to describe the customer journey throughout an effective sales process. Without any formal education in Marketing or sales training, in 1975, at Coral Gardens Hotel I had followed exactly the four stages of the AIDA concept:

Attention

– attract the customer’s attention – timing, location and the chef uniform.

Interest

– generate interest in the product or services – commotion with the live king lobster.

Desire

– transition from interest to actively ‘wanting’ the product – dish explanation.

Action

– spark / convince the customers to take action / close the sale – 50 lobster orders.

Since then, I have been a firm believer of AIDA. Not only in selling, but also in advertising campaigns I designed, seminars I presented and keynote speeches I delivered. I used AIDA for them all.



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Features

A Good Guide to the Omicron Variant

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By M.C.M. Iqbal, PhD

Despite the WHO adopting a neutral system to name the variants of the coronavirus that keep emerging (using letters of the Greek alphabet), the Omicron variant is associated with South Africa. The last variant of the virus to emerge was the Delta variant, which surfaced in December 2020, in India. There are two more letters between Delta and Omicron in the Greek alphabet that the WHO decided not to use. These are ‘Nu’ and ‘Xie’, which the WHO thought could be confused with ‘new’ while Xie is a common surname in China.

The Omicron variant is spreading in many countries. With the number of infected persons rising and another wave expected, many countries in Europe have imposed the usual methods to arrest the spread, with immediate lockdowns. However, scientists are still collecting data to find out how bad Omicron is, since the data seems to indicate that in South Africa, the disease is not as bad as the Delta variant. At the same time, in Europe, there is no significant change in the number of persons hospitalized. Of immediate concern to health authorities are, is the Omicron variant spreading faster than the earlier variants, does it cause more or less severe disease, and can it bypass the vaccines available?

Discovery

Scientists in South Africa announced on 25 November the discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus. On 26 November, the WHO named it Omicron. Although South Africa has been labeled as the country of origin, the virus was identified in neighbouring Botswana. In addition, there are reports of an earlier detection of this variant in the Netherlands.

PCR tests look for four markers on the virus genome to identify it as the coronavirus. The tests in Botswana showed a reduced sensitivity because one of the four targets was not being detected. These samples were sent to South Africa, where scientists have state-of-the-art facilities to look for changes in the genome of the virus. Changes are found by reading the ‘letters’ of the virus genome (called sequencing) and comparing it to the already available genome of the virus. The new Omicron variant had many more changes than the Delta variant.

Global status

By 14th January, the Omicron variant had spread to 116 countries in all six continents since its discovery on 26 November 2021. The figure below shows the gradual replacement of the presently dominant Delta variant by the Omicron variant; at present global data on the coronavirus, maintained by Nextstrain (https:// nextstrain.org/ncov/open/global) shows a decline of the Delta variant from 88% on 30th October 2021 to 42% on 8th January 2022, while correspondingly the Omicron variant has increased from less than 1% to 56%. Nextstrain is a global database presenting a real-time view of the evolution of the genomes of the coronavirus and other globally important pathogens. The interactive platform provides information to professionals and the public to understand the spread and evolution of pathogens, including information on individual countries.

Distribution of Delta and Omicron variants on 1st January 2022 from Nextstrain. (Please see graph)

What’s unique about Omicron?

Unlike the previous variants of the coronavirus, this variant has over 30 changes (mutations) to its spike (a protein), the characteristic flower-like protrusion on its surface. It was these changes to the spike, one of the four targets of the PCR test that raised alarm bells in Botswana. This spike makes the coronavirus special – it is the key it uses to gain entry into the cells in our throat and lungs. The previous variants, Alpha and Delta also had changes in their spike protein, enabling them to enter cells more efficiently and thus making them more infectious. The vaccines against the virus are based on this spike, and the antibodies produced by our immune system are specific to the spike protein. Thus, any significant changes to the spike means the previous vaccines may not be effective against the newly changed spikes on the Omicron variant.

While the Omicron variant can spread rapidly, it appears to cause milder disease compared to the Alpha and Delta variants. Scientists believe this is because Omicron infects the upper airways or the throat, and not the lungs further down. Based on experiments done on hamsters and mice, scientists found the concentration of the virus was much lower in the lungs than in their throat. The earlier variants of the coronavirus caused severe damage to the lungs of the infected people, with extreme cases needing oxygen. This does not seem to be the case with Omicron. Scientists believe the changes to the spike enables the virus to enter cells in the throat more easily than in the lungs.

It can spread rapidly

The virus is quickly expelled into the air if it infects and multiplies in the throat. Since it causes a milder form of the disease, infected persons may be unaware that they carry the virus. They would be moving about socially and at work, spreading the virus. Thus, the obvious means of slowing or preventing the spread of the virus is to strictly wear the mask at all times, and avoid social gatherings.

Studies have suggested that the period between exposure to the virus and onset of symptoms has also reduced to three days for Omicron. At the pandemic’s beginning, this was more than five days, and for the Delta variant it was four days.

What is of immediate concern?

Of concern to scientists is the better ability of the Omicron to spread rapidly in the population and its suspected ability to bypass our immune system. Our immune system is our internal defense system, using antibodies and an arsenal of chemicals and cells. The available vaccines are designed on the coronavirus variants circulating in the population. Thus, major changes to the coronavirus can reduce the efficiency of the available vaccines. Both these concerns have been observed in the past month: Omicron can spread more rapidly than the presently dominant Delta variant, and observations on vaccinated people show a reduced ability by the vaccines to prevent infections, compared to the Delta variant. This has called for booster doses for people who have already received the two mandatory doses. In Israel, even a fourth vaccination is being administered.

How could the variant have evolved?

Variants of the coronavirus result from changes to the virus’s genome, called mutations. What is troubling about the Omicron variant is that it has many mutations in its spike. Mutations happen spontaneously as the virus multiplies in our bodies and spreads to others. Thus, the virus gradually accumulates small changes to its advantage. These advantages are infecting us more efficiently, spreading to others more easily, and multiplying more rapidly. Scientists believe that one possibility is that the virus circulated in a small isolated group of people (say a village), piling up the mutations over time, and then escaping into a broader population, and then eventually crossing borders.

Another possibility is that it developed in a single individual and spread to others. This happens when a person has low immunity, resulting in a prolonged infection because the immune system cannot eliminate the virus. This leads to the virus developing changes (mutating) to overcome the mild immune response. Answering this question needs scientists to painstakingly reconstruct the history of the virus, using tools from molecular biology. Unfortunately, locating patient zero is difficult since it is impossible to analyze the virus (or sequence its genome) of all the persons infected with the Omicron variant. What is usually possible is to determine a general area or community and the time of origin.

What can we do about it?

Vaccinate! This is the primary tool we have to prevent the spread of the virus and not give it opportunities to multiply. In addition, we should rigorously follow the simple rules we are familiar with – wear the mask when outside, physically distance ourselves, and follow hygienic practices by washing our hands with soap, and avoiding touching our nose and face with possibly contaminated hands.

The good news

The coronavirus has been with us for over two years. Many were infected and have recovered from the virus during this period, providing natural immunity. Others have acquired immunity through vaccinations. When a new variant infects these people, they will manifest a milder form of the disease. This may explain the reduced hospitalisation of Omicron patients.

A booster dose to those already vaccinated or were naturally infected by the coronavirus, appears to provide reasonable protection against the Omicron variant.

And the bad news

The Omicron variant can evade immunity from previous infections. A recent analysis of surveillance data from South Africa, involving over two million persons, indicated suspected reinfections of those previously infected. This is in contrast to Beta and Delta variants, which did not lead to reinfections on such a scale.

The Future

The coronavirus is here for the long haul. Variants will keep emerging, and it seems unlikely it can be eradicated. The media should help counter vaccine hesitancy and the spread of misinformation. As individuals, we need to understand the biology of the virus to avoid spreading the virus and infecting ourselves and others. Science has to be supported in a broad sense to develop strategies by the health authorities and policymakers.

Further reading

S. Wild. How the Omicron variant got so many scary mutations. Scientific American, 3rd December 2021.

Michael Chan Chi-wai.

G. Vogel and K. Kupferschmidt. Early lab studies hint Omicron may be milder. But most scientists reserve judgment. Science, 20th December 2021.

K. Kupferschmidt and G. Vogel. Omicron threats remain fuzzy as cases explode. Science, 7 January 2022.

(The writer is a scientist in Plant and Environmental Sciences, National Institute of Fundamental Studies, Hanthane Road, Kandy. He can be reached at iqbal.mo@nifs.ac.lk)

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Rebirth in Buddhism

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By Dr. Justice Chandradasa Nanayakkara

The question of what happens after death naturally arises in the mind of thoughtful people, as we do not know what lies beyond death, because no one has ever returned to the living to recount his experiences life after death. Almost every religion across the world has a defined belief on what happens when a person dies, yet the question is still widely debated and discussed without any finality being reached on the issue. Most of the religious teachers from the earliest times, have been unanimous in affirming that life continues beyond the grave, but they differ widely on the question of what form and in what manner the survival takes place. Nevertheless, mankind continues to believe in some form of survival after death.

Regarding the question of survival after death, thinkers have generally followed one of two philosophical concepts. That is to say annihilationism and eternalism (in Buddhist, ucchedavada and sassatavada). First view is held by nihilists who claim that there is no life after death. They hold the view with the disintegration of the physical body the personality ceases to exist. This view accords with materialistic philosophy, which refuses to accept knowledge of mental conditionality. Those who hold the second view think that there is an abiding entity which exists forever and individual personality persists after death in a recognizable form as an entity called soul, spirit or self. This belief in some form or another is the basis of all theistic religions.

If you stick to the first view and deny that there is no continuity of life after death there would not be no moral law and vipaka (actions and results) operating in the universe enunciated by Lord Buddha and there would be no object in practicing self-restraint or endeavoring to free ourselves of the craving thanha which brings suffering in its wake. The cardinal teachings of the Buddha such as path to nibbana, Four Noble Truths and the eightfold path would be rendered nugatory and meaningless if death is followed by complete extinction. Similarly, those who believe eternalism which presupposes that individual personality persists after death in the form of soul or self as an enduring personality by means of transmigration is also rejected by Buddhism. This view runs counter to the very essence of Buddhism which denies existence of soul. This is the teaching of anatta doctrine, which distinguishes buddhism from other religions and marks it out from all other religious concepts.

In view of the virtual impossibility of establishing the truth of survival after death through empirical methods, question arises what is the attitude of science to this important and abstruse question which has baffled the minds of many people. Although, it is not possible to posit ‘rebirth’ as a scientific fact many men of science are of the opinion that mental, moral and physical inequalities can be accounted for on no other hypothesis than ‘rebirth’ hypothesis.

The idea of a cycle of birth and ‘rebirth’ is part of the teachings of the Lord Buddha. For many Buddhists death is not seen as an end, but rather as a continuation. Buddhists believe a person goes from life to life and see it another part of their long journey through samsara.

Buddhists do not regard ‘rebirth’ as a mere theory but as fact verifiable by evidence and it forms a fundamental tenet in Buddhism along with the concept of karma. Therefore, two principles-kamma and ‘rebirth’ are fundamental to understanding the teachings of Buddha. Kamma and ‘rebirth’ go in arm in arm. According to Buddhism there is no life after death or life before birth independent of kamma. Kamma is an immutable law of cause and effect, and we cannot avoid its consequences. Where there is kamma there must be ‘rebirth’. Most experiences in our present life are the results of our previous actions. Our actions of body, speech and mind (volitional activities) rebound back to us either in the present life or in some future life. It is the karma that conditions ‘rebirth’, past kamma conditions the present birth, the present kamma in combination with past kamma conditions the future. The present is the offspring of the past, and becomes in turn the parent of the future. For Buddhist death is not complete annihilation of a being though that particular life span ended, the force which hitherto actuated it is not destroyed. After death the life flux of man continues ad infinitum as long as there is ignorance and craving. Man will be able to put an end his repeated series of births by realizing nibbana, the complete annihilation of all forms of craving (Narada Thera).

The Buddhist doctrine of ‘rebirth’ should be differentiated from the theory of reincarnation, which implies transmigration of a soul and its invariable ‘rebirth’, as it is enunciated in Hinduism.

In his book What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula Thera posed the question “if we can understand that in this life we can continue without a permanent, unchanging substance like self or soul, why can’t we understand that those forces themselves can continue without a self or soul behind them after the non-functioning of the body? ‘When this physical body is no more capable of functioning, energies do not die with it, but continue to take some other shape or form, which we call another life… physical and mental energies which constitute the so called being have within themselves the power to take a new form, and grow gradually and gather force to the full: King Milinda questioning venerable Nagasena asked: “Venerable Nagasena, does ‘rebirth’ take place without anything transmigrating? Yes, O king, ‘rebirth’ takes place without anything transmigrating? “Give me illustration, venerable Sir. Suppose, O king, a man were to light a light from light pray, would the one light have passed over to the other light?” “Nay, indeed, Venerable Sir. “In exactly the same way, O king, does ‘rebirth’ take place without anything transmigrating.

In this connection, it should be mentioned the word ‘rebirth’ is not a satisfactory one, as it implies that there is something that after death takes on flesh again. It connotes transmigration of soul or other entity consequent to a death of a person. The Pali Word used in buddhism is arising or Phunabba.

As there is no soul or self in Buddhism, question arises if there is no soul or self what is there to be reborn. This has been most vexed question among many religious scholars. This has been a topic of debate for centuries. According to buddhism there is no enduring, substantial or independently existing entity that transmigrates from life to life instead there is simply an apparent continuity of momentary consciousness from one life time to the next that is imbued with impressions or traces (samskaras)of the actions one has committed in the past. For Buddhists everything is changing and nothing is permanent. So, when a person dies not he but his energies that shape him take a new form. New life is connected to previous life through kamma. There is rapid succession of thoughts throughout the life continuum.

The Buddha is our greatest authority on ‘rebirth. Therefore, for Buddhist no other evidence is necessary is prove ‘rebirth’.

On the very night of His enlightenment during the first watch, enlightenment, Buddhas mind travelled back through all of his unaccountable past lives. This was facilitated by the development of retro cognitive knowledge. Though his mind stretched back to countless eons he never saw a beginning to his past existence. He found no beginning and no end. He also saw all the beings in the universe being born, living dying and being reborn over and over again without end, all trapped in a web spun by their past actions. This process is the round of ‘rebirth’ known as samsara, which means wandering from life to life with no particular direction or purpose.

The Buddha before his enlightenment as bodhisattva was born in different forms of existence. As such Buddhist have a firm belief in many realms of existence, both above and below the human realm. Therefore, we can safely assume we all have lived through countless different lifetimes before being born in the world and our birth here as a human being is the result of predominantly good kamma we have committed in the past life. Those good kamma may have been done in many life times before, or more likely done in the previous life. Therefore, the quality of future births depends on the moral quality of our actions now.

In Dhammachackka Sutta too in his first discourse referring to second noble truth, Buddha declared this very craving is that leads to ‘rebirth’.

In ancient Greece philosophers like Empedocles and Pythagoras too taught the doctrine of ‘rebirth’ and Plato made it an important assumption in his philosophy, as pointed out by Ven Piyadassi Thera.

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A Good Guide to the Omicron Variant

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By M.C.M. Iqbal, PhD

Despite the WHO adopting a neutral system to name the variants of the coronavirus that keep emerging (using letters of the Greek alphabet), the Omicron variant is associated with South Africa. The last variant of the virus to emerge was the Delta variant, which surfaced in December 2020, in India. There are two more letters between Delta and Omicron in the Greek alphabet that the WHO decided not to use. These are ‘Nu’ and ‘Xie’, which the WHO thought could be confused with ‘new’ while Xie is a common surname in China.

The Omicron variant is spreading in many countries. With the number of infected persons rising and another wave expected, many countries in Europe have imposed the usual methods to arrest the spread, with immediate lockdowns. However, scientists are still collecting data to find out how bad Omicron is, since the data seems to indicate that in South Africa, the disease is not as bad as the Delta variant. At the same time, in Europe, there is no significant change in the number of persons hospitalized. Of immediate concern to health authorities are, is the Omicron variant spreading faster than the earlier variants, does it cause more or less severe disease, and can it bypass the vaccines available?

Discovery

Scientists in South Africa announced on 25 November the discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus. On 26 November, the WHO named it Omicron. Although South Africa has been labeled as the country of origin, the virus was identified in neighbouring Botswana. In addition, there are reports of an earlier detection of this variant in the Netherlands.

PCR tests look for four markers on the virus genome to identify it as the coronavirus. The tests in Botswana showed a reduced sensitivity because one of the four targets was not being detected. These samples were sent to South Africa, where scientists have state-of-the-art facilities to look for changes in the genome of the virus. Changes are found by reading the ‘letters’ of the virus genome (called sequencing) and comparing it to the already available genome of the virus. The new Omicron variant had many more changes than the Delta variant.

Global status

By 14th January, the Omicron variant had spread to 116 countries in all six continents since its discovery on 26 November 2021. The figure below shows the gradual replacement of the presently dominant Delta variant by the Omicron variant; at present global data on the coronavirus, maintained by Nextstrain (https:// nextstrain.org/ncov/open/global) shows a decline of the Delta variant from 88% on 30th October 2021 to 42% on 8th January 2022, while correspondingly the Omicron variant has increased from less than 1% to 56%. Nextstrain is a global database presenting a real-time view of the evolution of the genomes of the coronavirus and other globally important pathogens. The interactive platform provides information to professionals and the public to understand the spread and evolution of pathogens, including information on individual countries.

Distribution of Delta and Omicron variants on 1st January 2022 from Nextstrain. (Please see graph)

What’s unique about Omicron?

Unlike the previous variants of the coronavirus, this variant has over 30 changes (mutations) to its spike (a protein), the characteristic flower-like protrusion on its surface. It was these changes to the spike, one of the four targets of the PCR test that raised alarm bells in Botswana. This spike makes the coronavirus special – it is the key it uses to gain entry into the cells in our throat and lungs. The previous variants, Alpha and Delta also had changes in their spike protein, enabling them to enter cells more efficiently and thus making them more infectious. The vaccines against the virus are based on this spike, and the antibodies produced by our immune system are specific to the spike protein. Thus, any significant changes to the spike means the previous vaccines may not be effective against the newly changed spikes on the Omicron variant.

While the Omicron variant can spread rapidly, it appears to cause milder disease compared to the Alpha and Delta variants. Scientists believe this is because Omicron infects the upper airways or the throat, and not the lungs further down. Based on experiments done on hamsters and mice, scientists found the concentration of the virus was much lower in the lungs than in their throat. The earlier variants of the coronavirus caused severe damage to the lungs of the infected people, with extreme cases needing oxygen. This does not seem to be the case with Omicron. Scientists believe the changes to the spike enables the virus to enter cells in the throat more easily than in the lungs.

It can spread rapidly

The virus is quickly expelled into the air if it infects and multiplies in the throat. Since it causes a milder form of the disease, infected persons may be unaware that they carry the virus. They would be moving about socially and at work, spreading the virus. Thus, the obvious means of slowing or preventing the spread of the virus is to strictly wear the mask at all times, and avoid social gatherings.

Studies have suggested that the period between exposure to the virus and onset of symptoms has also reduced to three days for Omicron. At the pandemic’s beginning, this was more than five days, and for the Delta variant it was four days.

What is of immediate concern?

Of concern to scientists is the better ability of the Omicron to spread rapidly in the population and its suspected ability to bypass our immune system. Our immune system is our internal defense system, using antibodies and an arsenal of chemicals and cells. The available vaccines are designed on the coronavirus variants circulating in the population. Thus, major changes to the coronavirus can reduce the efficiency of the available vaccines. Both these concerns have been observed in the past month: Omicron can spread more rapidly than the presently dominant Delta variant, and observations on vaccinated people show a reduced ability by the vaccines to prevent infections, compared to the Delta variant. This has called for booster doses for people who have already received the two mandatory doses. In Israel, even a fourth vaccination is being administered.

How could the variant have evolved?

Variants of the coronavirus result from changes to the virus’s genome, called mutations. What is troubling about the Omicron variant is that it has many mutations in its spike. Mutations happen spontaneously as the virus multiplies in our bodies and spreads to others. Thus, the virus gradually accumulates small changes to its advantage. These advantages are infecting us more efficiently, spreading to others more easily, and multiplying more rapidly. Scientists believe that one possibility is that the virus circulated in a small isolated group of people (say a village), piling up the mutations over time, and then escaping into a broader population, and then eventually crossing borders.

Another possibility is that it developed in a single individual and spread to others. This happens when a person has low immunity, resulting in a prolonged infection because the immune system cannot eliminate the virus. This leads to the virus developing changes (mutating) to overcome the mild immune response. Answering this question needs scientists to painstakingly reconstruct the history of the virus, using tools from molecular biology. Unfortunately, locating patient zero is difficult since it is impossible to analyze the virus (or sequence its genome) of all the persons infected with the Omicron variant. What is usually possible is to determine a general area or community and the time of origin.

What can we do about it?

Vaccinate! This is the primary tool we have to prevent the spread of the virus and not give it opportunities to multiply. In addition, we should rigorously follow the simple rules we are familiar with – wear the mask when outside, physically distance ourselves, and follow hygienic practices by washing our hands with soap, and avoiding touching our nose and face with possibly contaminated hands.

The good news

The coronavirus has been with us for over two years. Many were infected and have recovered from the virus during this period, providing natural immunity. Others have acquired immunity through vaccinations. When a new variant infects these people, they will manifest a milder form of the disease. This may explain the reduced hospitalisation of Omicron patients.

A booster dose to those already vaccinated or were naturally infected by the coronavirus, appears to provide reasonable protection against the Omicron variant.

And the bad news

The Omicron variant can evade immunity from previous infections. A recent analysis of surveillance data from South Africa, involving over two million persons, indicated suspected reinfections of those previously infected. This is in contrast to Beta and Delta variants, which did not lead to reinfections on such a scale.

The Future

The coronavirus is here for the long haul. Variants will keep emerging, and it seems unlikely it can be eradicated. The media should help counter vaccine hesitancy and the spread of misinformation. As individuals, we need to understand the biology of the virus to avoid spreading the virus and infecting ourselves and others. Science has to be supported in a broad sense to develop strategies by the health authorities and policymakers.

Further reading

S. Wild. How the Omicron variant got so many scary mutations. Scientific American, 3rd December 2021.

Michael Chan Chi-wai.

G. Vogel and K. Kupferschmidt. Early lab studies hint Omicron may be milder. But most scientists reserve judgment. Science, 20th December 2021.

K. Kupferschmidt and G. Vogel. Omicron threats remain fuzzy as cases explode. Science, 7 January 2022.

(The writer is a scientist in Plant and Environmental Sciences, National Institute of Fundamental Studies, Hanthane Road, Kandy. He can be reached at iqbal.mo@nifs.ac.lk)

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