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‘Brandix Outbreak’ – Lessons to be learned

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By Dr. Lal Jayasinghe

Recently, a few days before the present outbreak, some officials appeared on TV to warn the public not to ignore the need to practice Covid-19 safety measures, such as wearing masks and, washing hands. These are good measures to avoid respiratory disease, and most important when there is Covid spreading in the country, but the public cannot be blamed for the new wave of Covid-19 in the country following a lapse of about two months.

When the health authorities says that Covid-19 has been contained and there has been no community transmission for two months, the public cannot be convinced why they should wear masks, especially in faraway places like Moneragala. In the situation we were in, before the present outbreak, when there was no community transmission, we should have tried to prevent a Covid-19 comeback instead of limiting our efforts to preventing its spread by washing hands and wearing masks.

I mention Moneragala because there are places in Sri Lanka that are quite different. The most “dangerous” place is Katunayaka and the surrounding areas like Minuwangoda. The others are Mattala and Jaffna. Katunayaka and Mattala are the places where Covid-19 “arrives” in Sri Lanka. Jaffna is risky because of close proximality to India where the virus is abundant. Therefore, it makes sense for the authorities to treat these three areas differently from the rest of the country. For example, increasing random PCR testing in these areas is very advisable.

The other measure I hope the authorities have already adopted is to increase the surveillance of airport workers. It is good that they have protective equipment, but in my view that alone is not sufficient. I think it is worth the effort to keep all airport workers under increased close “surveillance”. Additional worthwhile measures are increased awareness training to recognise and report suspicious symptoms, lowering the threshold for testing, etc. These measures are necessary for ALL grades of workers. Particularly the lower grades like cleaners and other “minor employees”, who unfortunately often get forgotten.

It is reported that the female Brandix worker who was the first case-detected was identified by means of routine PCR testing of febrile patients or patients with respiratory symptoms, thus showing the value of such testing. However, press reports indicated that the PCR test had been performed when the patient was “being discharged”. That does not make sense. I can only hope that the press reports are not true. For maximum benefit the PCR should be performed when patients with fever or suspicious symptoms visit a health institution.

 

The Outbreak

The distinctive feature of this Brandix cluster is that unlike in the past where a large number of cases were discovered in an area, say Atulugama or in institution like the Welisara camp, nearly all cases were detected within a few days, in fact over about two days. Therefore, this is an explosive outbreak. Also, it was most likely a point source outbreak. In other words, one individual was responsible for transmitting the disease to a large number of people.

It is surprising that this individual has not been identified as yet. In a factory with 1,400 workers, for one individual to spread the disease to 1,000, he or she must have some special characteristics:

(1) The individual must have contact with nearly all workers. A factory with 1,400 workers must be spread over a wide area. Therefore, this individual must be someone whose job involved visiting all parts of the factory, for example a supervisor or someone who distributes material to other workers. Or, it is possible that the contact was the other way round i. e. workers visiting the individual, for example at clocking in or by visiting the canteen.

(2) Since a large number of workers were infected, presumably after only a short exposure, this individual must have been symptomatic.

(3) The third requirement is that the individual should have had exposure to a “foreigner” (by this I mean someone who has recently arrived in the country) or visited the airport to have contracted Covid-19 in the first place.

It is equally possible that this individual was a close contact of a “foreigner” as defined above, or an airport worker who was the actual initial or index case. It is then possible that this initial case was only mildly symptomatic or even asymptomatic and therefore went undetected.

Because there were a large number of cases it is easier to time the approximate date of exposure by working back from the date on which the largest number of patients reported symptoms.

There cannot be many workers who fit this criterion. Namely, someone who has contact with all or most workers, who was symptomatic during a particular period, who had access to or who is a close associate of someone who had contact with a “foreigner” or airport employee.

There is another possibility for such a large outbreak to have happened over such a short period. The source of the infection was not a single individual but a number of infectious individuals with whom nearly all or most workers had contact over a short period of a day or two. I say this because, however infectious Covid-19 is and how much a “super spreader” the individual is, it is inconceivable for one individual to infect 1,000 people in a large area. In this hypothetical situation, it is not necessary for all or even any of the alleged individuals who were the source of infection to have been symptomatic, because there were a number of sources i. e. infectious individuals, each one had to infect only a smaller number of workers. On reflection therefore, this is the most feasible explanation. However, this scenario is unlikely because with no Covid-19 transmission in the country, there is no possibility for a number of infectious individuals to come into contact with the workers during a short period.



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Strong on vocals

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The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.

 

 

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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year

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Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.

 

 

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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations

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Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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