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Casting critical eye overseas, way from our Land Like No Other

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Susil Premjayantha, Attorney–at-law, who had been in several previous Cabinets, has been relieved of his ministerial post for mentioning to journalists, at the Delkanda fair, that commodities are very expensive due to ‘government policy decisions’. We are sorry about this.

The Minister of Finance promises relief in the way of monetary payments to certain categories. We are perturbed. It would be better to suffer deprivation in the short run and help the government to get the country back to stability. An increase of income by one thousand rupees means paying an additional two thousand for goods bought well within thousand previously. They call it inflation and is caused mainly by money printing.

As always, the editor of the daily, The Island, made a succinct analysis: “A pain reliever with terrible side effects.” Cass knows that only too well, suffering the after effects of a prescribed antibiotic. How stupendously worse it is, when the entire country, barring a few very lucky people, is in for greater suffering. Cass makes no comment.

Nuclear power

Cass was given a fresh insight into nuclear power generation by Gwynne Dyer in The Island of Wednesday, January 5. At midnight on Friday, 31 December, 2021, Germany shut down half of her remaining nuclear power stations. The last three of the original 17 will be shut down on 31 December, 2022. According to Dyer, the burning of fossil fuels adding to the carbon ratio in the atmosphere is far worse than a potential nuclear power plant accident. One remembers only too well Chernobyl in 1986 which killed 28 workers and 15 others. But as Dyer points out, no one died consequent to the Fukushima plant leak. The countries giving up nuclear power generation intend developing, instead renewable resources, but that takes time.

However, most persons fear the installation of nuclear power plants as we did when India was to install such on its southern tip.

Cass finds Dyer a fine columnist, whose articles of geopolitical interest, packed with facts and figures and personal opinion, are most informative. Additionally, they are written in an easy style which makes for interesting reading. Cass googled to find out more about him.

Michael Gwynne Dyer was born in 1943 in the British colony of Newfoundland, which joined Canada in 1949. Hence Dyer is a Canadian. He is a military historian, author, professor, journalist, broadcaster and served in the Navy. He became well known due to his TV series War, in 1983. He lives in London with his second wife, South African, Tina Viljoen, and is a syndicated columnist. An expert on Middle East affairs, he broadened his focus to include climate change and geopolitics. He received his PhD from King’s College London in 1973. We greatly appreciate his articles and comments, and thank The Island for publishing them.

Court cases and verdicts

The US of America has been awash with court cases. On Thursday this week, CNN, which Cass watches, and other media will focus on the first anniversary of the storming of the Capitol by Republican hooligans. Most definitely they were instigated by President Donald Trump, declared the loser in the American presidential election after recounts of votes in many States and endless ranting about the election being rigged. We well remember the speech Trump made that implied force was needed to re-install him as Prez. Consequently, the unprecedented revolt and hundreds of hulking men climbing the outer walls and invading the Capitol and its various rooms. Fortunately, they did not get to the Senate nor were any inside the building injured. But police officers were.

“Three more police officers who responded to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — including two who aided the evacuation of lawmakers — have sued Donald Trump, seeking damages for their physical and emotional injuries.”

A federal appeals court has rejected Trump’s appeal to block a House Committee from accessing White House records related to January 6, 2021. It was reported on BBC and CNN on Tuesday, January 4, that evidence exists to suggest that Ivanka Trump tried to persuade her father to call off the Capitol-invading protesters.

The fact that emerges loud, clear, indisputably and undeniably, is that in the United States of America and many European countries, justice will be meted out; even the highest in the land is not above the law.

Gossipy court cases

The scandalous case against Ghislaine Noelle Marion Maxwell born 1961, has concluded. She was accused by several girls, then teenagers, that she enticed them to prostitute themselves. The allegations were proven and she was sentenced on December 29, 2021 to 65 years in prison.

This is another case of an attractive woman, well born, enticed by wealth and the good life, to do grievous wrong.

She was born in France to a well-to-do family; the father however dabbled in shady business. She attended Balliol College, Oxford, and then became a prominent member of London society.

In 1990 she moved to New York and was involved in a romantic relationship with Jeffrey Epstein. He called her his Main Girlfriend and others named her The Lady of the House. Their friendship lasted 25 years and ended only when Epstein was convicted of trafficking teenagers for sex. He supposedly committed suicide in prison, though whispers circulated that he was ‘eliminated’ for fear of truths, implicating VVIPs, emerging.

Then a 17-year-old spa attendant at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Miami, Virginia Giuffre alias Virginia Roberts, was befriended by Maxwell. Soon enough she was in the sex business; who knows whether willingly for money and to meet important persons. Then she brought a case against Epstein and Maxwell for trafficking. Her evidence and those of other teens, now much older, got Maxwell arrested on July 2, 2020 and she was charged by the Federal Government of the US with the crimes of “recruiting and trafficking young girls to be sexually abused by the late American financier Jeffrey Epstein.”

The gold-digging opportunist, Virginia Giuffree, now a plump woman, is not done suing. She has accused Prince Andrew of having sex with her as a teenager. The latest was that his lawyers presented an agreement signed between Giuffre and Epstein and Maxwell for Giuffree to undertake prostitution on payment. The verdict will be given shortly on whether he has to appear in courts in the US or whether his lawyers can represent him. Cass hopes he will be spared the further humiliation at least for the sake of his poor mother, Queen Elizabeth II. Her children, barring the youngest son, have led her through many a trial. One does not need much imagination to share her worry.

Another receiver of ill-gotten gains from an Indian criminal has, we surmise, worried her mother so much that the latter succumbed to a stroke.

So, ends this gossipy column of Cass on the moral dregs of society, though living it up materially. She is still gas cylinder-less, spending through her nose on essentials and totally devoid of consolation. Depression is fought off. But she takes to heart the quote whose author she failed to trace. There are fighters for fair play and what is decent.

The human spirit is indomitable. “Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.”



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Features

Another legend bids farewell…

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The pandemic is bad enough, but the past few months have also brought us further shocks.

In September, last year (2021) the death of Sunil Perera, of the Gypsies, shocked the nation, and music lovers, the world over. And, then, last week, it was the demise of another veteran singer-entertainer, Desmond de Silva.

Desmond’s death was equally shocking as he had arrived, from Sydney, in high spirits, for his 31st night gig in Melbourne.

His death, they say, was due to a stroke.

And, this is how many have expressed their feelings…

Mignonne & The Jetliners, and Suyin and Michael:

I was shocked, and deeply saddened, to hear of the passing away of dear Desmond – ‘Des’ to us.

Affable and kind to most, he was a much loved entertainer and singer with whom we, too, shared many successful years of making music together, with my band, Mignonne & The Jetliners, and, on a few occasions, with my kids, Suyin and Michael, at the Taj, in Mumbai.

He was passionate about his performances, be it ballads or bailas, and he truly rocked the stag, both here and abroad, for over four decades.

Always dressed impeccably, he had the audience clamouring for more.

Des has surely carved a name for himself, as a legend, and will be remembered for his contribution as one of our best entertainers in Sri Lanka’s popular music history.

How can I say goodbye to dearest Des! He was one of a kind…and so special, and regrettably gone too soon. We will miss him dearly.

Our love and prayers go out to Phyllis and all his loved ones.

May he rest in the peace of Christ.

*  Brad Stevens (Australia):

I last met Desmond at an Old Joes dance, in Sydney, a few years back.

He had an absolutely brilliant personality; had the art of getting everyone joining him in his act…whether it was at a dance, or whether it was a performance, at a concert. Even a simple phone conversation with him was so good.

I feel bad as I could not accept his invitation to visit him and Phyllis at their home, in Sydney.

And, then, since December 2020, Desmond was a regular on The Brad & Kiara Show. In fact, we had him on our Christmas Edition, just a few weeks back, which might have even been his last voice clip, on radio….

It was nice to hear him always give credit to Phyllis – the love of his life.

Sri Lanka has lost yet another great entertainer, and all of us will miss his superb performances on stage, with his wonderful singing. But, let’s celebrate his amazing life – he would not want it any other way….

He will always live in our hearts. May His Soul Rest In Eternal Peace.

Rob Foenander (Australia):

I wasn’t a close friend of Desmond, but did share the stage with him on a few occasions. He knew Cliff Foenander (‘A Little Bit Of Soap’) very well and always spoke glowingly about Cliff. He also sang one of my songs at a wedding last September.

Yes, Desmond was well respected in the community. No question about that.

He gave himself no titles, just continued to create work for himself, around the world, which, in itself, has to be commended.

Joey Lewis (England):

Desmond was a blue-blooded stage performer, of international standard.

When I joined the Jetliners, I was 17, and Des was about 29. It felt surreal, at that time, to find myself getting such respect, and praise, from this guy who was one of my childhood heroes…(but, that was Des though, always full of encouragement for his fellow musicians). All of us, had a wonderful and crazy time together, on and off the stage.

He was a beautiful artiste, with the incredible ability to be as suave and debonair as Dean Martin one minute, and then as crazy and wild as Ozzy Osborne or Oliver Reed the next. Never a dull moment, there was, when hanging out with him.

I have not heard any crooner sing some ballads like ‘Danny Boy,’ and ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You,’ like he did, and I know now, I will never hear them sung like that again.

I share the deep sadness of my fellow Sri Lankans, all over the world, as we join together to mourn the loss of our greatest singing star, in both scenes, the Western and the Oriental..

Rest in Peace Des

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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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