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Christmas at crossroads Celebrating Christmas 2020 in an era of a pandemic

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by Rev. Fr. Leopold Ratnasekera OMI

Ph.D., Th.D. Oblate Seminary Ampitya’

The worst pandemic ever to hold humanity to ransom since the Spanish Flu of 1918/19 that killed over 50 million people world-wide, has by now come to stay as a devastating health hazard of stunning magnitude and an eerie threat to life on a global scale. The ever-mounting statistics tell us the depressing story of millions of victims who either by now had contracted this deadly virus or hundreds of thousands who have succumbed to it and the challenges that confront medical personnel and health care workers throughout the world, battling both with arresting the decease and bringing healing to those languishing in their care. Meanwhile, the whole world awaits the day when the vaccines being administered so far, will succeed infallibly in preventing this disaster getting further aggravated. In such a bleak scenario of death’s pale hovering over humanity bringing in its train immense human loss, pain, and suffering inflicted with scant respect to age or social status nationality etc., one can legitimately raise the dilemma of having to accommodate a grandiose celebration which commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ at this year’s Christmas. The two phenomena seem poles apart considering the joyous nature of the latter on the one hand and the depressing nature of the former on the other.

The birth of Jesus Christ was no fairy tale studded only with glad tidings, song, gifts and smiles. It had both lights and shadows. First of all, the new-born infant thought to be of royal dynasty and expected to be the Messiah that would liberate an oppressed people under colonial power of the imperial Rome of Caesars, saw the light of day far away from the abode of his parents in the dead of night of a cold winter, with a manger of straw for his bed and a bundle of swaddling clothes to warm his tender body. His parents though from royal lineage were a carpenter’s family. Though angelic voices rang out from the hills heralding “Glory to God on high and Peace on earth to all men of goodwill”, the angelic chorus was harkened to only by some humble shepherds who were keeping their flocks by night in the town of Bethlehem, where the birth took place. To make it worse, since there was no room in the inn, where the parents sought refuge, they had to be content for the birth, in a stable where the cattle lay in the backyard. Though there was a song in the heavens and three kings came from the orient bringing gifts to the new-born, there was already a threat to the life of the infant from the cruel hand of Herod who ordered a merciless massacre of infants under two years of age, with the intent of destroying the carpenter’s son gossiped about to be a king, thus posing a chilling threat to Herod who ruled the country in the name of Caesar, The Christmas story recalls how the new family was forced to flee to Egypt which was miles away from Bethlehem to avert danger. This arduous journey marked a long period of exile turning them into migrants.

It is only with the news that Herod who plotted is dead, they could make a secure journey back to Nazareth where the family would live till, Jesus as a young man will decide to venture out of home choosing to be an itinerant preacher and a wonder-worker. When taken to the temple for an initiation rite, a wise man takes the child into his hands prophesying that the infant is set for the rise and fall of many and that one day, a sword of sorrow will pierce the heart of the mother. This was a reference to the cruel death of Jesus on a cross decreed by the Roman authority falsely condemned by religious authorities of the time linked to the temple of Jerusalem. These were all the chilling shadows which cast a certain gloom over the happy birthday of the world’s redeemer born on the first Christmas day 2000 years ago. This birth narrative which on purpose places the birth of Christ is a context of utter poverty, anonymity, helplessness and trial, portrays a story that should evoke mixed feelings almost amounting to a sign of contradiction. How could the appearance of God made man, the Incarnation of God, one of Christianity’s core mysteries be overshadowed by such distressing circumstances? Yet, in his work, he would overturn established religious norms in favor of compassion and mercy, challenge hypocrisy, reconcile opposing factions, claim power to forgive sin, preach love of the enemy, heal the sick, drive out demons, praise the innocence of children condemning the rash and despicable behavior of adults, raise the dead, heal sicknesses, promote love of the enemy and even command the roaring waves of the high seas, stilling storms to a whisper.

This humble carpenter’s son from the hamlet of Nazareth in the south of Galilee was destined to revolutionize entire cultures and civilizations through the era of the Roman Caesars and regime of Constantine, followed by the oligarchic period of the medieval ages, then through renaissance and the industrial revolution to finally impacting even the modern and post-modern era of our so-called techno-scientific secular age. His teachings have provided not only spiritual but also philosophical and cultural insights that have inspired various schools of scientific thought in areas of culture, politics and civil life. Today there is prolific discourse on human dignity and fundamental human rights, social justice, human freedom and liberation, dignity of work, sacredness of life and sanctity of the institution of marriage, human solidarity and fraternity and finally dialogue at all levels seen as the language that facilitates communication and collaboration in a world that is highly complex and diverse: in fact, a global village. Only the language of dialogue can bring together people of many tongues. While the earliest disciples of Jesus strived to accommodate the reconciliation of the Jews and the Gentiles, Paul the apostle took the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth to all the main cosmopolitan centers of the Roman empire such as Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, Thessalonica and finally to imperial Rome itself. According to Christian philosophy, based on human dignity, there was to be no distinction based on religious or ethnic differences such as between Jews and Greeks, social status as between slave and free men, and even distinction based on gender as between men and women. It brought in indeed a radical socio-cultural revolution. It is this same doctrine that is being defended today in the free world about the equality of all as declared in the United Nations Charter of 1948 and being diffused in all democratic societies worldwide. It is to be noted that within the Church is propounded a social doctrine anchored on four pillars: namely, human dignity of all, preservation of common good in all endeavors and the twin-principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. These principles guarantee a free and just society anywhere. The Gospel flavor diffused by Jesus Christ continues to influence even current controversial and disturbing issues such as proliferation of nuclear weapons, ethically questionable medical procedures, unfair economic systems and environmental issues.

Christmas 2020 instead of sending negative messages ensures on the contrary, the possibility of engendering hopes and dreams that will help us get over the present pandemic crisis that plagues the world and trust in a God who loves the world and also in humanity which will tend increasingly to fraternize in efforts to overcome periods of crisis, tragedies and challenges. The pandemic phenomenon has led the world to treasure human life and work hard to save and protect it with all the means it can muster. The whole world community is drawn into an incredible solidarity sharing the global pain of all who are victims, scattered as they are in all corners of the globe. There is generosity with time and financial resources to attend to the enormous expenditures incurred in the care of the sick and with the prevention of the viral decease. Medical technology is at work to dispensing remedies for healing the sick and providing preventive measures. The whole of humanity yearns, prays and joins hands in ushering the hour and day of total freedom from the devastation that is, plunging the world population into disarray. The true spirit of Christmas inspires us to identify with all those placed in trying circumstances and rush to the aid and solace of all who are afflicted by the current pandemic. Despite the fact that the pandemic crisis would surely stall customary external celebrations, crowded solemn liturgies in churches, frantic shopping and gifting or parties; we can this particular Christmas turn our gaze on the divine infant born in a stable, his family in exile with danger to the life of the new-born and a whole tangle of uncertainty and sheer poverty that surrounded the nativity scene. The spirit of Christmas cannot grind to a halt falling a victim to these adverse conditions that may prevent an exotic celebration, for it is good news about life, family warmth and challenges that usually confront the struggle for survival. The latter feature notwithstanding, the moving story of the Christmas child is the greatest story ever told in our hearing and worthy of admiration. This alternate manner of celebrating Christmas 2020 with a difference, will make us resonate better with the current situation of anxiety prevailing globally making it easier as well without loss of hope, to contend with the tragedy at hand.

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31st night…Down Under

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The NYE scene at the Grand Reception Centre, in Melbourne

Despite the COVID-19 restrictions, the Voluntary Outreach Club (VOC) in Victoria, Australia, was able to hold a successful New Year’s Eve celebration, at The Grand Reception Centre, in Cathies Lane, Wantirna South.

In a venue that comfortably holds 800, the 200 guests (Covid restrictions), spanning three generations, had plenty of room to move around and dance to the array of fabulous music provided by the four bands – Replay 6, Ebony, Cloud 9 with Sonali, Redemption and All About That Brass. 

The drinks provided, they say, oiled the rusty feet of the guests, who were able to finally dress up and attend such an event after nine months of lockdown and restrictions. With plenty of room for dancing, the guests had a thoroughly enjoyable time. 

According to an insider, the sustenance of an antipasto platter, eastern and western smorgasbord, and the midnight milk rice and katta sambol, were simply delicious, not forgetting the fantastic service provided by Jude de Silva, AJ Senewiratne and The Grand staff.

The icing on the cake, I’m told, was the hugely generous sponsorship of the bands by Bert Ekenaike. This gesture boosted the coffers of the VOC, which helps 80 beneficiaries, in Sri Lanka, comprising singles and couples, by sending Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 3,500, per month, to each of these beneficiaries, and augmenting this sum, twice a year, in July and December, with a bonus of the same amounts.

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Fall armyworm:

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Strategies for effective management

by Prof. Rohan Rajapakse

Emeritus Professor of Entomology University of Ruhuna and former Executive Director Sri Lanka Council of Agriculture Research Policy

Fall armyworm Spodoptera frugiperda (Lepidoptera; Noctuidae), a quarantine pest, has been identified as a very destructive insect pest of Maize/Corn. This insect originated in Americas and invaded the African region in 2016 and was detected in India the following year and perhaps would have naturally migrated to Sri Lanka last year from India. Now, it is reported that FAW is present in all districts of Sri Lanka except Nuwara-Eliya and Jaffna. In winter in the USA the pest is found in Texas and Florida and subsequent summer when it gets warmed up, the pest migrates up to the Canadian border. The corn belt of China is also at a risk due to its migratory habit and the cost to Africa, due to this invasion, will exceed $ 6 billion. Maize is a staple food crop in Africa and millions depends on it for food. Hence in Africa and now in Asia it is a global food security issue for millions of people that could be at a risk if FAW is not controlled. The adult moth migrates very fast almost 100 km every night and nearly 500 km, before laying 1,500 eggs on average. The entire life cycle lasts 30 days in tropical climate. There are six larval instars and mostly the destruction is caused by the last three instars and the growing moth pupates in the soil for 10-12 days and the nocturnal adults lay eggs on leaves for about 10 days The pest thrives on about 80 host plants but the most preferable host is Corn/Maize. In Sri Lanka the preferred hosts includes Kurakkan and Sugarcane in addition to Maize. The symptoms of damage- scrapping of leaves, pin holes, small to medium elongated holes. Loss of top portion of leaves fecal pellets in leaf whorl which are easily recognizable. The Comb is also attacked in later stages with a heavy infestation, but after removing the FAW affected portion of the comb the remaining portion is still suitable for consumption and there is no fear of any toxicity. There are two morphologically identical strains––maize strain that feeds on maize and sorghum, and rice strain that feeds on rice and pasture grasses. However, in Sri Lanka only the maize strain has been detected so far. FAW thrives in a climate where drought is followed by heavy rains on a similar way we have experienced last year.

Although new agricultural insect pests are found in Sri Lanka, from time to time a number of factors make FAW unique (FAO Publication 2018)

1

FAW consumes many different crops 2 FAW spreads quickly across large geographical areas 3.FAW can persists throughout the year. Therefore Sri Lanka needs to develop a coordinated evidence based effort to scout FAW for farming communities and effective monitoring by the research staff

 

Management

Since the pest has already arrived in Sri Lanka, the Government/ Ministry of Agriculture should formulate short, mid and long term strategies for its effective management with all stakeholders. Also it has to be clear that a single strategy ex pesticides will not help in effective control but a proper combination of tactics, such as integrated pest management should be employed in the long term. In the short term, the recommended pesticides by the Department of Agriculture should be employed along with cultural and sanitary control strategies. These strategies have now been formulated and what is required to enlighten the farmers and people by utilizing the trained staff. The country should be placed on a war footing and an emergency should be declared in the affected areas to coordinate the control strategies. The integrated control tactics, such as cultural control, should be integrated with pesticides based on the recommendation of the research staff. The residues should be destroyed after harvest and avoid late planting and staggered planting. The Ministry of Agriculture should create awareness among the farmers and train the farmers on early detection of egg masses found on leaves and destroy them by hand. The pesticides for FAW control is recommended by the Department of Agriculture (Please contact Registrar of Pesticides of the Department of Agriculture for the recommended list of Pesticides) and they have to make it available at subsidized rates or given free with technical information considering the emergency. When the larvae are small early detection and proper timing of pesticides are critical for elimination of the pest. With this outbreak some farmers and the private sector is engaged using highly hazardous pesticides which should be avoided to make way for sustainable alternatives. The Department Entomologists should train the farmers for early detection of egg masses when present on 5% of the plants and when 25% of the plants show damage symptoms and live larvae are present on war footing. The economic threshold has been calculated as 2-3 live larvae per plant and the control strategies should commence as soon as this threshold is detected by visual observation. The majority of development officers, agriculture and science graduates working in Divisional Secretariats, are already trained on pest control and their participation on training the farmers for early detection and pesticide selection and application warrants the strategy. Some of the recommended pesticides are follows: Chlorantraniliprole 200g/1SC: Trade name Corogen, Emamectin benzoate 5%SG: Trade name Proclaim,, Flubendiamide 24% WG : Trade name Belt. The Principle Entomologist of the Dry Zone Research Station of the Department of Agriculture ( Mrs KNC Gunawardena) has prepared an effective online presentation on FAW control and this has to be shared by all. The African country Ghana has declared a state of emergency in response to this invasion as Maize is a staple crop which should be followed by us in Sri Lanka.

The long term strategies include early detection. Stopping its spread and initiation of a long term research programme to identify tolerant varieties and granting permission to import such varieties as seeds. The country should ear mark on a Biological control strategy by breeding and releasing FAW parasitoids regularly. In USA larval parasitoids such as Apanteles marginiventris, Chelonus insularis and Microplitis manilae have contributed to keep the pest population down along with egg parasitoids Trichrogramma spp and a similar program should be initiated in the affected districts. Finally the best option is to establish a task force with the involvement of entomologists, extension personnel along with the administrators and scientists working in the universities to ensure the country are safe with regards to food security

 

 

The author has read for a PhD at University of Florida Gainesville in the USA in 1985 and his PhD thesis exclusively deals on Fall armyworm parasitoids and its ecology

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President’s decision on Colombo Port in national interest

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by Jehan Perera

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has announced that the government will be entering into an agreement with the Adani Group, based in India, to offer them 49 percent of the shares in a joint venture company. This joint venture will include Japanese government financing and will manage one of the terminals in the Colombo port. The entry of Adani Group, into the Colombo port, has been opposed by a wide coalition of organisations, ranging from port workers, and left political parties, to nationalists and civil society groups. These groups have little in common with each other but on this particular issue they have made common cause and even held joint protests together. The main thrust of their objections is that control over the East Terminal of the Colombo port will pass into foreign hands and result in an erosion of Sri Lankan sovereignty.

The cause for alarm, among the protesting groups, may be fueled by the observation that one by one, the ports of Sri Lanka are being utilized by foreign powers. In particular, China has entered into Sri Lanka in a big way, obtaining a 99-year lease in the Hambantota port that it constructed. The Hambantota port, in its early period, showed it was economically unviable in the absence of Chinese cooperation. The burden of debt repayment induced the previous government to enter into this agreement which may become unfavorable in terms of national sovereignty. There were protests at the time of the signing of that lease agreement, too, though not as effective as the present protests regarding the change of management in the Colombo port, which is led by the very forces that helped to bring the present government into power.

In addition to the Hambantota port, control over the South Terminal in the Colombo port, and a section of the harbour, has been given to China through one of its companies on a 35-year lease. In both cases, large Chinese investments have helped to upgrade Sri Lanka’s capacity to attract international shipping lines to make use of the port facilities. The Hambantota port, in particular, could benefit enormously from Chinese ships that traverse the Indian Ocean, the Middle East and Africa. Instead of making refuelling stops elsewhere along the way, such as Singapore, they could now come to Hambantota. However, with these investments would also come a Chinese presence that could cause concerns among international actors that have geopolitics in mind. It may be that these concerns are finding expression in the opposition to the Indian entry into the Colombo port.

 

RATIONAL ANALYSIS

It will not only be Sri Lankans who are concerned about the Chinese presence in the country’s ports. As Sri Lanka’s nearest neighbour, India, too, would have concerns, which are mirrored by other international powers, such as Japan. It might be remembered that when Japan’s prime minister visited Sri Lanka, in 2014, there was a diplomatic furor that a Chinese submarine entered the Colombo port, unannounced, even to the Sri Lankan government, and docked there. With its excellent relations with China, that go back to the 1950s, when the two countries signed a barter agreement, exchanging rice for rubber, most Sri Lankans would tend to see such Chinese actions in a benign light. In recent years, China has emerged as Sri Lanka’s largest donor and its assistance is much appreciated. However, India’s relations with China are more complex.

The two countries have massive trade links, but they have also gone to war with each other due to territorial disputes. Even at the present time Indian and Chinese troops are in a stand-off on their disputed Himalayan border. In this context, India would be concerned that the Chinese presence in Sri Lankan ports could eventually take the form of an overall strategy to encircle it and use this leverage to India’s disadvantage. Sri Lanka’s location at the bottom of the Asian continent gives it a strategic importance in the Indian Ocean that goes beyond any possible India-China rivalry. The recent visit of US Secretary of State to Sri Lanka included an acerbic exchange of words between the US and Chinese representatives on that occasion and an open call to Sri Lanka to take sides, or not to take sides. As a small actor in itself, Sri Lanka would have no interest in getting involved in international geopolitics and has a longstanding policy of non-alignment and friendship with all.

More than anyone else, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would be aware of these geopolitical issues. As Defence Secretary, during the years of war with the LTTE, he was a key member of the government team that obtained wide ranging international support for prosecuting the war. Today, the President’s key advisers include those with military backgrounds who have special expertise in geopolitical analysis and who have spent time in leading military academies in different parts of the world, including the US, China and India. This contrasts with the more parochial thinking of political, nationalist and even civil society groups who have come out in opposition to the agreement that the government has entered into with the Indian company to manage the Eastern Terminal of the Colombo port.

 

GEOPOLITICAL IMPERATIVE

President Rajapaksa was elected to the presidency in the context of the security debacle of the Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks and with the expectation that he would provide clear-cut leadership in protecting the country’s national security without permitting partisan interests from becoming obstacles. In his meeting with the representatives of the trade unions, opposing the handing of management of the Eastern Terminal to foreign hands, the President is reported to have said that geopolitics had also to be taken into account. As many as 23 trade unions, representing the Ports Authority, the National Organisations collective, and a number of civil organizations, have joined the formation of a new national movement named the ‘Movement to protect the East Container Terminal’.

One of those political representatives at the meeting, leader of the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), Pubudu Jayagoda, is reported to have said, “When trade unions met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Wednesday (13), he told them about the broad geopolitical factors in play. This is reminiscent when the unions met former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe a few years back. The unions told Wickremesinghe what they told Rajapaksa––the ECT could be operated by Sri Lanka in a profitable manner. Wickremesinghe told the union representatives, ‘You are talking about the port, I am talking about geopolitics’.” However, former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe may not have had the necessary political power to ensure that his vision prevailed and failed to ensure the implementation of the agreement.

Entering into the agreement with the Indian company will serve Sri Lanka’s national interests in several ways. By ensuring that India is given a presence in Sri Lanka’s most important port, it will reassure our closest neighbour, as well as Japan, which has been Sri Lanka’s most consistent international donor, that our national security interests and theirs are not in opposition to each other. Second, it takes cognizance of the reality that about two-thirds of the Colombo port’s shipping is due to transshipment with India, and thereby ensures that this profitable business continues. Third, it will give Sri Lanka more leverage to negotiate with India regarding key concerns, which includes Indian support to Sri Lanka at international forums and in providing guarantees for the unity of the country in the face of possible future threats and the need to ensure devolution of power to satisfy ethnic minority aspirations.

 

 

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