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Coping with geopolitical challenges facing Sri Lanka

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“… we find that an armed conflict exists whenever there is resort to armed force between States or protracted armed violence between government authorities and organized groups or between such groups within a State. International humanitarian law applies from the initiation of such armed conflict and extends beyond the cessation of hostilities…. (and) in the case of internal conflicts, a peaceful settlement is achieved”.

 

by Neville Ladduwahetty

 

The most recent challenge that Sri Lanka has had to face was associated with UNHRC Resolution A/HRC/46/L.Rev.1. This Resolution was primarily based on the Report of the UN appointed Commissioner for Human Rights. Despite the objections raised the Sri Lankan government on grounds that the Report of the Commissioner violates the mandate granted by General Assembly Resolution 48/141 and that the Resolution itself violates the UN Charter and lacks “impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity”, the Resolution was adopted by the Human Rights Council on March 23, 2021.

The compulsion to go to such extremes and adopt a Resolution violating due process established by the UN, is driven by internal politics within countries that initiated the Resolution and by geopolitical interests of major powers.

Internal political compulsions are driven by the priorities of the Tamil minority concentrations resident in defined electorates in countries such as U.K., Canada, Germany and other European countries. When prospective Members of Parliament in these countries, regardless of which political party they represent, campaign for the votes of the Tamil minorities, they when elected, become the torchbearers for the priorities of the Tamil minorities, because it is their vote that decided whether they are elected or not. Consequently, since accountability for issues arising from the non-international armed conflict in Sri Lanka is the single-minded focus of the Tamil minorities, accountability has become a government policy for elected governments in these countries.

On the other hand, geopolitical compulsions are driven by a coalition of democracies forging security alliances such as the Quad, headed by the U.S. to contain China’s global expansion in the South China Sea founded on the Chinese claim of nine-dash line and its inroads into the Indian Ocean Rim countries in pursuit of their Belt and Road Initiative. These developments have energized the U.S. to adopt the policy of “Pivot to Asia” through the stated policy of forging a new Indo-Pacific Maritime Order.; a policy that is being relentlessly pursued by the U.S. in the form of forging alliances. the latest being the Maldives and the consequent isolation of Sri Lanka in this part of the Indian Ocean.

 

ADDRESSING INTERNAL COMPULSIONS

Internal compulsions are driven by the call to address accountability arising from issues relating to the non-international armed conflict within the time frame of signing the Ceasefire Agreement on February 22, 2002 and May 19, 2009 when the conflict ended. Having established the time frame, the next step is to establish the context in which to address accountability. In this regard, a context that would be acceptability to all concerned should be those established by the Panel of Experts appointed by the UN Secretary General, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and by the Appeal Court of the International Tribunal of former Yugoslavia.

The UN appointed Panel of Experts in their report stated: “There is no doubt that an internal armed conflict was being waged in Sri Lanka with the requisite intensity during the period that the Panel examined. As a result, international humanitarian law is the law against which to measure the conduct of both government and the LTTE”.

The Report of Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Sri Lanka (OISL) states: “Paragraph 182 of The OHCHR report states: “Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions relating to conflict not of an international character is applicable to the situation in Sri Lanka”.

Paragraph 183 goes on to state: “In addition, the Government and armed groups that are parties to the conflict are bound alike by relevant rules of customary international law applicable to non-international armed conflict”.

 

FURTHERMORE,

Defining what constitutes an armed conflict, the Appeals Court of the International Tribunal on former Yugoslavia (1995) in the case of Prosecutor v. Dusco Tadic stated: “… we find that an armed conflict exists whenever there is resort to armed force between States or protracted armed violence between government authorities and organized groups or between such groups within a State. International humanitarian law applies from the initiation of such armed conflict and extends beyond the cessation of hostilities…. (and) in the case of internal conflicts, a peaceful settlement is achieved”.

Thus, it could justifiably be concluded that the context in which accountability issues should be addressed is International Humanitarian Law since the conflict in Sri Lanka was a Non-International Armed Conflict and the applicable law is International Humanitarian Law that acknowledges the derogation of Human Rights Law except for a defined few defined as the “hard core” of Human Rights during an officially declared emergency. Since these laws are codified in Additional Protocol II of 1977, issues relating to accountability should be addressed within the context of Additional Protocol II of 1077 that is acknowledged by the community of nations as a part of customary law.

Therefore, the task at hand is to evaluate any and all evidence of any violations of International Humanitarian Law as stated in the OISL Report, in the context of provisions in Additional Protocol II of 1977, subject to derogation of International Human Rights Law that is recognized by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and by Article 15 (7) and (8) of the Constitution during a declared emergency. In this regard, Paragraph 175 of the OISL Report states: “OISL notes that Sri Lanka has submitted a Declaration of a State of emergency dated 30 My 2000, derogating from articles 9 (2), 9 (3), 12 (1), 12 (2), 14 (3), 17 (1), 19 (2), 21 and 22 of the ICCPR. Measures taken pursuant to derogation are lawful to the extent they comply with the conditions set out in international human rights law…”.

In explaining the relationship between international human rights law and international humanitarian law during armed conflict, the International Court of Justice has stated: “…. the Court considers that the protection offered by human rights conventions does not cease in case of armed conflict, save through the effect of provisions for derogation of the kind to be found in article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As regards the relationship between international humanitarian law and human rights law, there are thus three possible situations: some rights may be exclusively matters of international humanitarian law; others may be exclusively matters of human rights law; yet others may be matters of both these branches of international law” (Applicable International Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law Framework – UN).

Considering the material presented above, it is recommended that a document should be prepared on the basis of principles of Distinction, Proportionality and Military Necessity on which is founded International Humanitarian Law an embodied in Additional Protocol II of 1977 that addresses any alleged violations stated in the OISL Report by a group nominated by the Ministry of Foreign Relations. Such a document should include material proposed by the international experts appointed by the Paranagama Commission together with material from Lord Naseby, as well as any other related material for distribution to all countries, in order to convey to them a perspective that thus far has not being presented at repeated sessions of the UN Human Rights Council and other International forums.

The mandate of the three Member Commission of Inquiry appointed by the President as part of the Domestic Mechanism to address accountability states: (a) “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such offences”. Since the mandate does not specify the criteria and the time frame that should be used to distinguish human rights violations from humanitarian law violations, it would be up to Commission to decide how to distinguish between the two types of violations bearing in mind that the two types of law are applicable over different time frames.

 

UNIVERSAL JURISDICTION

The UNHRC 46/1 Resolution calls for the Office of the High Commissioner “to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence…to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial and other proceedings, including in Member States, with competent jurisdiction” (Paragraph 6). In short the evidence is gathered at a cost of US $ 2.8 Million to facilitate Member States to exercise universal jurisdiction. Thus far, universal jurisdiction has been exercised in regard to violations that come within the framework of a “Grave Breaches” regime that have occurred during certain internal conflicts that were governed by International Human Rights Law. However, in the case of Sri Lanka the conflict is categorized as a non-international armed conflict that is governed by International Humanitarian Law. Therefore, while the international community has accepted universal jurisdiction in the case of international armed conflicts along with Protocol I, the jury is still out as to whether it applies to non-international conflicts as in Sri Lanka as expressed by the ICRC comment cited below made to the General Assembly.

A document that addresses accountability from a Sri Lankan perspective would stand in good stead in the event a country or countries attempt to exercise universal jurisdiction relating to issues arising from the armed conflict. However, since the conflict in Sri Lanka was a non-international armed conflict the application of universal jurisdiction is fraught with fundamental issues as is evidenced by the statement of the ICRC to the UN General Assembly at its 71st session Sixth Committee, when it stated: “The updated commentaries also address other fundamental issues, such as the time frame for fulfilling the obligation to investigate alleged grave breaches and either prosecute or extradite those responsible; the challenges encountered by States when implementing universal jurisdiction; the state of international law today with regard to the potential immunities from jurisdiction and prosecution for alleged perpetrators of serious violations of IHL; and the possible applicability of the grave breaches regime to serious violations of IHL in non-international armed conflict” (emphasis added).

 

ADDRESSING GEOPOLITICAL COMPULSIONS

The strategic position of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean has been increasingly coming into focus with the conclusion of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka. This, together with China’s policy to pursue its expansion founded on its Belt and Road Initiative has increased the focus on Sri Lanka. The need for the U.S. to contain China’s expansion in the South China Sea and in the Indian Ocean Rim countries has prompted the U.S. and its allies to build alliances such as the Quad that include India, Japan and Australia. India’s inclusion in the Quad was a recent development and an even more recent development was the Maldives entering into security related agreements with the U.S. and India.

This has isolated Sri Lanka. With the Quad attempting to extend its influence to countries East of the Malacca Straits, Sri Lanka’s isolation would be even greater. However, Sri Lanka would not be facing such isolation had it succumbed to U.S. pressures and signed the MCC Compact and SOFA after having signed ACSA. Although Sri Lanka managed to emerge ostensibly unscathed by not caving into U.S. pressure, its repercussions were experienced in Geneva. However, for all intents and purposes, the perceived isolation of Sri Lanka in the current context is bound to be taken advantage of by China to build even stronger bonds than those existing today. This is inevitable since China’s foot print is already well established in the Colombo Port City, the Colombo International Container Terminal and the harbour at Hambantota for the next 35 to 99 years.

It is most likely that the U.S., India and the rest of the Quad are going to extract a heavy price for the presence of China to the extent it has. This compels Sri Lanka to make hard choices similar to the ones that countries East of the Malacca Straits would have to face in the coming years. As for Sri Lanka, it cannot afford to offer planned infrastructure projects such as the West Container Terminal to India/Japan in the hope of appeasing one or more members to the Quad to balance the influence of China. This would amount dividing national projects between the Quad and China.

The way out for Sri Lanka to prepare the tender documents and call for open international bids in a transparent manner, and award the contract to the successful bidder regardless of geopolitical considerations. For instance, the solar power project in the three islands off the Jaffna peninsula should be awarded to China because China was chosen by the ADB as the successful bidder after addressing the security concerns of India, but Sri Lanka certainly need not abandon the project because of India’s concerns.

Since Sri Lanka’s stated Foreign Policy is Neutrality; and Non-Alignment, entertaining unsolicited bids for projects would amount to violating that policy. How Sri Lanka could live up to the promise of its stated policy and engage with all countries is to be open and transparent in the manner it implements its planned developments.

 

CONCLUSION

The challenges facing Sri Lanka, apart from the effects of COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the economy and the livelihood of the people are primarily from two sources. One is from internal pressures from the Tamil concentrations in defined electorates in countries such as U.K., Canada, Germany and other European countries that determine who gets elected to their respective Parliaments. Consequently, to these politicians the cause of their Tamil concentrations relating to accountability has become a policy for these governments. The second challenge is from geopolitical rivalries between major powers and others aspiring to be major powers attempting to control the Indo-Pacific Oceans. It was the role of the Oceans in maintaining the super power status of the U.S. that made US Navy Admiral Mahan to recommend to President Roosevelt the importance of oceans, especially the Pacific, to the U.S. The Indian Maritime Doctrine-2004 is based on this U. S. concept (Khan, May 23, 2010). The rivalry arose when China’s claims in the South China Seas and the concept of Belt and Road Initiative announced in 2013 were superimposed on the U.S. formulations.

The impact of these developments was the emergence of the Quad security alliance headed by the U.S. involving Japan and Australia and recently India, and even more recently the Maldives. The Quad started out as a humanitarian exercise to address the disaster following the 2004 tsunami. The transformation into a security alliance was to be expected in the wake of China’s claims. However, the impact of all these developments is to isolate Sri Lanka. What is recommended is a strategy for Sri Lanka to meet the challenges arising from the geopolitical rivalries in the Indo-Pacific.

The two recommendations presented above to overcome these challenges are: 1. To prepare a comprehensive document as suggested above that addresses the Internationally recognized Humanitarian Law violations as alleged by the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights in the OISL Report, in the context of Additional protocol II of 1977, and circulate and canvass through Sri Lanka’s Missions, all the Member States of the UN, in order to convey Sri Lanka’s perspective that hitherto has not been presented to the Human Rights Council or to any other international forum. 2. In keeping with Sri Lanka’s declared Foreign Policy of Neutrality and Non-Alignment, follow due process in the award of contracts relating to infrastructure projects by not entertaining unsolicited proposals from any quarter and call for international bids based on tender documents prepared in Sri Lanka independently or with external collaboration when necessary, without assigning them to designated entities based on geopolitical compulsions; an example being the West Container Terminal.

These recommendations are presented with a view to ensuring that Sri Lanka retains its independence, its sovereignty, its territorial integrity and develop as a free Nation State.

 

 



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The ‘Cheena Abhagya’ on the rise

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There is a big China Hurry in the government that seems much higher than any hurry about controlling the Covid pandemic.

The debate of the Colombo Port City Commission was scheduled for May 5, without even receiving the Supreme Court decision on the many petitions filed before it. This is a complete and shameless shift from the very process of parliamentary debate, the stuff of democracy.

A debate in parliament is based on the material — the facts, plans, decisions, proposals etc – placed before the members. This government with its Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour has no interest in the democratic process. They decide on a date for a debate on what is the most important piece of legislation today, with the MPs not given even an hour to know and study the decision of the Supreme Court on the subject. In fact, it is also a huge insult to the Supreme Court and the judicial process, too.

This decision and its refusal to agree to the Opposition calls for more days for this debate, showed how the government is ready, and determined, to use its two-thirds majority, post 20A, to have no respect for the democratic process.

Although this shameful move by the government failed, due to the Supreme Court decision not reaching the Speaker by that time, the mockery of democracy continues, with the next date for the debate on the Port City subject being fixed for May 18, again with no opportunity for all MPs to read and study the court decision/s on so many matters raised by the petitioners, some of whom were members of parliament too.

This is the China Hurry – Cheena Hadissiya – being displayed, just the initial moves to use the Sinopharm Covid Vaccine on the people of this country, while it has not been approved by the WHO and the responsible Health and Medical officials in this country.

This is the ‘Cheenabhagya’ doing much more than the Saubhagya Dekma of Gotabhaya Power. A rising ‘Abhagya’ or misery to the people.

This Cheenabhagya is certainly impacting others in the government, such as Minister Gamini Lokuge, who decided to arbitrarily lift the lockdown and travel restrictions in Piliyandala. There will be much more Cheena benefits and power in the coming weeks, as the country keeps reeling with the spread of the latest variant of Covid-19. 

The Cabinet move to import gyms to strengthen the muscles of the people is certainly a move to reduce the thinking power of the people. Muscle Power is the stuff of rulers who have no faith in the Brain Power of people, who would dare to question the decisions taken by rulers. The use of this Brain Power is the very substance of the Buddhist thinking that has been the core value of Sri Lanka through the centuries. This is the substance of the Buddha Dharmaya as against the Buddha-agama that has distorted Buddhist teachings. Are the plans to build a Sri Lankan temple, in the premises of the ancient and first Buddhist White Horse Temple in China, a show of the Cheena Dekma – or Chinese Vision – that holds sway among those attached to what will soon be the Cheena Rajavasala in Hambantota. Maybe, we will soon change the name of Hambantota to a Maha Cheenatota, and wipe off the arrival of Hamban people to this country.

Rishad Bathiuddin remains in the spotlight today. His moves with different governments, from the Mahinda Rajapaksa to the Yahapalana have been the cause of much criticism and court orders such as replanting torn down jungles. He is now detained as a terror suspect, and the Cheena Balaya does not want him to attend parliament. Sarath Weerasekera, Minister of Public Security, does not want him in the House, as he will violate the legal process that holds him in custody, as he would most likely reveal the secrets of terrorism inquiries supposedly now underway, and may even help other un-arrested terror suspects to flee the country. This is against the official thinking of the Attorney General, who certainly knows more about law, than a retired armed services officer.

The innocence of an unconvicted person until conviction by a court, is part of our democratic and judicial processes. Weerasekera is wholly pleased to have within the government ranks, in parliament, a person convicted by the courts for the crime of murder in the Ratnapura district, Premalal Jayasekera. Is this power prospect for future murderers, convicted by a court of law? This Cheena Havula also had in its ranks Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan – Pillayan, while he was held in custody for the murder of a former MP in a Batticaloa church, many years ago. Well, well – he has since been acquitted and released by the Batticaloa High Court

It is not our delight that Rishard Bathiuddin is the focus of a call for democracy within parliament. We are aware of how his party, and the Muslim Congress too, gave support to pass the 20A, and its huge blow to democracy. But the rights of a citizen and an elected MP, have to be protected, whatever the politics and the other stuff of a person may be. To give him the right to attend and speak in parliament is a core value of the democratic process. This cannot be torn away under the Cheena thinking, which is fast taking us to the manipulations of the Chinese Communist Party, in its governance of China.

We are in the throes of a pandemic that is certainly sweeping the country. The need is to guide and handle the fight against it, and save the people of the horror we see just across the Palk Strait. Narendra Modi, who was honoured by his BJP for the so-called success in defeating Covid-19, is now facing humiliating defeats, electorally, socially and globally too. Our fight against this pandemic must be through the values of the democratic process. The values we have seen till 1977, after independence, which have been distorted and destroyed by JRJ and down to the Cheenabhagya of Gotabhaya.

The fight against Covid-19 must be a fight to restore Democracy too, in every form of the people’s rights and freedoms.

Let’s move to Janatha Bhagya, away from the rising Cheena Abhagya of today!

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From Cylinder to Liquid Oxygen Plant

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Story of Oxygen supply at National Hospital –

The National Hospital of Sri Lanka (NHSL) is the largest and best equipped Teaching Hospital in the country with a bed strength of nearly 4,000. It has 26 operating theatres, 28 Intensive Care Units (ICU) and several institutes including one for Cardiology housed in a large number of buildings. It is located on a 32-acre land standing in the middle of Colombo.

NHSL is circled by a ring of busy public roads while some roads are running through the premises. Hospital premises and surrounding roads are always filled with hurriedly pacing medical staff, siren blaring ambulances, patient-carrying trolleys, distressed relatives and tired visitors. One would not miss the sight of a cylinders loaded truck crawling across in this melee and wonder why the truck. They ensure continuous and uninterrupted supply of most essential medical oxygen for the patients treated in ICUs and those undergoing surgery in operating theatres.

A few years ago, a visitor would not have missed the outside walls of these operating theatres and ICUs each of which decorated with 6-7 hanging jumbo oxygen cylinders. When I made the morning strolls down the hospital corridors my eyes always caught the sight of these cylinders. Oxygen is taken through a copper tubing system fixed to these cylinders to the respective destinations. i.e. Oxygen outlet in the bedside of patients treated in ICUs and in operating theatres. Hospital had a sufficient number of cylinders filled with oxygen. Employees efficiently replaced empty cylinders with new ones.

Every day employees collected empty cylinders, loaded them on a truck and transported to the Oxygen Company in Mattakkuliya for refilling. On certain days when the oxygen consumption was high, this operation has to be doubled. Hospital had its own truck and a group of specially trained skilled employees assigned for the task. Loading and unloading of these jumbo cylinders was a specialised job.

I noticed this operation during my afternoon inspection tour. In fact, the noise made in loading unloading as well as dismounting and mounting cylinders on the walls and the sight itself, to say the least, was a nuisance. Once the truck returned, the refilled cylinders were immediately distributed among the theatres and ICUs. Needless to say this was a hectic task considering the large number, and the spread of theatres and ICUs in the hospital.

There were tensed situations when the truck did not return on time due to a break down, a traffic congestion or an accident on the way. Thought of the delay of the truck with refilled oxygen cylinders gave me many sleepless nights. I was waiting to welcome the irritating noise made when cylinders fell on one another during unloading. While others were cursing, I got a sense of relief as it was an indication that the oxygen truck has arrived. My official residence was in very close proximity to the Merchants Ward where many cylinders were unloaded. No sooner had I heard the clattering sound than I ran to the window to witness the unloading.

As the Director of the country’s largest hospital, I was responsible for the overall smooth functioning of the hospital itself and that of men, material and machinery. And among all, ensuring the continuous and uninterrupted supply of oxygen for patients who were critically ill and those undergoing surgery was foremost.

Majority staff including doctors and nurses did not know the complexity behind the smooth flow of oxygen through the outlet whenever they open the valve to administer oxygen to a patient. Only a handful of people knew the complexity of the ‘oxygen supply operation’ in the hospital. It was a nightmare for me personally and all my predecessors.

While worrying over this cumbersome complex manual operation, I was wondering how fitting this type of oxygen supply for a Teaching Hospital of the magnitude of the National Hospital. My mind was busy in exploring and weighing alternatives.

While listening to the clattering of cylinders and watching the swift movements of workers’ hands in the unloading operation in the middle of the night, with a cup of steaming coffee in my hand, a thought struck my mind. I heard my own voice shouting over the clattering sound of falling cylinders; Hey! Man, be practical, install a Liquid Oxygen Plant in the hospital premises itself.

Early next morning ignoring the supervision tour, I was busy preparing a comprehensive proposal to the Ministry of Health with a clear justification of the investment. Having submitted the proposal followed by a few telephone calls the Ministry responded by approving the proposal.

The proposal was designed to have a Liquid Oxygen Plant with the highest capacity for the hospital and another with less capacity dedicated for the Institute of Cardiology located a little away from the main hospital premises across the street.

A few moons later, a Liquid Oxygen Plant near Ward 13 and a separate smaller plant on the premises of Institute of Cardiology rose to the sky. The copper pipelines were laid connecting all the operating theatres, intensive care units and high dependency units which required continuous uninterrupted supply of oxygen. The project was completed within a matter of a few months providing a great sense of relief to me.

The company which installed the two oxygen tanks is attending to maintenance and repairs. The company regularly monitors the level of consumption and replenishes the tanks. The hospital staff need not intervene.

Needless to mention the relief it brought to me. It was in the year 2006 during which the Hospital installed the two oxygen plants. Since then we did not have to wait for the truck or bother about cylinders. There has not been any loading unloading or clattering of cylinders. I wanted to ensure that my successors would have a permanent reliable source of Oxygen supply for our patients and avoid sleepless nights unlike me and my predecessors.

After the COVID-19 pandemic Oxygen has become the mostly used word among the healthcare workers. After retirement today, I reminisce my time as the Director of NHSL and recall how the disturbed night dawned upon me the idea to install a Liquid Oxygen Plant to ensure the continuous supply of Oxygen to patients gasping for oxygen.

Our neighbouring India is losing thousands of young lives a day due to unavailability of Oxygen. I am happy about the forethought I had 15 years ago long before the term ‘COVID-19 Pandemic’ entered our vocabulary.

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Boosting immune system to fight Covid-19: Is it possible?

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By Saman Gunatilake

Emeritus Professor of Medicine

University of Sri Jayewardenepura

Immune boosting is a trending topic these days with the COVID-19 pandemic. The concept of “immune boosting” is scientifically misleading and often used to market unproven products and therapies. There is no current evidence that any product or practice will contribute to enhanced “immune boosting” protection against COVID-19. This lack of evidence has not stopped wellness gurus with vested interests, and commercial entities from propagating notions of boosting immunity. Internet and popular press are flooded with messages of this nature resulting in an abundance of misinformation circulating online. The public is increasingly going online for health information and questions persist around the kinds of inaccurate information the public is absorbing and the impacts it may be having on health-related decisions and actions.

 

What are Immunity Boosters?

Immunity boosters are products which claim to be able to support your immune system so you aren’t as likely to get sick. Additionally, if you do get sick, taking the supplements will make your illness pass faster. There is no scientific and clinical evidence in humans to support claims of ‘immunity boosting’ foods and other products which supposedly enhance immunity. The body has its own immune system which fights against viral and bacterial invaders. With a normal immune system, we are capable of protecting ourselves against most infections but with certain situations the infection manages to overcome our immune system and cause serious disease and even death. The current Covid 19 pandemic is such a situation. We are in the grip of a spike in infection with over 1000 cases per day seen during the last few days. Total deaths from the pandemic in our country is nearing 700 and the total cases up to now amounts to around 111,800.

With no scientifically established cure for Covid-19 yet and the available recommended treatments limited to severe cases and being not so effective, recovery in most cases has largely been reliant on the human body’s natural defence, the immune system. Fighting the infection by boosting our immune systems had been the buzzword since the beginning of the pandemic. This has led to many misconceptions, misinforming and misleading the public. Improving the diet, taking vitamins and herbal products, lifestyle changes are proposed as ways of doing this. As a result, the market has been flooded with an array of products that claim to boost one’s immunity.

One of the common misconceptions is that high doses vitamin supplements and other minerals and nutrients boost one’s immunity. Ayurvedic concoctions, fruit juices, vitamin pills, zinc tablets have flooded the market with an array of products that claim to boost one’s immunity. Promoters of these products indicate that the body’s natural defences can be strengthened or enhanced by the consumption of certain foods, herbal products or the use of specific products.

Is there robust scientific evidence to support these claims for immune system boosting? The answer is no. Immunology experts believe that there is no way for healthy adults to improve their immunity through foods or other products. The immune system is very complex and these claims about boosting immunity are irrational and unscientific.

 

The Immune System

The immune system is activated by things that enter the body that the body doesn’t recognise as its own such as bacteria, viruses or even particles that cause allergy, like food, drugs and pollen. Most pathogens have a surface protein on them that the immune system recognizes as foreign. These are called antigens. Then the immune system sets in motion a complex process that fights the invader – this is the immune response.

There are two kinds of immune responses in the human body. The innate immune response is the first to kick in and is common among all animals. It is non-specific and immune cells mount an immediate attack on antigens. The response is subsequently replaced by the adaptive immune response, which tailors defences based on the kind of pathogen that is being encountered. The innate immune response consists of white blood cells like neutrophils, macrophages, and monocytes, while the adaptive response involves Lymphocytes -T cells and B cells, as well as antibodies produced by these cells as a specific response to the invader’s antigens. Stimulated immune systems release chemical proteins known as pro-inflammatory cytokines in large numbers, which can cause soreness and pain. So boosting immunity may lead to unwanted inflammations causing swelling, redness and pain locally and fever and other organ damage.

The Internet searchers will find that the myth of “boosting immunity” is extremely pervasive. Of the approaches that claimed to boost immunity, the top ones were diet, fruit, vitamins, antioxidants, probiotics, minerals. Interestingly, vaccines, the only proven method that enhances our immune response to an infection is ranked very low. One of the biggest misconceptions is that consuming more vitamins than required helps the immune system. It has been proven, time and again, that mega-doses of Vitamin C or of any kind of vitamin are not effective on the body at all. Another misconception is that zinc tablets can play a role in mitigating Covid-19. However, this isn’t backed by evidence either.

Zinc is not an immunity booster. It is an essential mineral for the body which is a ‘cofactor’ for a large number of proteins and enzymes. A cofactor is a non-protein chemical compound or metallic ion that is required for an enzyme’s activity as a catalyst. Like zinc, vitamin C is also a cofactor, and is important for the body to function. So, if you have a deficiency of these essential micronutrients, you will face a problem. But, if a person does not have any such deficiency, an excess amount of these taken does not improve one’s chances of fighting off a virus. Vitamin C and Zinc deficiencies are very rare unless someone is starving or following an extreme diet depleted of nutrients. Iron and Iodine deficiencies are seen in communities and more than immune deficiency they cause other problems.

An extremely active immune system, can also be problematic. In severe Covid-19 cases, the body launches an aggressive immune response resulting in the release of a large amount of pro-inflammatory proteins. This is known as a cytokine storm and is one of the common causes of death in Covid-19 patients. A cytokine storm occurs when the body’s immune system goes into an overdrive, killing healthy cells and causing organ failures. Several research studies suggest that the cytokine storm causes lung injury and multi-organ failure. So, if this is the case boosting the immune system in a Covid patient is not a wise thing to do.

 

Market interests add to the myth

The truth is natural immunity in normal people cannot be improved. There are immunocompromised individuals with a poor immunity who are susceptible to infections due to certain illnesses, and how can they stay safe from this highly infectious virus that spreads rapidly? The most effective way is by keeping our communities safe.

 We can do this by attending to the public hygiene of the population exposed to the infection. Providing safe drinking water, providing clean air, providing adequate nutrition — are ways of keeping the people healthy and strong to fight any infections. There are parts of our country fortunately not as bad in India, without access to these basic health requirements. Achieving social distancing in these communities that live in overcrowded households is impossible.

This background, and a new infection with no treatment, led to various interested parties with good and bad intentions in promoting the myth of immune boosting. They have become self-proclaimed experts exploiting this crisis, putting forth all kinds of miraculous non allopathic substitutions. As allopathic medications to be approved, a rigorous procedure has to be observed, they resorted to the easier approach of promoting quick remedies in traditional and herbal products. Unproven ‘natural’ remedies came to the fore in our country in this background where people felt helpless. The vaccine, the only proven way of boosting the immunity of an individual and the population against a specific disease was not available around this time.

There are added dangers in such situations. There may be a lot of drug-drug interactions. If people are consuming allopathic medicines, and then also start consuming these medicinal herbs, the components of the herb will interact with the drug resulting in unknown complications. These unapproved medications can have toxic effects on your kidney, liver and other organs.

Even during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 companies jumped in on the opportunity to hail themselves as immunity boosting drug producers. However, no products were ever proven to be effective in improving immune responses.

Maintaining a normal immune system

A poor immune system is seen in people with certain ailments. Some are born with defects in their immune system and they are known as immunodeficiencies. People with chronic illnesses like diabetes and auto immune disorders are also vulnerable to catch illnesses easily as their immune systems are weak. People on immunosuppressant medications like steroids and cancer drugs also have a weakened immune system and easily catch infections and develop serious complications easily.

Lifestyle is key for keeping your immune system normal and ready to act with an adequate response when necessary. For now, there are no scientifically proven direct links between lifestyle, exercise and enhanced immune function. Researchers are exploring the effects of diet, exercise and stress on the immune response. There are indeed processes that do affect our immune cells and improve their responses. The best one of them, perhaps, is exercise. Many studies have shown that moderate exercise of less than 60 minutes can improve the circulation of anti-inflammatory cytokines, neutrophils, natural killer cells, T cells and B cells. This can work effectively — not for combating diseases at a specific point in time, but to combat stress hormones in general, which can suppress immune cell function. Extremely high intensity exercise leads to a short duration of compromised immunity, increasing risk for disease in this time period. This is one of the reasons marathon runners or professional sports persons tend to catch a fever or cold in the days following a sporting event. Regular exercise is known to improve cardiovascular health, lowers blood pressure, helps control body weight. Therefore, adopting general healthy-living strategies make sense since they are likely to have other proven health benefits. But whether they help to boost the immune system is a controversial issue with no proven answers.

The immune system can also be compromised by many lifestyle habits such as smoking, which is known to affect T and B cells, among a host of other parameters. Diseases like diabetes by themselves result in compromised immune systems. This is why diabetic patients are particularly susceptible to infections. Obesity is another condition with a weak immune system as it predisposes to the development of other illnesses like diabetes and hypertension. There appears to be a connection between poor nutrition and immunity and this is a problem especially in the elderly. Poor nutrition can lead to micronutrient malnutrition, in which a person becomes deficient in some essential vitamins and trace minerals. Deficiency of these can result in a poor immune response to infections. Older people tend to eat less and often have less variety in their food. In them dietary supplements may have some beneficial effects and they should discuss this with their doctors. Taking mega doses of vitamins do not help and can even be harmful.

Every part of your body, including your immune system that fights against infections function better when protected from unwanted damage and bolstered by healthy-living styles. These are – not smoking, taking a diet high in fruit and fibre, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding alcohol or consuming in moderation, getting adequate sleep, washing hands regularly, developing good food habits, minimizing stress.

However, there currently exists no evidence of any consumable foods or products being able to induce an improvement in immune function. Although some preparations have been found to alter some components of the immune system, so far there is no evidence that they actually boost your immunity to the point where you are protected against infection. The only scientifically proven way to boost immunity, the immune system, and an immune response is through vaccinations. Vaccines prime your immune system to fight off infections before they take hold in your body.

So, where do we stand today? Vaccines to boost our immunity against Covid, prevention of spread and catching infection by proper wearing of masks, washing hands and maintaining social distance. These are the scientifically proven methods and others appear to be market-driven myths.

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