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COVID-19: Advice of Singer and others

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I read with amazement the attempt by the Resident UN coordinator in Sri Lanka, Ms. Hanna Singer, to take over the job of advising the Sri Lankan government about the safety of burial of Covid infected bodies. In addition, she is trying to offer advice on the political fallout from it to a veteran politician like Mahinda Rajapaksa!

One thinks of the donkey who took over the dog’s job, as retold in Aesop’s Fables. Ms. Singer hangs on the claim that the WHO has made a statement regarding the matter! Why has Ms Singer’s equivalent in USA kept shut instead of advising President Trump about the need to follow the directives of the WHO which are in fact in agreement with those of the Head of Disease control in the US, namely, Dr. Fauci?

The WHO has certainly NOT conducted any field experiments regarding the matter in the context of Sri Lanka. Furthermore, The Health Ministry officials are evidently in close communication with the WHO officials who have even congratulated the Sri Lankan Health authorities for their excellent management of Covid cases. Even with the second wave, Sri Lanka so far has 61 deaths for a population of 22 million, while Bangladesh, which allows burial of corpses, has 1.33 MILLION people dead, for a population of 161 million. If Sri Lanka had followed Bangladesh in proportion to the population, there should have been 182,000 deaths in Sri Lanka and not just 61. Let us look at Ms Singer’s own country, Egypt, another predominantly Muslim country with a population of 98 million. It has also suffered 1.34 MILLION deaths! Religious rights have over-arched health regulations in many countries, while in some countries like the US, some states or regions with strongly orthodox religious belief systems have had higher incidences of the Epidemic.

Ms. Singer is not the only person who has come forward to advise the public. Some have even marketed all kinds of medications that are claimed to boost the immunity of those who take the “medications”. Ms. Senanayake, a lady who is supposed be able to communicate with God Natha, and her team claim to have formulated an inhalation (“dum hattiya”) as well as a leafy broth (“kola Kaenda”) that are claimed to not only prevent Covid-19, but to even cure it in three days. Of course, NO randomized double-blind trials that prove the claim are offered. One must be careful to note that Minister Jayasumana, now in charge of pharmaceuticals, was at one time a follower of Ms. Senanayake.

Sisira Jayakodi, Minister of Indigenous Medicine Promotion, claims that his ministry has “developed” several Ayurvedic drugs to treat COVID-19 and also for the people who are at greater risk of contracting the virus. “Sadanga Panaya” and “Suwadarani Immunising Drink”, are said to be two drugs “developed” using completely local herbs. They are said to be “immunity boosters”. However, there is not a word about how these drugs were tested and shown to be effective! They were just “developed”!

The Ayurvedic doctors and the Nath Deviyo followers can at least say that they don’t practice medicine that is purely based on empirical investigations. They claim to depend on the revelations and writings of the “ancient Rishis” and “traditional wisdom”- whatever that may be! If you ask them about what this “immunity” is, that is being “boosted”, they offer no clear mechanism.

But Dr. Stanley Weeraratne, a retired agricultural scientist is clearly not going on the authority of ancient Rishis. He has written to The Island Newspaper (17-11-20) asking the public to take “Vitamin D to increase immunity to COVID-19”.

Dr. Weeraratne tells us that “among the many things to be done to avoid COVID 19 is to boost immunity. Vitamin D is considered to increase the immunity to virus diseases. Exposing to direct sunlight for 30 to 45 minutes between 9.30 am and mid-day would generate an adequate amount of vitamin D to boost immunity. Several publications on Vitamin D and immunity are in a number of websites”.

But NO randomized trials, or even authenticated (even if limited) clinical trials exit, to show that Vitamin D “Vitamin D to increase immunity to COVID-19”.

Exposing oneself to the sun in the manner described can lead to sunburn unless you have regularly worked in the sun and acquired a sufficiently dark skin when Vitamin-D production as well as the risk of sunburn drops. There may exist dozens of publications in websites, including not only on Vitamin D, but even suggesting drinking Cow Urine, as boosting immunity, but those claims are as worthless as the usual mis-information found in the internet.

Immunity is produced by T-cells and antibodies that have been formed during past infections, and now recognize any new attacks by those previous diseases. Good health and adequate Vitamins can help maintain the already acquired immunity intact. But a new virus cannot be fought using the T-cells and antibodies made for those previous infections. Hence, until the body gets the T-cells and antibodies that can recognize and attack the new virus, no amount of immunity boosting, no amount of “inguru, koththamalli, vishnu-kraanthi” etc., can help against the new virus. That is why knowledgeable scientists are working hard to make NEW vaccines against the NEW virus. So, people who talk of “boosting the immune system” are simply vague myth makers.

I invite Dr. Weeraratne to explain why this immunity that he claims can be acquired using Vitamin D has no effect on Dengue and other viral diseases that affect the tropics. Here people work in fields for most of the day, often bare-bodies, wearing only a loin cloth and perhaps a “Jataava” to cover the head.

I invite Dr. Weeraratne to explain why this immunity did not protect local populations that work in the sun – be they in Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, from polio, chicken pox, small pox, HIV, common flu etc., all these being viral diseases.

Or is he claiming that Vitamin D has a specifically powerful ability to prevent Covid-19 but not Dengue etc? If so, can he provide some reliable clinical evidence for this utterly unsubstantiated claim? Just saying that the evidence is there in some publications and websites is not enough. That suggest a surprisingly uncritical and dangerous approach to an extremely important matter – dealing with an Epidemic.Bodhi Dhanapala(A retired lecturer who worked in Technical Colleges (CEGEP, Ecole Polytechnique) in Quebec, Canada.)



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Opinion

The lasting curse of Janasathu

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Kataboola tea estate

Let me begin with two anecdotes.

In the 1960s, my father would pull into the local Shell petrol shed and a smiling pump attendant, smartly attired in a uniform (khaki shirt and shorts) would come up to the driver’s side and inquire what was needed. While petrol was being pumped, the attendant would wipe the windscreen and check the engine oil. The toilet was clean. The air pump worked. To my delight, large, colourful road maps were given out, for free. Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? All this for about Rs. 1 (one) for a gallon of petrol!

The next anecdote. In 1978, I visited Brian Howie, a former classmate, at Kataboola Estate in Nawalapitiya. Brian was an SD – assistant superintendent – and his bungalow was in a remote corner of the estate, so remote that it had its own mini hydroelectric plant. Mrs. B’s government, which had nationalised the estate, had recently fallen and the estate was now under new management.

The bungalow was sparsely furnished, and I noticed that a corner of the living room was blackened. Brian told me that the previous occupant, a former bus conductor turned “SD”, had not known how to use the kitchen stove, so he put some bricks together and had created a lipa in the living room to do his cooking. Meanwhile, every appliance and item of furniture in the bungalow had been stolen by the same man.

Janasathu has a false ring, meaning “owned by the people”. But, as everyone knows, the term instead means a nest of thieves, running up millions in losses at the cost of the people. A place where friends and political supporters are given employment, showered with generous perks, and given a free run to plunder. Government owned corporations, companies, and “other institutions” run into the hundreds, and perhaps a handful make a profit. The rest are leeches, sucking the blood of the nation.

Do we need a corporation/board for salt, ceramics, timber, cashew, lotteries, fisheries, films, ayurvedic drugs, handicrafts? For a publisher of newspapers? They are so swollen with employees that their raison d’être appears to be employment, perks and plunder that I mentioned above.

I recently read that Sri Lankan Airlines, the CTB, the Petroleum Corporation, and the Ceylon Electricity Board are the biggest loss makers. The Godzillas among them appear to be Sri Lankan Airlines, which reportedly lost Rs. 248 billion in the first four months of this year, and the Petroleum Corporation, which lost Rs. 628 billion in the same period. (The Petroleum Corporations is owed billions of rupees by both Sri Lankan Airlines and the Ceylon Electricity Board.) The Ceylon Electricity Board appears to be a mafia, subverting efforts to promote renewable energy, while promoting commission-earning fossil fuels. While the poorest among our population are starving, the crooks that run these organisations continue to deal and steal.

In Hong Kong, where I lived for 20 years, no airline, bank, petroleum company, telephone service, LPG or electricity supplier is owned by the government. The buses belong to the private sector. In Japan, where I live now, in addition to the list from Hong Kong, even the railways and the post offices are privatised and provide a courteous, efficient service. In Japan, the service at petrol stations is reminiscent of Ceylon’s in the 1960s that I described above.

At least in one instance, Mrs. B attempted to correct her folly in nationalising plantations. The de Mel family owned thriving coconut estates in Melsiripura. After nationalisation, the estates declined to such a sorry state that Mrs. B personally invited the de Mels to take them back. Today, the estates are thriving under efficient management.

As a nation, we need to admit that janasathu has failed, and take steps to remedy the situation ASAP.

GEORGE BRAINE

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Opinion

Road to Nandikadal: Twists of Kamal and Ranil actions

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I am re-reading retired Major General Kamal Gunaratne’s book “Road to Nandikadal ” these days. This is his first hand experience of the battle against LTTE, and his journey in the Sri Lankan army from Thirunelveli in 1983 to Nandikadal in 2009, where the final battle took place. Thirteen years have passed since the defeat of the LTTE in 2009 under the political leadership of former president Mahinda Rajapakse and the then secretary of defence Gotabaya Rajapakse. As we all know, Gotabaya became the president of Sri Lanka in 2019, and resigned last July, due to public pressure, and is currently travelling from country to country without a set destination.

In his book, Kamal has written an interesting chapter titled “A final chance for peace” and detailed the peace process followed by the then government led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, as the prime minister. This is Kamal’s narrative about the memorandum of understanding (MOU), brokered by the Norwegian government and signed by the then prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in 2002. “According to the MoU, members of the LTTE political wing were allowed to enter government controlled areas to commence their political activities. The first group of such LTTE political wing members entered the government controlled area from Muhamalai, singing and cheering, as if they had won the war. They insulted and jeered at the soldiers manning the checkpoint with impunity whilst the poor soldiers, under strict instructions not to react, helplessly looked on. The Navy, which arrested a group of terrorists, was immediately instructed to release them. Upon release, the terrorists threatened the sailors and lifted their sarongs, baring their genitalia at the stunned sailors, who could do nothing but simply look down in shame. Such developments intensified the apprehension we held of things yet to come and prepared ourselves to face untold humiliation in the name of the Motherland”.

Kamal further writes, “At the time of drafting the MoU, experienced officers like myself, knew it was premature to enter into peace negotiations. On the one hand, LTTE could not be trusted to keep their word, as past experience had taught us bitterly, and on the other hand, negotiations should be ideally undertaken from a position of strength”. He continues, “The government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was very confident of the peace process and strongly believed there would never be a war again. They did not have any confidence in the Army, which spurred this belief and therefore pursued peace at any cost”.

Kamal’s criticism of the Wickremesinghe administration continues: “The step motherly treatment the Army received during this period was terrible. Strict instructions were given to cut costs and the ever obedient army reduced many of our facilities and benefits. The army even stopped the annual issue of face towels to soldiers, given as a benefit for decades. It felt like they wanted us to live like ‘Veddhas’ without a bit of comfort”

Now the same Ranil Wickremesinghe is the President and Commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and Kamal Gunaratne, who was highly critical of the Wickremesinghe administration, is the trusted Defence Secretary of the president. Is it a twist of fate or twist of faith!

LIONEL RAJAPAKSE

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Opinion

Need for best relations with China

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(This letter was sent in before the announcement of the government decision to allow the Chinese survey vessel to dock at Hambantota – Ed.)

I once met Pieter Keuneman sometime after he had lost the Colombo Central at the general election of 1977. We met at the SSC swimming pool, where he had retreated since his favourite haunt at the Otters was under repair. Without the cares of ministerial office and constituency worries he was in a jovial mood, and in the course of a chat in reference to a derogatory remark by one of our leaders about the prime minister of a neighbouring country, he said, “You know, Ananda, we can talk loosely about people in our country, but in international relations care is needed in commenting on other leaders”.

Pieter, the scion of an illustrious Dutch burgher family, the son of Supreme Court judge A. E Keuneman, after winning several prizes at Royal College, went to Cambridge in 1935. There he became a part of the Communist circle, which included the famous spies Anthony Blunt, later keeper of the Queen’s paintings Kim Philby, and Guy Burgess. Eric Hobsbawm, the renowned historian commenting on this circle, wrote of the very handsome Pieter Keuneman from Ceylon who was greatly envied, since he won the affections of the prettiest girl in the university, the Austrian Hedi Stadlen, whom he later married. Representing the Communist Party in parliament from 1947 to 1977, soft-spoken in the manner of an English academic, Pieter belonged to a galaxy of leaders, whose likes we sorely need now.

I was thinking of Pieter’s comments considering the current imbroglio that we have created with China. Our relations with China in the modern era began in 1953, when in the world recession we were unable to sell rubber, and short of foreign exchange to purchase rice for the nation. The Durdley Senanayake government turned to China, with which we had no diplomatic ties. He sent R G Senanayake, the trade minister, to Peking, where he signed the Rice for Rubber Pact, much to the chagrin of the United States, which withdrew economic aid from Ceylon for trading with a Communist nation at the height of the Cold War.

Diplomatic relations with China were established in 1956 by S W R D Bandaranaike, and relations have prospered under different Sri Lankan leaders and governments, without a hint of discord. In fact, in addition to the vast amount of aid given, China has been a source of strength to Sri Lanka during many crises. In 1974, when the rice ration was on the verge of breaking due to lack of supplies, it was China, to which we turned, and who assisted us when they themselves were short of stocks. In the battle against the LTTE, when armaments from other countries dried up, it was China that supported us with arms, armoured vehicles, trucks, ships and aircraft.

It was China and Pakistan that stood by our armed services in this dire crisis. More recently, amidst the furore, created by Western nations about human rights violations, China was at the forefront of nations that defended us. A few weeks ago, it was reported that the UK was ready with documents to present to the UN Security Council to press for war crimes trials against the Sri Lankan military, but the presence of China and Russia with veto powers prevented it from going ahead with its plan.

It is in this context that we have to view the present troubles that have engulfed us.President Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the short period he has been in office, has won the sympathy of people by the speed with which he has brought some degree of normalcy, to what was a fast-disintegrating political environment. On the economic front, his quiet negotiations and decisions are arousing hopes.

A shadow has been cast over these achievements by the refusal to let in the Chinese ship to Hambantota, a decision made on the spur of the moment after first agreeing to allow it entry. The manner in which it was done is a humiliation for China, one administered by a friend. We must remember that these things matter greatly in Asia.

These are matters that can be rectified among friends, if action is taken immediately, recognising that a mistake has been made. The President should send a high-level representative to assure the Chinese leadership that these are aberrations that a small country suffers due to the threats of big powers, to smoothen ruffled feelings, and normalize relations between two old friends. The American-Indian effort to disrupt a 70-year old friendship, will only lead to its further strengthening in the immediate future

ANANDA MEEGAMA

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