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Covid-19 crisis: Factories directed to private labs as workload piles up

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…erroneous tests cause confusion

By Shamindra Ferdinando

For want of sufficient facilities at the state sector laboratories, the government has requested private sector factories, coming under the purview of the Board of Investment (BOI) to subject workers to PCR testing at private labs.

Dr. S. Sridharan, who is acting for Director General of Health Services (DGHS), in a letter dated Oct. 10, has informed BoI Chairman Susantha Ratnayake of policy decision taken by the Health Ministry to those working at what he called export oriented manufacturing industries.

Dr. Sridharan received the crucial appointment in the wake of Dr. Anil Jasinghe being appointed Secretary to the Environment Ministry.

According to the Health Ministry, Dr. Sridharan has been directed to alert the BoI Chief about a week after ‘Brandix eruption’ caused several hundred infections. The Health Ministry yesterday (14) placed the ‘Brandix cluster’ at 1590.

The government has declared an indefinite curfew in Munuwangoda and Divulapitiya and Veyangoda on Oct 4, two days after a 39-year-old employee of Brandix apparel manufacturing plant at Munuwangoda was tested positive for coronavirus at the Gampaha Hospital. Later, the government extended the curfew to several other police areas in the Gampaha administrative district.

The Health Ministry has directed BoI factories to use laboratories at Nawaloka, Durdens, Asiri and Lanka Hospitals as government laboratories found it difficult to cope up with the increasing workload.

Dr. Sridharan’s missive advised BoI top management that covid-19 monitoring guidelines had been revised consequent to the ‘Brandix eruption.’

Well informed sources pointed out that ongoing inquiries had taken an unexpected turn with the revelation that several workers had been infected before the Gampaha hospital made the chance detection.

Head of National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak (NOCPCO) Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva told The Island that contrary to previous reports the 39-year-old employee hadn’t been the first victim.

The Health Ministry involved private hospitals in the RT PCR testing process during the first corona wave. Sources said that private hospitals charged Rs 6,500 to Rs 8,800 for a RT PCR test, in addition to transport costs depending on the location. The Health Ministry wants all BoI enterprises to carry out testing in consultation with respective MOH (Medical Officer of Health) on a regular basis to ensure safety and security of the workers and the entire population.

Meanwhile, shortcomings in the RT PCR testing process undertaken by the private sector has been brought to the notice of the Health Ministry. CEAT Kelani Holdings yesterday (14) said that the company’s administrative office had to be closed down after the management was told that two of its employees were corona-virus positive. Subsequently, the company had been told that both reports were wrong therefore action was taken to re-open the administrative offices today (15).

Health Ministry sources said that both state and private sector laboratories had to follow strict guidelines in the ongoing large scale RT-PCR testing process to ensure the credibility of the process. Sources said that recently a member of a foreign airline crew tested positive had been subsequently cleared following a second test conducted at the Hambantota hospital.

The Sri Lanka Association of Government Medical Laboratory Technologists shortly before ‘Brandix eruption’  raised the failure on the part of the Health Ministry to use available GeneXpert machines to enhance the public sector capacity. In a letter dated Oct 2, President of the Association Ravi Kumudesh, complained to Health Secretary Maj. Gen. H.S. Munasinghe over what he called an inimical agenda pursued by the DGHS.

Kumudesh alleged that instead of enhancing their capacity by promptly utilizing available GeneXpert machines, the Health Ministry pushed for accommodating the private sector in the process. The association emphasized the pivotal importance in maintaining the credibility of the entire process by ensuring the quality of their work.

The Association said that the post of DGHS shouldn’t be vacant even for a day. The Association criticized the failure on the part of the Health Ministry to make a permanent appointment several weeks after Dr. Jasinghe moved out to the Environment Ministry and the unceremonious removal of Dr. Jayaruwan Bandara, head of the MRI (Medical Research Institute)



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SC: Anti-Terrorism Bill needs approval at referendum and 2/3 majority to become law

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Certain sections inconsistent with Constitution

By Saman Indrajith

Deputy Speaker Ajith Rajapaksa informed Parliament yesterday that the Supreme Court (SC) has determined that some sections of the Anti-Terrorism Bill were inconsistent with the Constitution and, therefore, the Bill had to be passed by Parliament with a two-thirds majority and approved by the people at a referendum.

Rajapaksa said that the Supreme Court had determined that the Sections 3, 4, 40, 53, 70, 72 (1), 72 (2), 75 (3) and 83 (7) of the draft Bill were inconsistent with the Constitution.

The SC has determined that sections 3, 40, 53, 70, 72 (1), 75 (3) should be passed by Parliament with a two-thirds majority and approved by the people at a referendum if they are to become law.

Sections 4 and 72 (2) of the Bill have to be amended as per the SC determination.

Section 83 (7) requires passage by a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

However, the SC had stated that it could be passed by a simple majority if the recommended amendments are accommodated, Rajapaksa said.

Opposition MPs say the Anti-Terrorism Bill is being introduced in an election year to repress Opposition parties.They said the proposed law is a threat to democracy itself.

“This Bill is being presented not at a time of terrorism prevailing in the country but during an election period. The Bill has not defined nor analysed what a terrorist is. Anyone can be arrested,” SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara said.

The MP said both the Anti-Terrorism Bill and the controversial Online Safety law were meant to quell democracy.

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Harin’s claim that SL is part of India: Govt. says it is his personal opinion

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Manusha accuses Wimal of having taken parts of Fernando’s speech out of context

By Saman Indrajith

Labour and Foreign Employment Minister Manusha Nanayakkara told NFF leader Wimal Weerawansa in Parliament to refrain from taking chunks of others’ speeches out of context and misinterpreting them for political mileage.

The Minister said so following concerns raised by Weerawansa over a recent statement by Tourism Minister Harin Fernando on India-Sri Lanka relationships.

Weerawansa said that Minister Fernando had recently stated that Sri Lanka was a part of India. “Was it Minister Fernando’s personal opinion or the government’s official standpoint? Was it the opinion of the Cabinet?”

Chief Government Whip Minister Prasanna Ranatunga said what Minister Fernando had stated was the latter’s personal opinion.

Minister Nanayakkara: “If anyone has read the entire statement made by Minister Fernando this type of question would not have arisen. The Tourism Minister was referring to historical relationships between India and Sri Lanka to ask Indians to visit Sri Lanka.

A distorted version of the speech by Minister Fernando is being circulated on social media. Certain parts have been removed while some words have been introduced to this edited version. Ones should read the statement in its entirety to understand it. We have not discussed this in the Cabinet meeting” Minister Nanayakkara said.

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US backs Lankan journalists vis-a-vis Online Safety law

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Kumar Nadesan, Chairman Board of Directors of the Sri Lanka Press Institute (left) Elizabeth Allen ( Centre) and US Ambassador Chung (pic courtesy US embassy)

Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Elizabeth Allen on Monday (19) declared US support for journalists here against the backdrop of enactment of ‘Online Safety Bill’

She spokes about press freedom and related issues at the Sri Lanka Press Institute Press Club.

A statement issued by the US Embassy quoted Allen as having said the U.S. Embassy is all in on supporting your incredible work. Sure, we might bump heads over a story now and then, but above all, we’re your biggest fans. We’re all in on programmes that hone your skills because we believe in your right to pursue journalism freely and fearlessly.

I want to thank you for protecting the rights and freedoms of journalists here in Sri Lanka and around the world, ensuring all citizens enjoy the right to express their ideas and opinions openly and freely. Even in difficult times, you continue to press forward and ask difficult questions. Your commitment to seeking out the truth and shouting it from the rooftops remains a democratic staple, and I truly appreciate what you do.

It’s only fitting that I begin my remarks this afternoon by telling a story that I think is relevant in light of today’s topic about the media’s role in a democracy.

Over a century ago, American media coined the term “muckraker” for journalists who delved into societal issues, exposing corruption.

Although the term carried a somewhat negative connotation, labeling these journalists as mere “gossip mongers,” today, we honor them as the pioneers of investigative journalism.

These muckrakers played a pivotal role in ushering in the Progressive Era, a time of significant social and political reform in American history.

Even President Theodore Roosevelt referred to them as “muckrakers,” criticizing their focus on society’s flaws through figures like Lincoln Steffens, whose work shed light on corruption and spurred a nationwide call for accountability and reform.

Steffens’ book ‘The Shame of the Cities,’ published in 1904, made him renowned for uncovering corruption within American cities, highlighting the nefarious links between political leaders, businesses, and organized crime.

His fearless journalism raised critical awareness about the urgent need for governmental and corporate accountability. Steffens wasn’t acting as a public relations officer for the government; his role was to uncover the truth; however unpleasant it might be.

Faced with the stark realities Steffens presented, American officials and the public were compelled to confront a pivotal question: ‘Is this the kind of country we aspire to be?’ The resounding answer was no.

Steffens’ work didn’t just expose wrongdoing; it sparked a nationwide demand for reform and played a crucial role in fostering a dialogue about the essential role of investigative journalism in ensuring power remains accountable.

This story showcases how freedom of the press and freedom of expression are not just fundamental human rights, they are also vital contributors to a country’s development and growth.

This brings me to my main point: how the global media space supports democracy and fosters peaceful, just, and inclusive societies.

In my mind, the correlation is obvious: When a government constricts the rights and freedoms of its citizens, the future and the development of the country will naturally suffer.

Globally, we’re witnessing serious and escalating challenges to media freedom. The United States stands firmly for the freedom of expression, advocating for press freedom both online and offline, and ensuring the safety of journalists and media workers worldwide. Unfortunately, these essential freedoms are under threat globally, including concerns raised here in Sri Lanka.

When governments intensify efforts to withhold information from the public by restricting internet access and censoring content, we must speak up. Notably, when Sri Lanka’s Parliament passed the Online Safety Bill in January, the United States voiced concerns over its potential effects on freedom of expression, innovation, and privacy.

It’s common to hear arguments against unfettered freedom of expression. Critics claim the media is biased, aiming to embarrass governments and undermine public trust. Others worry that without checks, freedom of expression may fuel the spread of misinformation. Some argue that an unchecked press can incite tension and compromise security. And there’s concern that continuous reports on corruption, violence, and political strife can tarnish a nation’s image, deterring investment and hampering development.

However, the media’s bias should lean towards the public’s interest, acting as a guardian to ensure that leaders fulfill their duties. This principle holds in Sri Lanka, the United States, and globally.

The challenge of negative press, often labeled as “fake news” or “biased journalism,” is not new. For generations, governments and the media have navigated a complex, sometimes adversarial relationship. This dynamic isn’t unique to any one nation; in the United States, for instance, presidents from both major political parties have experienced their share of friction with the press. This tension, a hallmark of democratic societies, plays a crucial role in fostering transparency and encouraging effective governance. It’s a familiar scene: politicians and journalists engage in heated exchanges, especially when leaders feel their actions are misrepresented, leading to accusations of inaccuracies and biased reporting.

The press’s duty is to deliver facts as they stand, shedding light on the government’s achievements as well as spotlighting areas where policies or programs fall short. This transparency not only informs the public but also strengthens the nation as it encourages constructive action and improvement.

And suppressing voices only complicates matters further. Attempting to conceal issues rather than addressing them is akin to hiding a broken tool rather than fixing it. True progress comes from collaborative dialogue, even if it means embracing the messiness of public discourse.”

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