It is clear that the coronavirus pandemic in Sri Lanka has gone beyond the patient and group of contacts (“Cluster”) stage, and is now widespread around the country and is in the stage of “Community” spread. Thus, everyone must assume that anyone can be a source of infection, and must learn to protect oneself.
While proper contact tracing and isolation, which was adequate at the early stage must continue, a community-based approach is also necessary. There are as yet many areas, specially rural, that are free of the virus, but it will not be long before they too can have cases. The more crowded areas, like towns, will have many more cases. The government must take a policy decision to ensure that people avoid forming crowds.
For example clinic patients in government hospitals form crowds to obtain their medicines. Using the personnel of the Health Department, it should be possible to supply the necessary medicine as indicated in their clinic records to the patients on the due date once a month. Similarly by using digital technology collection of crowds in offices and schools must be avoided. The Covid-19 risk could be minimized if most public and social activities are conducted digitally so that personal contact is avoided. Thereby the efficiency of the public and private services as a whole can be done more speedily and efficiently.
The emergence of a new strain of the virus causing Covid-19 in the UK, which is more transmissible (that is spreads faster) has led to a substantial increase in the occurrence of cases in the UK. Naturally, there has been an increase in deaths. But, as the case fatality rate does appear to have gone up, it would appear that the severity has not increased. But in a virus that is prone to undergo mutations, this too can occur. This is why sensible countries even in Europe have stopped all flights to and back from the UK. I am glad that Sri Lanka too has done so, but it must ensure that UK residents do not come here indirectly.
Frequent sequencing of Covid viruses isolated in Sri Lanka must be done so as to detect the entry of the UK strain of the virus or any other varieties as early as possible so that effective preventive action can be taken immediately. It is regrettable that by not performing sequences since the beginning of December, we are still unable to determine whether the UK strain has entered our country. During an epidemic, such lapses should not be allowed to occur.
It is becoming evident that the world, including Sri Lanka, will have to learn to live with the virus for a long period. How long depends on the correctness of national policy decisions and the strict inculcation of health rules. Their implementation as a habit by the entire population must be achieved by an intensive health education program. If everyone in society properly understands the nature of the virus and its mode of spread and ensures that he or she does not get infected, then the virus will automatically die out.
This is because the Covid-19 virus cannot multiply on its own but can do so only in live cells of the human respiratory tract, according to current knowledge. The pandemic will then automatically come to an end in Sri Lanka at minimal cost.
The health education program focuses on ensuring that everyone follows the three health rules (wearing a mask when outside one’s house, observing the distance rule of at least one meter, better two, and washing hands with soap and water frequently, specially after touching any object that anyone else has touched). These three rules must be practiced as a habit by everyone. This message must reach every house, both urban and rural.
Trade unions must educate their members and insist that management gives the necessary support. The teachers must drill it into the mind of every student. I have published a leaflet in all three languages with illustrations so that even a child can understand. I have published over 100,000 leaflets and distributed them to the best of my ability with the help of my party, the LSSP.
The Health Department could print and distribute that leaflet as it is, or suitably modified. The mass media and social media should be fully utilized for this program.
As this must become a national campaign to eliminate the Covid-19 virus, everyone must be drawn into it. A Committee of Party Leaders must be established, possibly in Parliament, which will make all political parties and their supporters participants in the campaign. We must stop criticizing each other but must come together as one nation fighting a common enemy.
Cooperation should extend down to every village and urban slum. Anti-Covid Committees should be set up at village and workplace levels and the people should help each other e.g. provide food for those who need it. The rest of the village can help those who are quarantined. They can ensure that the maximum support is obtained from the state agencies and services and supplies are distributed to the needy. The PHIs, the PHNs, the midwives and other health staff should play a leading role in health education as they are used to delivering health messages to the people and the people have confidence in them and will listen and absorb what they say. A cooperative spirit must be promoted at all levels.
But, thereafter, wise policies must be carried out. If in addition to Sri Lankan citizens living abroad being allowed to return, tourists are also being encouraged to come as an important source of foreign exchange, then the exclusion of all infected persons must be ensured. If anyone escapes the preventive net, then the cluster control techniques must be strictly enforced. In particular, the entry of the more transmissible strains from abroad must be prevented. This is on the presumption that no animal host exists or appears, but to detect this if it exists, an animal surveillance program must be carried out worldwide, Sri Lanka included, continuously.
But the ultimate solution is the development of an effective and safe vaccine and ensuring that every person is properly immunized. At least 80% of the population needs to be immunized if the chain of transmission is to be interrupted. The fact that this is a new virus to the world, and as there is no herd immunity, more frequent administration of vaccine may be necessary.
The various vaccines that have been developed very rapidly (in less than one year when the usual minimum is about seven years – reflect the advances in new technology) have not had the time to be fully tested. But, it is with time that the duration of the protection given by these vaccines after two shots can be properly determined.
Therefore, it may be necessary to give many more shots and even as frequently as every year if the immunity developed is not sustained. The two mRNA vaccines developed in the USA, besides the excessive cost, are questionable on scientific grounds as mRNA vaccines have never been developed and used before and they may have side effects that could be serious. If we are getting vaccines from the WHO, the best option would be to obtain the Oxford/Zeneca vaccine which uses an Adenovirus as a vector, and there is no danger of untoured consequences. As this is being produced in India by the reputed Indian Serum Institute, it would be safer to get it from them as the price too will be very much lower. This would enable the Government to purchase the added requirement for at least 60% of the population, who do not get the vaccine supplied by WHO.
Finally, I must say something on the controversial question of the non-burial of Covid 19 victims. In my view, as a scientist, I would tend to permit burials as the risk of transmission through water is extremely remote and has as yet not been reported to have occurred. With the death of the Covid patient, the replication of the virus in the dead body ceases. Whatever virus may have been produced earlier would have died in a matter of hours, but certainly within a day. It would appear from the decision been taken by the Minister of Health, she wishes to make absolutely certain that there is no danger to society, even though there is no scientific evidence as yet to confirm that there is a risk to society.
– Prof. Tissa Vitarana
COVID-19: Jaffna faces serious risk
Top medical man in North threatens lockdown
Five villages isolated in Ganewatta DS area
20% of IDH patients need oxygen
By Dinasena Ratugamage and Rathindra Kuruwita
Tough restrictions would have to be imposed in Jaffna if religious leaders did not help health authorities, Northern Province Director General of Health Services, Dr. A. Kethiswaran said yesterday. Jaffna was facing a serious risk of COVID-19, he said.
Dr. Kethiswaran said so during a meeting with religious leaders at his office. He said that a large number of devotees were seen at various places of religious worship during the festive period.
“None of these people follow health guidelines. It is impossible to control the virus because of this. At this rate we will have to impose travel restrictions in the Jaffna District. We need everyone’s support, if we are to avoid this fate.”
He then urged religious leaders to inform devotees of the dangers of the virus and not to gather at places of worship in large numbers.
Dr. Kethiswaran also said that a large number of policemen in Jaffna had contracted COVID-19. About 258 PCR tests had been carried out on Wednesday after it was found that 13 policemen attached to the Jaffna Police station were infected. Altogether 788 PCR tests were done in the Jaffna District on Wednesday, Dr. Kethiswaran said.
One hundred and forty eight new COVID-19 cases had been detected in several villages in the Ganewatta Divisional secretariat area, Divisional Secretary Niranjala Karunaratne said yesterday.
On Wednesday alone 733 PCR tests had been done there, she said, adding that about 175 individuals had tested positive for COVID-19 there.
Given these developments, Tittawelgala, Hunupola, Siradunna, Aluthgama and Hettigama Grama Niladari divisions at Ganewatta Divisional secretariat area have been isolated.
Travel restrictions were imposed on Kuliyapitiya Town, Thunmodara, Dhandagamuwa – West, Kanadulla and Pahala Weerambuwa as COVID-19 cases were increasing there.
PHI in charge of Divulapitiya said that 84 new COVID-19 cases had been reported from the area during the last 48 hours. However, no decision had been taken to impose travel restrictions in the area, PHI, S.A.U.T Kularatne said.
“Twenty-eight of these patients were among people who attended a sports event organised for the New Year in Aswennawatta Grama Niladari area. Forty-four people who went on a trip at Mellawagedara have also tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. If people are not careful, things might rapidly deteriorate,” he warned.
Deputy Director of IDH said that over 130 COVID-19 patients were undergoing treatment there although the hospital could accommodate only 120 patients.
All eight ICU beds at the IDH are occupied and 20% of the patients there need oxygen. The number of people admitted to hospital had increased after the Sinhala and Hindu New year, health ministry sources said.
Director General of Health Services – Western Province Dr. Dhammika Jayalath urged people to refrain from travelling to Colombo unless it was very urgent.
Director General of Health Services, Dr. Asela Gunawardane said that the coming three weeks would crucial.
Covid figures: Govt. accused of misleading the country
By Rathindra Kuruwita
The College of Medical Laboratory Science (CMLS) yesterday claimed that State Minister of Production, Supply and Regulation of Pharmaceuticals, Prof. Channa Jayasumana was making statements on new strains of SARS-CoV-2 without any scientific proof.
Speaking to the media on Wednesday, Prof. Jayasumana said that there had been an increase in the spread of Covid virus in the country, especially among the young people and that was due to a new strain of the virus.
President of the CMLS, Ravi Kumudesh said: “The Minister claimed they were doing a research on this. As far as we know, neither the Ministry nor the University of Sri Jayewardenepura has done any research to identify this new strain. The Ministry of Health stopped identifying new variants a long time ago.”
The Ministry of Health could neither plan for new variants of COVID-19 nor determine what vaccine was effective as it simply didn’t have the equipment to identify new strains, Kumudesh said, adding that identifying COVID-19 variants across the country had been outsourced to the University of Sri Jayawardenepura.
“I have repeatedly said that the Health Ministry officials can’t make science and evidence-based decisions or statements on new strains. Institutions under the Health Ministry do not have the ability to identify new strains of the coronavirus; only the University of Sri Jayewardenepura has a gene sequencing machine. We said this was having a disastrous impact on the country’s pandemic response and here we are,.”
Kumudesh said that identifying various strains of COVID-19 was essential to respond to the pandemic as everything from PCR testing to selecting a vaccine, depended on that.
“There are a number of strains of the virus in the world now and we now know that the new variant that led to a lockdown in the UK is here. We have to be ready to identify what strains are coming.”
Kumudesh said that since the country had opened its airports people from various countries would arrive, carrying new strains. He added that there might also be a new strain that originated here without “our knowledge because we don’t do adequate gene sequencing.
“To identify new variants, we must sequence the genes of viruses detected through PCR testing. We need many gene sequencing machines because one cannot identify new strains through a PCR test. However, the Ministry of Health has not provided a single gene sequencing machine to labs under its purview.”
CEA accused of turning blind eye to cardamom cultivators raping Knuckles Forest
By Rathindra Kuruwita
A government decision to allow cardamom plantations inside the Knuckles Forest Reserve, which came under the Forest Conservation Department,it was already having a negative impact on the ecosystem, Sajeewa Chamikara of the Movement for Land and Agriculture Reform (MONLAR) said.
Chamikara said that Knuckles Forest Reserve was not only a unique ecosystem but also an important catchment area for rivers such as Mahaweli and Kalu.
“Illegal Cardamom planters had been operating in the forest area for many decades and there had been many attempts to get rid of them,” Chamikara said
About six years ago, there was an attempt to remove illegal Cardamom planters from the Knuckles Forest Reserve. When the Forest Conservation Department tried to remove these encroachers, based on a court order, several politicians and officials intervened on their behalf, the environmentalist said. Due to those interventions, illegal Cardamom planters could not be removed from the Knuckles Forest Reserve, he added.
“In many areas of the Dumbara mountain range, forest undergrowth has been cleared to make way for cardamom plantations. This has drastically increased soil erosion and the soil that is swept away by rains have been deposited in many reservoirs after being taken downstream to the Mahaweli Ganga. Moreover, many trees have been cut to use as firewood to dry cardamom. There are many structures used to dry the cardamom dotting the Knuckles mountain range and these activities cause significant damages to the ecosystem.”
Chamikara said it was illegal to cut trees, cultivate and clear land in a Conservation Forest. The offences carried jail terms or fines or both. Moreover, the court could estimate the damage done to the forest and make the guilty pay that amount. Under the law, even people who encouraged such violations could be prosecuted.
“The CEA has the power to act against those who carry out such illegal activities. According to Section 23 (a.) (a.) of the National Environmental Act, when a project is carried out without obtaining approval, the CEA can present such people before a magistrate’s court. If found guilty a person can be fined up to Rs. 15,000 or imprisoned up to two years or subjected to both. Unfortunately the authorities concerned are turning a blind eye.”
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