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COVID-19 Pandemic in Sri Lanka: Contextualizing it geographically – Part I

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By Dr. Nalani Hennayake and

Dr. Kumuduni Kumarihamy

Department of Geography, University of Peradeniya

The emergence of a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic was inevitable, although the sudden outbreak in Minuwangoda took us by surprise. We now see that it is steadily spreading outside of Colombo. The districts of Nuwara-Eliya and, Trincomalee have been declared as areas not suitable for tourist activities, and pilgrimage to Sri Pada is discouraged. Kandy, where we live is the fourth district in terms of the total number of COVID-19 positive cases detected. The actual reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, changing nature of the virus, how many are infected, detected, tested, and identified as infectious, where they live, work, and move around, could be far beyond what statistics and dashboards may reveal.

Along with the health and security personnel, the government successfully managed the first wave with a series of controlling strategies from travel restrictions, imposed quarantines, self, and institutional isolations. Interestingly, all such strategies, have been territorial or spatial measures. In other words, the management of the COVID-19 pandemic requires a set of spatial strategies that affect human spatial behaviour, relations, and attitudes. Inspired by this, in this article, we embark upon a project of contextualizing the COVID-19 pandemic in Sri Lanka, geographically. This article aims to show the significance of a geographical framework of thinking, with limited data and information. In other words, what we present here is a sample of what can be done if the data are available at the GN division level. Such an analysis would demonstrate how geography is an innately central character of how COVID-19 is spread, dealt with, and, most importantly, in an academic perspective, in representing, analyzing, and understanding the present situation and future scenarios of the pandemic.

 

Current situation: What is reported, recorded, and represented?

In its Situation Report on February 3, 2021, the Epidemiology Unit at the Ministry of Health reports 65,698 as ‘the total number confirmed’ and 59,883 as ‘the total number recovered’ COVID-19 cases. Thus, we have only 5485 patients as confirmed and hospitalized, with 548 added as suspected and hospitalized patients. The other basic information provided on this website is the district-wise and hospital-wise distribution of the total number of confirmed patients. The highest number of COVID-19 patients, nearly about 42 percent, comes from the Colombo district, while Gampaha and Kalutara record respectively about 23 and 8 percent (see Table 01) Nuwara-Eliya-Ratnapura. The number of COVID-19 infected seems to increase in the districts of Kandy, Kurunegala, Puttalam, Nuwaraeliya, Rathnapura, Kegalle, Galle, Badulla, and Kalmunai.

 

Table 01: District Distribution of Confirmed Patients (as of February 3, 2021 -10 a.m, Situation Report)

Note:

Considered only the individuals who contracted the disease from the districts

How the COVID-19 pandemic is reported and represented in the media and various sources is all the more confusing. The statistics coupled with the newscasters’ tone (depending on which channel you watch the news in the evening) determine the outbreak’s nature for the day. Frequently, in the middle of the regular news reporting, we hear, “Here we received some new information right now” – new COVID-19 cases added – leaving us with a sense of uncertainty as to how this coronavirus proliferate daily. Generally, during the first wave, the media played a crucial role in raising awareness about the COVID-19 pandemic and sensitizing the people towards the situation with their frequent announcements and reminders. Such an effort is not noticeable during the second wave. Perhaps, the ‘new normal’ has become normal. The new cases are generally attributed to the four clusters. As of February, 2021, the Minuwangoda cluster has proliferated up to 61,705 cases, as it is reported on the relevant official websites. At different phases of the second wave, Peliyagoda and Prison clusters were also added to the Minuwangoda cluster. In the popular memory, informed by the official line and the format of reporting by various channels and mainstream media, such reporting creates an impression that it is still the Minuwangoda/Peliyagoda cluster that is expanding as if it has not yet spread to other parts of the country.

The first wave of the outbreak that began with the case of the Chinese tourist and lasted until almost late April 2020 was well controlled before the general election, through strategies such as physical distancing, quarantine, contact tracing (social, temporal, and spatial), lockdown, and isolation of villages and communities and travel restrictions. The first wave witnessed that restricting and controlling human spatial conduct and mobility are the determinants of preventing further transmission of the coronavirus. The government took strict measures to control human spatial mobilities through curfew and prolonged lockdowns at the provincial and, at times, even at the national level. It is reasonable to say that controlling human spatial mobilities has been a successful strategy in curtailing the first wave, enhanced by the commitment and dedication of the health, security, and various other sectors. However, during this first wave, the coronavirus carriers were identified as foreigners of two kinds instead of locals. They are the immigrant workers who had returned from the Middle East and Italy and a small number of actual foreigners visiting Sri Lanka. The exception to this was the Welisara Navy outbreak and small groups of the infected in a few low-income localities in Colombo. Thus, the coronavirus had not fortunately been ‘socialized’ into the local society.

At present, the second wave that began in early October, when an employee from a garment factory in Minuwangoda was found positive for COVID-19, is different. Although it was debated in the early days whether the coronavirus had still come through ‘foreigners,’ it is clear that the virus is, by now, ‘indigenous‘ to us. It took a while to acknowledge that the coronavirus is ‘socialized‘ – meaning that it is out there with us. It is imperative to know the geographical spread of the COVID-19. This is important for the decision-makers to enact necessary controlling mechanisms (i.e., isolation, lockdown, inter-regional restrictions on mobility, etc.) in the relevant regions, places, and localities on the one hand, and on the other, for the individual citizens to safeguard themselves from the coronavirus and to prevent its further transmission. Looking at the COVID-19 pandemic geographically is far beyond a simple exercise of mapping where the COVID-19 cases are found and located. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the geography of the world. Under pre-pandemic normalcy, spatial and geographic barriers are removed within the capitalist system to facilitate a smooth expansion and circulation of capital and commodity markets. The resultant flat geographical surface is what made the globalization of the COVID-19 pandemic possible. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has reversed this as the countries resort to spatial and geographical restrictions (lockdown areas, restricted mobilities, isolated villages, high- risk, low-risk areas, etc.) to control the pandemic. Thus, we must contextualize and unravel the geographical dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic to gauge its extent, scope, and severity and reevaluate the efficacy of the controlling strategies and problematize it further.

 

Geographical contextualizing of the pandemic

Contextualizing the COVID-19 pandemic in Sri Lanka would involve a range of geographical inquiries, analysis, and interpretation that spans from a simple mapping exercise to analyses of socio-cultural, economic, and political dynamics of the communities/ localities where the infected are detected. Geographers’ holistic and integrative perspective allows any phenomenon to be viewed in an interdisciplinary manner and a synthesized form. A geographical line of inquiry, on the one hand, enables the decision-makers to foresee and plan for the future scenarios in terms of, especially, risk areas (for containing the COVID-19 as well recovering the economy) and also to implement the controlling strategies more efficaciously and in a socially more responsible manner. On the other hand, such an exercise helps the public to understand the extent, scope, and severity of the crisis and to reflect individually upon the ethics of personal conduct necessary to prevent the further social proliferation of the coronavirus. Here we use the three themes of infection, vulnerability, and immunization to focus on COVID-19 in Sri Lanka geographically; out of seven themes (infection, vulnerability, resilience, blame, immunization, interdependence, and care) introduced in the Editorial, the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (volume 45 of 2020). In addition, we introduce ‘social distancing’ as a form of micro-geography of COVID-19 since it enfolds a set of human spatial interactions involving spatial distancing at the individual level.

Geographies of infection

: With the first wave, particular places, except for Atalugama and a few low-income localities in Colombo were not identified with COVID-19. A majority of the infected were detected from those retained at the quarantine centres. Now, with the second wave, it is different. The questions of where the infected have been found, where they live, where they have been, and what kind of neighborhoods they have been found from are critical information relating to the transmission and control of COVID-19. At the global level, universities, research institutes, and various geo-visualization sites have produced maps demonstrating the global nature of COVID-19. They are mapped not only at the national scale but also covering the regional and local scales. In these global maps, Sri Lanka was earlier highlighted as a country that managed to control the COVID-19 successfully in the first wave with an insignificant number of fatalities. With the second wave, we are now reported as “at peak and rising at a rate of 16 infected per 100K people during ‘the last seven days’ (See the REUTERS COVID-19 TRACKER). Sri Lanka is classified as a country at 75% of the peak of the infection curve with a daily average of 523 new infections. In these global analyses, Sri Lanka places itself at the lowest end, compared globally and within Asia and the Middle East, regarding the total infections, deaths, average daily reported, and total per population. The relatively low position of the country’s outbreak in its region and the world should not be used, especially by the politicians, to downplay its severity at the national level. It is interesting to note that most of the news channels, immediately after reporting the outbreak’s national situation, instantly turn to the pandemic’s global standing, highlighting its severity, almost making the Sri Lankan situation, so to say, uneventful and insignificant. The politicians often tend to overemphasize this as a GLOBAL pandemic to escape from criticisms and lessen its significance at the national level.

 

(To be continued)



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Playing politics with science!

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It is obvious that the only way out of this disastrous pandemic is through science––the use of vaccines that have been introduced in double quick time due to scientific ingenuity. It is the duty of politicians to refrain from playing politics with science.

 

By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

If you thought it was only our politicians who played politics with science, you thought wrong. Admittedly, ours are pretty bad as evident from the Dhammika peniya episode. We had our Health Minister freely advertising the concoction by ingesting it in her office and wasting the valuable time of academics by instructing them to test it for efficacy. Getting a pretty bad attack of Covid-19 demonstrated the idiocy of her action but she continues unashamedly to be our Minister of Health!

A Professor of Pharmacology turned politician did likewise. Forgetting what he taught his students, he supported the untested therapies, the explanation given by one of his colleagues being that he behaved as a politician, not a scientist! By implication, even scientists can forget science when they become politicians! Funnily, he was rewarded by being appointed the Acting Minister of Health the day the Health Minister was discharged from hospital, which was rather bizarre considering that during the Minister’s prolonged period of hospital-stay there was no acting appointment! Perhaps, fearing that he might take the bread out of her mouth, the Minister returned to office within a few days of discharge.

Although the first wave of the Covid-19 epidemic was very effectively controlled, the loss of efficiency as regards the second wave was due no doubt to allowing non-scientific ideas to creep in. The refusal of permission for the burial of Covid-19 victims in spite of a group of top scientists recommending it, made us look foolish and turned international opinion against the country.

The clamour for vaccination is a welcome sign, more so because the UK is continually producing evidence for the extreme efficacy of vaccination.

The UK was the first country in the world to start vaccination and has already vaccinated more than 21 million of its 66 million population. It started with the Pfizer vaccine, closely followed by the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. EU, which was a late starter, was critical of the Oxford AZ vaccine. The French President Emmanuel Macron is obviously guilty of playing politics with science as he was one of the vaccine’s most vociferous critics, calling it “quasi-ineffective” for the elderly. As a result of political comments of this nature, more than half of EU countries limited the Oxford AZ vaccine to those under 65 years, in spite of the European Medicines Agency approving it for all age groups.

Another political appointee, Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission President, had a public spat with AstraZeneca over gaining more of its vaccine doses and introduced a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland; she was forced to reverse her decision, quickly. She then suggested the UK had compromised on “safety and efficacy” by approving the jab so early, despite the EMA reaching the same conclusions as the UK’s internationally-respected MHRA, which approved the Oxford AZ vaccine for all ages. Millions of doses of Oxford AZ vaccine, which they obtained in spite of criticism, remain unused in France and Germany. Why did they not have the generosity to give these to struggling countries like Sri Lanka?

Data released by Public Health England (PHE) shows that both the Pfizer and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines are highly effective in reducing COVID-19 infections among those 70 years and over. Since January, protection against symptomatic Covid-19, four weeks after the first dose, ranged between 57 and 61% for Pfizer and between 60 and 73% for the Oxford AZ vaccine.

In the over 80s, data suggest that a single dose of either vaccine is more than 80% effective in preventing hospitalisation, around 3 to 4 weeks after the jab. There is also evidence for 83% reduction in deaths from Covid-19 with the Pfizer vaccine and data for Oxford AZ vaccine is awaited.

European aversion to Oxford AZ vaccine is, no doubt, due to Brexit than to science. Very soon, all EU countries would be forced by science to allow all age groups to have the Oxford AZ vaccine which, by the way, is the cheapest vaccine that is easier to transport and store. Politicians who criticised Oxford AZ vaccine have had to eat humble pie but they will no doubt come out with some claim to justify their idiocy!

A Belgian minister, Budget State Secretary Eva De Bleeker, has angered vaccine manufacturers by revealing sensitive and confidential commercial information – the price that the EU has agreed to pay for the leading Covid-19 vaccines. Though her twitter message was deleted quickly, screenshots taken show that the EU agreed prices for the three vaccines used at present are as follows: Oxford/AstraZeneca: €$ 1.78, Pfizer/BioNTech : €$ 12 and Moderna: $18.

Moderna, a Bio-tech company, which has not been profitable so-far, is heading for wind-fall profits and the drug-giant Pfizer will get richer. No one seems to have followed the noble gesture of AstraZeneca, which agreed with the Oxford group to provide the vaccine on no-profit basis.

It is obvious that the only way out of this disastrous pandemic is through science––the use of vaccines that have been introduced in double quick time due to scientific ingenuity. It is the duty of politicians to refrain from playing politics with science.

As Dolly Parton sang with a rewrite of her famous song ‘Jolene’ whilst having her jab:

“Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, I’m begging of you, please don’t hesitate. Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, because once you’re dead, then that’s a bit too late.”

 

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Who wants to live forever?

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The haunting lyrics of The Queen song and the almost plaintive tone in Freddie Mercury’s oh so unique voice, when he sang this song (particularly in his live performance at Wembley), echo through my mind these days. There are two main reasons why longevity is foremost these days.

The first, of course, being the pandemic that is among us. It may be the first time that the civilian population of the entire world is facing the possibility of sudden death, not from incoming fire or even suicide bombers but from an insidious, unseen, minute germ!

The second reason why the length of our lives and prolonging it for as long as we possibly can have been entering my thoughts, is when I see the scramble to get the anti-virus vaccine that I observe in the Pearl. Now, most of us are Buddhists and somewhere in those teachings is a belief that we come into this world with a certain amount of AYUSHA or length of life, and that when that is over the end happens and there is no choice. At least, that is the basic interpretation of undoubtedly very complex teaching.

If that is the case, why this scramble for the vaccine? Why are we using privileged positions (connections to rulers and politicians), connections to doctors, and even the Mayors of certain cities to short-circuit the waiting lists? Older people are complaining that they are being denied the vaccine, why? Those people have probably achieved all their objectives in life, completed successful lives, seen grandchildren or even great-grandchildren, why do they want to deny some young man or woman starting out on life with all those milestones to reach, the vaccine, particularly if they are devoted to the teachings of the Buddha.

Is it selfishness, greed, and avarice, things we should avoid according to these self-same teachings, or is it simply one-up-man-ship and the need to be able to boast that they got the vaccine when the “ordinary” man is still standing in queues and probably infecting each other due to the total chaos and non-observance of Covid protocols in these places of administering the vaccine? Think about it dear readers, especially those of you who have completed productive and useful lives, brought up “successful” children, and as is the way in our society provided them with houses, lands, dowries, and other ways of sustenance. Do we really need to join this scramble for the vaccine? Or, use our position of privilege to probably deny some younger person, with a life to live, the chance of getting it. Is it even our ego (something else we should control and make less significant in our lives and decisions) that allows us to justify our long existence in this world? They need my superior intellect, does this world and this society, therefore I must live as long as possible! Or, is it simply the basic animal instinct to live as long as possible, something that we as humans with our superior brains should be able to think around?

Here in Aotearoa, we have re-entered a level 3 lockdown in our most heavily populated city and a level 2 lockdown for the rest of our country. This has been due to certain non-observance of Covid protocols by people of a clearly identified community, living in a certain part of the city of sails, as Auckland is also known. This is the second time that the community, living in that part of the city has brought about an escalation of the pandemic and stricter lockdowns. It has brought more economic misery and spelled the end of the road to more businesses and enterprises. Now, in the Pearl, we may have resorted to attacking those communities and even rioting. All that seems to have happened here are of course the usual vitriolic racist attacks on the internet and a government decision to vaccinate those areas of the city first, in an attempt to control the pandemic. Wow! in the pearl either all these people would have been rounded up and locked up in a camp in the Vanni or locked down under strict curfew with the threat of being shot if violated. The jury with regard to if the Pearl alternative or the Aotearoa alternative of these should have been used is still out …

Maybe some readers are interested in the outcome of the threat that is looming over us from the upcoming United Nations action in Geneva? I have been trying to get some feedback from “intellectuals” currently living in the Pearl, but they seem distracted, and a feeling of helplessness seems to prevail. The incumbent Foreign Minister seems to think that a humble Indian Ocean Island with what strictly speaking, can be considered a failed or at least failing economy, can dictate terms to the UN, behaving like the proverbial bull in a china shop. Maybe our “new best friend” China, probably aided and abetted by Russia has lent strength to his arm.

Even a “victory’ for Lanka at the UNHCR to this resolution should not be cheered too vociferously, as the countries ranged against us will have long term plans. Every step of this government will be monitored closely. The loss of our garment exporting privileges to the first world could result along with other economic sanctions that would make the cost of living in the Pearl even higher.

One rather interesting possibility seems to be travel bans on certain individuals and freezing of their assets held abroad. Now that could be stimulating, especially if the numbers involved are made public! However, if that was the case, I believe the attempt to rectify the situation would have been given to a more competent person than “the bull in the china shop”!

I cannot resist putting this out dear readers and I apologise profusely in advance. What if someone like Ranil W, was in charge of foreign affairs? Do you think we would have had a more professional approach and had a better chance in dealing with the complicated nuances of handling UN diplomacy, in the long term? At least we may have not insulted and possibly humiliated the visiting PM of one of our allies, Imran Khan of Pakistan! On the other hand, Mr. Khan, you may rest assured that even if you had addressed our parliament, no member would have understood anything you said or even been able to decipher your immaculate Oxbridge accent. It is only those of us who have shut ourselves out mentally from the shenanigans or gone into voluntary exile who watch with dismay, who would have savoured your words and briefly wondered …what if … ?

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Thanks for quick vaccination; harmful dabblers in the occult should be severely dealt with

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There has been much in the daily press on vaccination against Covid-19 in this fair isle of ours, or rather in Colombo and its suburbs

Let’s put aside complaints and say praise be!

Most of what was media-written was on the ensuing chaos of not knowing where to go for the jab; how to get a token; which age group will be given it (apart of course from VIPs and politicians who were close behind frontline health workers). Mercifully, the authorities righted the initial wrong of deciding on prioritizing the 30-65 age group and neglecting the over 65s, who were placed second in the priority list in more enlightened countries following WHO strictures. And so lots have got the jab and we anticipate a drastic drop in infection and Covid death rates. Cass contributed her fair share of criticism in this column but not stridently nor unreasonably. She had not seen the privileged list that passed off as Municipal workers on Tuesday 24 February at the Public Library, Colombo 7, arriving in Mercedes Benzes and SUVs. If she had, her ire would have emerged in pure vitriol! One friend said she enquired from several sophisticates in the queue how they got there, but received mumbled replies. So, a Rose by any other name, even Do-Gooder, smells as bad when it goes unjust! Things got much better and the service worked smoothly once the MOHs came into their own.

What Cass notes in summarizing the issue today is thanks and gratitude to the government and the Health Services particularly, for vaccinating so very many so quickly. People who wrote about this issue, Cass included, were all praise for the actual data takers and vaccine givers. In certain centres, the old and disabled were queued in a different line and vaccinated within an hour.

The gratitude Cass renders is because only part of the total amount of vaccine was gifted by India and the WHO. Our government booked early and paid for the rest, and of the Oxford kind. This vaccine is admittedly relatively cheaper, but it had to be paid for, which cost the government bore. We have to appreciate the massive organization entailed and excuse inevitable hiccups. This fact struck Cass as a feeling of much needed security and elimination of fear was felt, and all for free. Also when a friend in Melbourne wrote they were as yet awaiting vaccination.

 

Black Magic and witchcraft in Sri Lanka

If you thought as Cass did that we would never ever resemble a dark Congo tribe resorting to occult cures or a re-enactment of shades of supernatural superstitious beliefs in witchcraft as in Salem, Massachusetts, USA, in 1692 (where some young girls caught prancing naked cooked up lies about good women in the village being witches), you and Cass were both mistaken. We’ve had these in different styles right here in supposedly majority Buddhist Free Sri Lanka with other religions holding people together, in the 21st century with some of our own doing brilliantly well in advanced scientific disciplines all over the developed world. Cass, as you now know, was born and bred in the hills of Kandy with its most sacred Dalada Maligawa and picturesquely situated quaint temples in peaceful green valleys with the sound of evening pooja bells, joined by Kovil tinkles and Sunday sonorous Church gantara and the cry of the Muzeen. We never had a bali or thovil ceremony. If an inauspicious time descended on the village or a household, it was pirith chanted by Bhikkhus. So to Cass what has been happening very recently is even stranger than to those who have village cousins who dabble in mantra and kodivina with kattadiyas in action.

I refer here to the stupidly preposterous belief in Dhammika’s peniya as both a prophylactic and cure for pernicious Covid-19. Where is that charlatan veda – oops sorry- Kaliamma devala kapurala now? Safe with his ill-gotten gains, we suppose.

The latest voodoo story, but with such a tragic ending, is that of the 9-year-old Delgoda girl who suffered an emotional (rather than mental) aberration and was subject to exorcism by caning her mercilessly. The exorcist could not be a woman; she must certainly be a sadistic aberration herself. Can you believe that she applied oil on the girl and used the cane on her till the kid went unconscious? Was the cane an ordinary one? At first I could not believe the story read in the papers – how cane a person to death, but it was a child receiving the torture and who knows what sort of ‘weapon’ was used. The mother definitely must be punished more severely. Maternal love, even in the animal kingdom, will never allow harming an offspring, so how on earth did the mother watch all that caning. One shot would have torn Cass to the defence of her child, or for that matter any child, with talons extended and blood now not turned to milk as the Sinhala saying goes, but to vitriolic fury. The woman exorcist with supernatural powers and the mother are in police custody. Why doesn’t she do a Houdini and astound handsome Police high-up Ajit Rohana?

People claiming superhuman clairvoyance and divine power crop up everywhere. Cass accompanied a friend to consult a girl in the suburbs of Kandy to find out where her hub had ‘donated’ a fairly large sum of money. This girl had given clear directions to find a lost Persian cat to a third friend; hence the visit. She was a pretty, soft girl of around 18. Once Cass and the other entered the room, the girl changed, was in a near trance and speaking in an entirely different voice, pronounced the reason for seeking her help and said “Look for a man always dressed in long sleeves and thinning hair parted in the middle.” The friend was baffled and defeated by this long shot, but finally she met a man of this description – the father of a girl in her husband’s office. She did not ask for the money!

Such ‘powers’ are temporary; maybe like poltergeist manifestations in a teenager’s home. But going for cures to them is unthinkable. Buddhist bhikkhus and maybe bhikkhuunis, so also certain Christian priests (the bulk of lecherous Father Mathew intrudes here) do have powers of exorcism. A medical doctor is the best bet, in any case, including even mental upsets.

 

Short Takes

Imran Khan’s all too brief visit was a successful veni, vidi, vici in spite of being snubbed ungraciously over the address to Parliamentarians (what a weak, threadbare excuse was offered – C-19 precaution!) and missing out two of our cricket greats: Michael Tissera and Anura Tennakoon from the list of cricket folk to say Hi to the great Cricketer at lunch at Shangri La. What was the success apart from charming everyone and showing off what a Statesman can look like and carry himself off? Why – the Muslims of Sri Lanka conquered. Burial was theirs or so it seemed. But hold it, is it gazetted or is this ‘yes’ like the Prime Minister’s definite ‘can bury’ pronounced in Parliament and then brushed aside and explained by the Gaman as “he was merely expressing his thoughts.”

Main headline in The Island of Wednesday 3 March:” PCol report on Easter Sunday carnage: AG won’t be given ‘sensitive’ volumes.” Why on earth? Is it X-rated and the AG underage?

Picture on page I of same issue of Dr Rajitha Senaratne arriving at the Colombo High Court to appear in a case involving two persons who accused then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa of various crimes. We have long forgotten even a single word of what they said. They will not get off free is Cass’ bet unlike Aluthgamage, who emerged very recently from a court house free as a bird, accused of corruption, Cass recalls.

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