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Covid-19: Perhaps final warning for Sri Lankans

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By Dr B. J. C. Perera 

BBS(Cey), DCH(Cey), DCH(Eng), MD(Paed), MRCP(UK), FRCP(Edin), FRCP(Lon), FRCPCH(UK), FSLCPaed, FCCP, Hony FRCPCH(UK), Hony. FCGP(SL) 

Specialist Consultant Paediatrician and Honorary Senior Fellow, Postgraduate Institute of Medicine, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Be warned, our dear countrymen and women. The die is cast…, well and truly. In addition to all our woes in this resplendent isle, as far as COVID-19 goes, things are getting totally out of control. We will have to pay for our sins. Whom do we blame now? Here are some facts and some well-considered thoughts.

It is our most unfortunate duty to warn the general public of the potential and quite imminent threat of a very nasty third wave of the COVID-19 outbreak over the next three weeks or so and the absolutely essential and indispensable need to take all possible precautions to avoid contracting the disease.

The little coronavirus is going on; in its merry way, rampaging right across the world. It is causing intolerable problems in several countries of the Western hemisphere. Our closest neighbour India is in absolutely dire straits. There are hundreds of thousands of new cases in India daily, deaths are soaring and the medical facilities are getting swamped. People are dying in India even due to a shortage of oxygen, a life saving medication that is of enormous value in saving lives during a pandemic of these magnitude.

Sri Lanka has now been caught right across the country in the cross-wires. During the last few days, there is a distinct and very rapid increase in the number of COVID-19 positive cases, as well as the number of patients requiring hospital admissions, oxygen and treatment in Intensive Care Units (ICUs). In fact, the dedicated COVID-19 ICU beds are all full. We have also observed an increase in the number of COVID positive reports at the laboratory settings. The numbers detected at random checks in the Colombo municipal limits also have increased. Doctors in the frontline have observed patients presenting with atypical symptoms and rapid deterioration leading to serious clinical scenarios. Possible rapid transmission has been suspected and presentation of younger patients with more serious symptoms has been noted. In a most disturbing development, those working at the Lady Ridgeway Hospital for Children, report on a rapidly increasing number of positive cases of COVID-19 amongst children. Children were generally resistant to the vagaries of the disease and now the situation with them is very bad news indeed. The presence of a new variant with possible rapid transmission has been suspected following preliminary laboratory studies. This awaits confirmation with further testing. The possible new variant could be a new mutation of the already prevalent index strain in Sri Lanka or a virus introduced anew from another foreign country.

It is important for every citizen to understand the potentially disastrous consequences of a third wave, especially with a possible new virus variant. If the new variant is able to exhibit features of rapid transmission, there will be a flood of COVID-19 cases leading to a greater number of seriously ill patients, potentially exceeding the capacity of hospitals to handle them. This is likely to lead to more deaths. The new variant may also affect the younger population even more than the older population leading to more deaths of young people in their prime of life. Mark my words, in spite of our trying our very best and the darndest from a medical angle, MANY LIVES WILL BE LOST in a third wave. At present the deaths are over 600., but it could go up to thousands over just a few days if we do not look sharp.

The real reason for this latest cataclysmic development is the utter nonchalance and irresponsible behaviour of our people. There was very definite ‘COVID Fatigue. The populace was well and truly completely sick of being dictated to and being restrained. They were just waiting for an excuse to let their hair down. Then came the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. It looked as if it was God’s own gift to mankind. It looked as if we have not had a New Year in decades. The New Year festivities showed complete disregard to the health guidelines. People from the urban areas made a bee-line to the usual holiday spots. The hotels were full, there was a one and a half hour long traffic snarl on the way to Horton Plains and Nuwara-Eliya was inundated. It is reported that there were even carnivals at some of these traditional holiday resorts.

One private bank reported that the Automatic Teller Machine (ATM) transactions from the 9th and 10th of April were to the tune of 8.818 billion rupees., YES, not even millions but BILLIONS. These transactions were not made by Haramaanises, Palas and Dasas from Thuththukudiya. These transactions were made by people from the metropolis and all other urban townships. They did not withdraw money to donate it to charity. They took it out to celebrate, go on holiday, and have a good time.

Shops were packed to capacity. People thronged the shops selling clothes as if they have been naked for a few years. All forms of transport were packed to capacity…, in fact, sardines would have been more comfortable. It was a matter of ‘to hell with the health guidelines’. With hundreds of thousands on a holiday rampage, there was no way in which physical distancing nor scrupulous hand washing could be implemented. There were stylish face masks covering the chins, rather than being worn properly to cover the nose and mouth. It was a virtual free-for-all. All it needed was just one case of an asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic COVID-19 in these crowds for it to spread right through, like a wildfire. The general impression created was that we are well over this COVID business and it was time to celebrate. My foot !!!!!!!!!!!!!

We will pay the price for our indiscretions. In the normal course of nature, what goes round will always come round. There is no other way. It may be better late than never and perhaps even never too late to start even now. The populace has to get it into their thick heads that there is a life-threatening emergency. It is absolutely pertinent and crucially vital that all possible stringent public health measures are strictly adhered to, by all citizens, to mitigate contracting the COVID-19 infection. In this regard, it would be absolutely essential to wear masks, maintain 1 meter or more of social distancing and frequently wash our hands. It is also absolutely critical to keep away from crowded places.

Furthermore, public education to alleviate stigma involved with the diagnosis of COVID-19 also is important. This virus infection should be treated like any other illness, by taking all steps to prevent contracting it. As the severity of the infection with a new variant is not all that familiar to the medical profession, all members of the public with respiratory symptoms are strongly recommended to seek medical advice followed by a COVID-19 test.

There are some of our people who did and still do obey the health guidelines. They are mostly those people from the more rural areas of the country. The buses plying in those rural areas are almost empty. Those people are scrupulously avoiding unnecessary travel and mass gatherings. The problem rests squarely with the more affluent and even more educated folk from the urban areas. They are the ‘know-alls’ who are inclined to throw caution to the winds at the drop of a hat. They need to take their public spiritedness and responsibilities to society ever so seriously. If they need a role model, they only need to just look once at the heart-rendering picture and the account of a Senior Lady Police Officer in India which appeared in the Island Newspaper of 22nd April 2021. It showed Mrs Shilpa Sahu, a five-month pregnant Deputy Superintendent of Police, in maternity attire rather than her Police Uniform, on a sun-baked street in a locked down area in India, wielding a stick and admonishing people who were out on the streets “Wapas jao. Ghar jao” (Go home. Stay at home). She is also reported to have said “we are out on the roads for your protection and you must remain at home for protecting everyone”. Need you look further? The lady is the sheer personification and the epitome of responsibility. Well, my countrymen and women, she is the one to follow.

I only hope and pray that I will be proved to be wrong as a prophet of doom, just for the welfare of our beloved Motherland and our people.



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Dominances, hegemonies and diversities

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by Nicola Perera

What spaces exist for students and staff of ethnic and religious minorities, within the university? Do students and staff in these groups have the liberty and security to openly identify themselves, claim their identities, be visible? Do either university structures and policies or the culture and attitudes within the university community, ensure a lack of discrimination, with the same rights, privileges and opportunities, for such persons to live, work, and study in an environment of acceptance, without hostility or marginalisation? I speak of the ethos of majoritarianism, located in a university of the south, which is predominantly the normative of education in the country.

If I were to ask students, staff, or administrators how persons of ethnic and religious minorities are treated in the university, I suspect they would immediately point to the existence of cultural groups that have long been established in university culture. Most universities and faculties will have a Tamil Society, a Hindu Students’ Society, a Muslim Majlis, various Christian groupings, and so on. Each will organise various cultural festivals, such as carols for Christmas, Ifthar, etc. At first glance, there appears to be representation and accommodation of ethnic and religious minorities, and this is institutionalised within the university.

But this accommodation is superficial and tokenistic. Against the existence of these various groups, consider the Student Union itself, which formally represents the entire student body. Who do they actually represent? The Student Union in the Faculty of Arts organises Buddhist festivals, pinkamas, and all-night piriths at the beginning of the year, as well as inviting Buddhist monks for Poyas, like Vesak and Poson. The major event of the year for the Student Union is the Sahithya Ulela, for which the Union goes all out: portraits of the greats of Sinhala literature adorn the pillars of the Faculty, together with quotations from their works. The drama festival is a huge part of the Sahithya Ulela, during which hugely popular Sinhala plays are performed.

This is the way things have always been in the university’s framework of majority default and minority tolerance. There are religious and cultural student societies to represent and take care of non-Buddhist and non-Sinhala students, representing deviations from the norm, while the Student Union itself, regardless of its political/ideological tendency, firmly represents and centres Sinhala-Buddhist religious and cultural concerns instead of the diverse student body as a whole. The majority culture is dominant to the point where it is the ubiquitous default, and all minority positions are tokenised into tolerated representations. It is a system and space that privileges my ethnic background, where my presence goes unquestioned, unremarked upon and unmarked.

On the other hand, what discriminations, aggressions, and microaggressions do students and staff of ethnic and religious minorities face in and outside class? What could they tell us, if we could only assure them of the security to openly talk about such things without fear of retaliation? What is our role as academic staff, regardless of discipline, to initiate difficult conversations about inclusion, acceptance, to challenge the biases, prejudices, absences? What microaggressions, hostilities, subtle or overt othering do we as staff and administrators perpetrate? What is the culture that we create in university?

What of the class of Muslim students who were told that they can keep their cultural identity but should wear colourful abayas and hijabs, instead of the dark colours they preferred? What of the Muslim staff member who was requested to come and speak to these students, to present herself as a role model who chose to wear colourful shalwars while covering her head? Is it in any way relevant that these requests were made by a staff member clad in Kandyan sari? Of course, it is: the representation of Sinhala Buddhist culture as the university’s default makes its aesthetics and preferences the standard, which apparently Sinhala individual staff members feel empowered to enforce.

What of the Muslim women students who were stopped at the entrance of the university after the Easter bombings? The security guards told them to wear their hijabs in such a way as to show their ears. Is the university capable of recognising this harassment as harassment? Was this an officially-sanctioned policy that required the security guards to act this way? Or were they merely empowered to perform this harassment in that moment by the long-established practice of treating Sinhala culture, dress, and presentation as normal and default, with all marked minority cultures as suspicious deviations? Would the existence of the Muslim Majlis be sufficient to let these students agree with the common perspective that the university – by policy or practice – does not discriminate on the basis of religious/ethnic grounds? Could these students have gotten away with showing impatience, even a touch of hauteur (as I did when I produced my ID card for inspection) at the guards’ power to remark on their ethnicity, police their attire – in myriad small ways to let them know that their presence in the university space was under surveillance, at the majority’s sufferance?

It is not enough for the university to complacently point at tokenistic student groups as evidence of non-discrimination. Even the simple representation of diversity, at which the university is already failing, would still not be enough: including Tamil-language plays at the Sahithya Ulela and making sure to include the portraits of Tamil and Muslim writers as well is necessary, but far from sufficient. What we need is active anti-discrimination, in both word and deed, to identify these situations and contexts in which staff and students of religious and ethnic minorities in our universities are harassed, othered, and discriminated against every day, and to figure out ways to end those practices and prevent them from recurring, through policy, through education, and through our own efforts as the people who uphold and perpetuate university culture.

Nicola Perera is attached to the Department of English Language Teaching, University of Colombo.

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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Prevent growth of extremism through stronger institutions

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Priyantha Kumara, who was lynched in Pakistan

By Jehan Perera

The killing of a Sri Lankan, in Pakistan, by a frenzied mob, who accused him of committing an act of blasphemy, serves as a grim reminder of the ever-present danger of pent-up emotion exploding in society. Over the eons, religion has served to humanize the more primitive nature, lurking within human beings.  “Be kind to the stranger in your midst, because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt,” is the biblical injunction too often ignored by the very people who profess to follow its teachings. It is not only in Pakistan that such inhuman acts have occurred, especially when there has been a failure of national leadership to instill a higher ethos of morality in the people, too often for the sake of electoral gain.

Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan has been accused of defending Pakistan’s blasphemy law and promoting Islamic fundamentalism to come to power and now to shore up support for his government that is failing to solve the problems of the people.  A clause of the constitution mandates the death penalty for any “imputation, insinuation or innuendo” against the Holy Prophet.  Presently Pakistan faces economic sanctions by the EU, as does Sri Lanka, due to its adherence to this law and other human rights issues.   The EU has raised issues related to the protection of journalists, religious extremism, misuse of blasphemy laws, and forced conversion in some parts of the country. A compromised political environment in which there is impunity leads people to take the law into their own hands according to their notions of what is right and wrong.

Mobilising the emotions of people, whether by religion or ethnic nationalism, to gain and retain power, is like sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind.  President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and other members of the Sri Lankan government have expressed their strong condemnation of the heinous crime against its citizens and demanded justice.  Prime Minister Khan has pledged justice and referred to the “day of shame” for Pakistan.  More than a hundred alleged participants in the crime have been arrested. There have also been images of Pakistani civil society groups saying sorry for what has happened.  Likewise, Sri Lankan civil society will also recall the support that Pakistan gave to Sri Lanka during the years of war and, diplomatically, on the issues of human rights violations raised by sections of the international community.

DANGEROUS MIX

It is also necessary for Sri Lankans to be mindful about what has happened within Sri Lanka itself during the JVP insurrection, the 1983 riots, and, more recently, in Aluthgama, Digana and Kurunegala.  In all of these instances, there was a measure of state complicity, or inaction, which is worse than the savage deeds of a mob as the state represents the civilization of the country.  This state failure has been on account of the over-politicisation of the state machinery to the point where senior officers of the state, most of whom have joined the state for idealistic reasons, cannot and do not perform their duties due to political interference.  In a manner similar to Prime Minister Khan, President Rajapaksa, and the current government, won elections by catering to the nationalism and fears of the ethnic majority, with some of its allies spewing hatred towards the ethnic and religious minorities.

There are disturbing signs that the situation of state failure is growing more serious in Sri Lanka.  The release of former Governor Azath Salley after he had been in remand jail for eight months on charges that the court said were not sustainable. All charges against him by the Attorney General were dismissed as they lacked merit.  The injustice done to him and his family, the loss of eight months of his life and his reputation, require reparations which may be forthcoming as he is a person of stature.  There will be countless others who are less able to fight their cases, like the former Governor did.  In addition, there have been several killings in police custody of prisoners who are alleged to have tried to escape when taken to find their store of weapons or in cross fire or by suicide.  Making matters worse is that in some of these cases the families and lawyers of the imprisoned persons have given advance warning that those held in custody are scheduled to be killed, but nothing is done and the deaths take place.

The same inability or unwillingness to ensure accountability can be seen at multiple levels, be it in relation to the manner in which the three-decade long war ended, or the Easter Sunday bombings, or the Central Bank bond scandal, or the sugar tax scandal, the Yugadanavi Power Plant issue and, most recently, the explosion of large numbers of cooking gas cylinders which have led to deaths and burning down of people’s homes.  In none of these cases has investigations led to the masterminds being found and meted out justice. With time, the cases might be forgotten and the wrongdoers get away with their crimes. Perhaps it is in apprehension of the potential crisis situation in the country that the Supreme Court has written a strong judgement in a case that is representative of the people’s sense of compassion and care for all living beings as directed by the sacred religious texts.   This was with regard to whether elephants captured from the wild and taken to homes and temples as objects of social prestige should be returned to their supposed owners or released to the wild or sent to protected sanctuaries.

GOOD GOVERNANCE

In a decision that can have far reaching ramifications for the rule of law, and for the system of checks and balances, and wisely in a case that is less politically controversial, the Court cited a famous judgement by Lord Denning in the English Courts where he said, “It is settled in our constitutional law that in matters that concern the public at large the Attorney General is the guardian of the public interest.  Although he is a member of the government of the day, it is his duty to represent the public interest with complete objectivity and detachment.  He must act independently of any external pressure for whatever quarter it may come.”  The Court said that “these observations aptly apply to the role of the Attorney General of Sri Lanka.”  Notably the respondents in this case were the Prime Minister and Minister of Wildlife.

If positions, such as the Attorney General, are to be filled with persons who will make decisions in line with the Court judgement above, it is necessary that they should be persons with integrity and competence.  They also need the space to be able to do their work without political interference.  It was to achieve this objective that two different governments, headed by two different political leaders from two different political parties took steps to ensure the passage of the 17th and 19th amendments in 2001 and 2015 respectively.  These two amendments had the common feature of reducing the President’s powers and seeking to increase the independence of state institutions from political interference.  A police force that is independent of political influencers, who act behind the scenes, is more likely to act with integrity in dealing with the impunity that is growing in the country.

The government’s pledge of a new draft constitution, before the end of the year, provides an opportunity to reform the system of governance and put an end to the multifarious violations and weaknesses in it that breeds impunity and resentment which is the fuel for extremism of all sorts. The political space should be kept secular, unlike in the case of Pakistan with its religious law, and kept free from religious or ethnic nationalist biases. The reintroduction of the scheme of appointment of higher officials of state, through a multi-partisan constitutional council consisting of members of government, Opposition and civil society, would lead to better appointments than the President alone making the appointments.  The members of the constitutional council would together select the most appropriate persons to high offices of state and to insulate them from politically-motivated interference.  This is particularly important in the case of the higher judiciary, the last bastion of freedom in a democracy that is going wrong.  The present deterioration in the integrity and quality of decision-making at multiple levels and in multiple institutions highlights the need for a strong system of government, based on checks and balances–real good governance.

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Action…in the coming weeks

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At the Irish Pub tomorrow night

The lead up to Christmas, and the New Year, certainly doesn’t look ‘blue,’ in any way.

Initially, I was thinking of Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Christmas’ – what with the pandemic, and the new variant, creating chaos…everywhere.

But…yes, the showbiz scene here seems to have changed, for the better.

On December 8th (that’s tomorrow), ‘The Legends of Ceylon’ is the title of a musical evening, that will take place, from 7.00 pm onwards, at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, featuring Geoffrey Fernando, Mignonne, Noeline, Sohan, Dalrene, and Manilal, backed by the group Mirage.

Sohan & The X-Periments, a name associated with sing-along events, will be involved in two sing-alongs this month – on December 12th at The Grand Kandyan Hotel, and on December 17th at the BMICH Banquet Hall.

The Christmas Sing-Along, in Kandy, commencing at 7.00 pm, will have, in the vocal spotlight, Corrine, Clifford Richard, Sohan, and Trishelle, along with The X-Periments.

The 17th event, at the BMICH, from 7.30 pm onwards, will also feature Corrine, Clifford Richard, Sohan, and Trishelle, with guest stars Falan Andrea and Radika.

Sohan indicated to us that the festive scene seems to be brightening up, a bit, and that he and his band do have work coming their way,

“We are going to be pretty busy for the next few weeks.”

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