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Covid-19: Small changes may save more lives



The current Covid-19 situation, as health professionals point out, is frightening to say the least. However, the day-to-day life outside unfolded on the TV screen is reassuring. Crowds thronging in markets and on public vehicles, smiling vendors and customers, busy pedestrians and many an idle bystander with masks covering their chins or hanging precariously from an ear tell us a different story- that our panic may be somewhat premature and not everybody is upset about the soaring number of Covid infected. The cries of despair of the patients and their loved ones, overflowing hospital wards, corridors and mortuaries and overworked medical staff appealing to people to avoid infection at any cost seem to have little effect on some. How is it that so many people seem to be complacent about the situation? Haven’t they got the message yet?

Experts have been telling us ad nauseam that we humans are the carriers of the virus and if we keep ourselves isolated for at least two weeks we may stop the virulent virus in its deadly tracks at least temporarily. This would prevent many avoidable deaths and the agony for their loved ones besides giving breathing space to all those who are involved, on whose selfless work and dedication the entire nation depends for its survival at this critical moment. They are actors of an unprecedented ‘behind the curtain drama’ where each and every actor is a star performer with zero visibility and earning little appreciation and less gratitude. Till the virus gets us, many of us wouldn’t realise the impact of our fall and our total dependence on the invaluable services of all those involved in multiple ways in the task of protecting their fellow humans.

In this context, the least we can do to help them is to avoid being infected and an unwitting spreader. Thus, how can we understand the apparent lethargy of a significant number of people who don’t seem to realize that in this crisis “each one for oneself” is the best principle of altruism? Whether the message has been effectively conveyed to the layers that are most susceptible to the infection due to their poor financial stability and its attendant ills deserves attention. While positively responding to the expert opinion that the need of the hour is to halt the virus flow immediately at least for two weeks to revitalize the entire system, it would improve things in the long term if a few simple changes can be made in communication techniques to give a jolt to those who seem to remain unconvinced for various reasons. This will be important since a two-week lockdown is not going to be the end of the menace.

Those who venture out on a daily basis to earn their living and consequently become the most potential vectors constitute the major portion of the super spreaders of the disease. They have little opportunity to watch TV where the masses get their daily dose of information relating to the virus control. Ironically, those who can afford the luxury of watching TV at any time of the day are so well informed by now that they can do without more of it. And, they enjoy more protection as they rarely go out. What’s more, specialists lament that they only increase the boredom of TV viewers by repeating the same instructions day in and day out. Thus much of the effort at communication seems to miss the target; as such a shift of attention from the masses to the most vulnerable groups and modifying the techniques to prod them to preventive action may contribute towards saving lives. It would also bring immeasurable relief to all those exhausted health professionals working round the clock at various levels.

For example, the cellphone recording being played to warn us against the perils of infection has lost its edge now despite its familiar note of urgency. Can any improvements be made to this with special focus on the most vulnerable groups? After all, there’s hardly anybody without a mobile phone nowadays. Can marketing specialists help save valuable lives by advising the concerned parties on how to make the message more attention grabbing, specific and action-oriented so as to prompt those who are most vulnerable in society to act more proactively and conscientiously for their own benefit in the first place as well as for collective safety? It would be much more productive than trying to reach all the people and missing many. The expertise of psychologists who are confined to TV discussions may be harnessed more effectively in creating such impactful messages. Inventing other techniques such as short-messages and sharp alerts through the cellphone will make a dent in their work-obsessed indifference towards the lurking danger.

To make matters worse, social media is replete with many recipes of herbal soups, seasoned coconut-water, etc., that promise to prevent and cure the disease. We have not forgotten how various rituals of pot-throwing and syrup drinking gave, so to speak, ‘pot-valiance’ to thousands of people who may have innocently contributed to the spiraling of the infection to its fatal level today. Such acts of collective folly would also be significantly countered by making scientific information easily accessible to those on the fringes.

What needs emphasis is that empowering those who are most vulnerable to the infection due to their multiple deprivations may entail long term benefits to all of us. The communication of scientific information to underprivileged segments of the society seems to be obscured by aiming at the entire populace. Being a bit more innovative in sending the right information to those who are more exposed to danger without taking the easy way of demonising them is likely to pay considerably in terms of minimising our collective misery.

Susantha Hewa

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Quest for leadership



Suren delivering the keynote address

Excerpts of Suren Abeyagoonasekera’s recent Keynote address on Thurstan College on the Founder’s Day.

This is the second occasion, when I am invited to perform this traditional duty. First was during 2006~2008 period. Now, I am here again 17 Years later, before a new and a younger audience. I see and feel, several changes, developments and progress all around.

I carry memories, sweet memories, in this sacred place. There are thousands of times, that I was immersed, in my memories, of Thurstan, the remarkable people I met here, and all about THURSTAN. Stern & Soft Principals, Learned & practical Teachers, Rough and Refined friends …. so many. Although my Heart is steaming to share those remarkable events, how can I do that in 10 minutes?

Founder is a ‘a person who establishes an institution or settlement’, he is also identified as, originator, creator, initiator, and or institutor….

In that sense, we must remember,Rev A. J. Thurstan, an Anglican Missionary and priest, who founded a private technical-school that taught ‘Agricultural & Craft skills,’ in these premises , in 1859, i.e.163 years ago.

E. A. Nugawela, (then Minister of Education) who opened the Government Senior School, on 11th January 1950, a new school called the Government Senior School.T. D. Jayasuriya, Deputy Minister of education, attended the ceremony of renaming, the ‘Government Senior School’ as ‘Thurstan College’ after the founder of the first school – Rev A. J. Thurstan on 26th March 1953.

The first principal of the new school was, D. E. A. Schokman, who had previously taught, at Kingswood and Trinity Colleges. Kandy.I joined school during the tenure of Mr M D Gunawerdena as Pricipal, a strict Disciplinarian. When he leaves his office room, on his rounds, there was pindrop silence in the entire school. A very pleasant and a soft spoken person. But an Iron Fist in a velvet Glove.

He was followed by P M Jayatillake, a Gentle Giant, 6-footer, Sportsman, who held a record of 111 not out in the annual Ananda ~ Nalanda Big Match, representing Nalanda. When his record was broken by Bandula Warnapura many years later, he walked straight up to the Batsman and Congratulated. Highly knowledgeable in Dhamma, friendly with Students but firm. He engaged Grade 11,12 & 13 students often on lenthy discussions of important subjects, and invites us to write on matters of interest and submit to him, if he finds substance interesting, he will discuss it with the students. We loved this interaction. He was the founder of the Big Match, First College Magazine,and more. I was a Prefect and later his Head Prefect.

I am very happy to learn, the present Principal Pramuditha Wickramasinghe, is endowed with strong Leadership Qualities. We are very happy that the school is in safe hands. We will fully support you Sir.My subject today and always, is ‘Leadership’.

The Founders list continues, with many Principals, Teachers, Old Boys, Parents and well-wishers, who supported Thurstan to, what it is today. They committed themselves to find Teachers, funds, materials and even systems to the betterment of the Institution. They are ‘fountains of inspiration & towers of Strength’, who added value, nurtured, stood by, and enriched our Institution Thurstan.

Respected Sirs, Ladies & Gentlemen every true Thurstanite will remember, appreciate and value, your Contribution & Commitment whole heartedly.I remember Old Boys deep attachments, on two incidents, where the Old Boys rallied round Thurstan in a flash.

First was to revoke or reverse a subtle move…, which was to make Thurstan a part of another school, in which powerful people were old Boys. Thousands of Old Boys gathered in support, to negate or nullify any such move and vowed to sacrifice their lives. We had a Meeting on this Stage, Hall was. I was a speaker.Second was when Newspapers carried banner Headlines that, ‘Thurstan was under attack’. Old boys gathered quickly, to protect the Students, like a father standing before the enemy to save the next generation. Fortunately, Police intervened and restored Law & Order.

I need not tell you about the current situation of the Country. It’s a known fact, People continue to suffer without Basics…, fragile Economy, weak Education, Essentials, Medicine, Food, Global problems, etc., I will avoid touching the cause. But overall, we are forced to admit the absence of Visionary True Leaders. We all know about it. It’s not the best.., all of you will have various ways of analysing. I wouldn’t enter a debate.

When I was newly elected to the 30 Member Executive Committee, of the Colombo YMBA – Young Mens Buddhist Association, I asked the Seniors ‘what do you think…, is the problem of this country..’ there were several responses, Terrorism, weak Leaders, dirty politics, Bribery, Corruption, indiscipline, etc.,’

My answer was, all of them are due to, none, but ‘Lack of Quality Leaders’. We have lost many potential Leaders who aspired for a Change.They were misled, we lost them first in 1971, then in 1988, finally young and valiant men who joined the army to save the country.

Sadly, successive leaderships, failed to groom the next line of Leaderships, which is the Prime Responsibility of any Leader. We have to build future Leaders, to take this Country forward. Future Leaders must possess true Leadership Qualities. We are 30 Years behind the rest of the world, we have lost a great deal of valuable time, and we have to catch lost time.

I swear, IQ level of our Youth, is greater than, many of our neighbours. But we have failed to give them correct inputs, and best practices & guidance. If children are given bad inputs, the results are weak.

I proposed to YMBA and launched ‘Young Buddhist Leadership Training Programme’. Course content, will begin with Exercise and Meditation. Then to Managala Sutta, Parabhava Sutta, Singalovada Sutta, finally to ‘Leadership Qualities of Gauthama Buddha. The proposal was enriched by famous Civil Servant, Olcott Gunasekera,(now Ven Vajiraramaye Gnanaseeha) and Luxman Hettiaarachchi (former Chairman of Walkers). It was Launched, we trained the first batch of 20 at Maharagama Dharmayathanaya, and went upto 200. It was a week long course. Now we take the module Islanwide, on a One Day Course.

Dear Students, trust me, believe me, the soil of Thurstan is magical. I still can’t fathom. Either the earth you trample at Thurstan is sacred, or our Historic Nuga Tree gives you the vibes of ‘fearless Leadership. Look back the Leaderships we have gained, in 74 Years, and as a ratio, in comparison to older schools with 6000, or 8000 student population. We are small. Never make the mistake of going into big numbers. I believe Education is not for mass production that ignores quality.

I spoke to some of your teachers, believe me they are a class. They are very resourceful, they are confident, and have faith in Principals Leadership.

Dear Students,

Let me remind our Moto ‘Thamasoma Jya thigramaya, meaning …From Darkness to Light…thus, it’s in our DNA.

To move from ‘Darkness to Light’ we need Visionary Leadership, valour and couragesness. We do have them, isn’t it?

I wish younger generations will understand the vacuum in Leadership.

An Indian, became the Prime Minister of England, another Indian may become Head of USA. But their grooming may have begun 20 years ago.

I am telling you seriously, many people left the country in a hopeless mind. Will you believe that we can not produce strong Leaderships ?

This is a blessed Country, with many rare resources, a highly fertile Land with five Rivers, staring from the Central Hills in five Directions enriching soil we were born and fed. You have blessed Teachers, and your feet firmly on the ground of Thurstan.

Dear Students, you are gifted with a Leader, with far reaching Vision & Wisdom, A good Panel Teachers, and dedicated Old Boys and well-wishers.

Dear Principal, I respectfully propose, Thurstan to produce, unwavering lines of ‘Excellent Leaders’

I will conclude with a line, my respected Principal P M Jayatillake taught us…..,

The heights by great men reached and kept, were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Regime changes in Sri Lanka and ‘Subha saha Yasa’



Recently a perfect analogy brought forth by a well known actor at a political rally, comparing regime changes in Sri Lanka, to the story behind the famous play of yesteryear, ‘Subha saha Yasa’, was reported in social media. In Simon Navagaththegama’s reputed novel, the regime changes that were prearranged by mutual consent between two look-alikes, King Yasalalakathissa of ancient Sri Lanka and his gate keeper, Yasa, who temporarily exchanged their roles, are depicted.

Reportedly, each party on the throne at a particular time was protected by the other and vice versa, while the then public were duped by their jocular expressions (bordering on ‘koloppan’) and promises of ‘ yaha palanaya’ and prosperity. In the process, the people at large were being taken for a ride by the two look-alikes. It was lucidly pointed out that the identical happenings have been and are taking place in Sri Lanka over the years, and the country has thus been brought down to the pathetic current situation by two major political forces.

Based on the foregoing comparison, Sri Lanka has to necessarily move away from this pattern of regime change , whereby the governing parties take turns protecting each other and also deceive the electorate by making false promises. So much so that in essence the country is now bankrupt. It is earnestly hoped that at the next democratically available opportunity for a regime change, the Sri Lankan electorate will act wisely to break the aforesaid trend that has taken root over the years. They must do the needful to bring in uncontaminated material sans undesirable ‘baggage’ to freshly take over the leadership role for this gem of a country which was once called the ‘ Pearl ‘ of the Indian ocean. (‘The country floating in the Indian ocean’ as referred to by an astronaut viewing it from outer space many years ago, as per a documentary film shown at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington 1992)).

Moragolla Imbulgasdeniya

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The Cardinal’s damning indictment of Sri Lankans



I was shocked and rather ashamed to listen to the outburst of His Eminence the Cardinal on Ada Derana where he comments on all of Sri Lankans saying that we belong to a corrupt society from top to bottom! Lest I am misunderstood I am myself a Catholic and come from a family which has done our bit for the religion and its institutions.

I must acknowledge that His Eminence had a point in criticising the extravagance associated with the anniversary celebrations to mark Independence. He is right in saying that we have become beggars but some of those people who brought us to this state were once smiled upon by him if I remember right?

However, we have not had as abysmal a performance since independence as he makes it out to be. Let us not forget that as a small country we have a lot to be proud of. We have produced some outstanding people who have been acclaimed internationally. I am not going into a roll call of those who achieved greatness but there have been persons such as Lakshman Kadirgamar, Jayantha Dhanapala, Shirley Amerasinghe, Raju and Indrajit Coomarasamy, Ray Wijewardene, Justice Weeramantry, Desmond de Silva QC, ANS Kulasinghe, Mohan Moonesinghe, Chandra Wickramasinghe, Muttiah Muralitheran, Susanthika Jayasinghe, Kumar Sangakkara, and Professor Paranavitharane, to name a few from a cross section of outstanding international figures who captured the attention of the world.

We have had Bishops too who were held in the highest esteem such as Cardinal Thomas Cooray, Bishop Edmund Peiris and Bishop Leo Nanayakkara. I am told that the university accorded a lying in state at its Arts Faculty, to the late Emeritus Archbishop Gomis, a former Chancellor. He was a scholar who had national recognition.

Yes we have had a vacuum in leadership of quality as His Eminence proclaims which has led to our current economic malaise, but have our religious leaders also contributed to our economic plight, and loss of spiritual values which he bemoans? Let’s not look for the mote in our neighbour’s eye, but look at the Catholic Church.

School ethics have been under the microscope for many years now. There has been much discussion about the unconscionable sums of money changing hands for school admissions to access Catholic education! In relation to sports, Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese are guilty of enticing good players from lesser known schools to cross over for a ‘consideration’ (he calls it a something!). It was justifiably suspected that there was more than the offer to play for a good school which prevailed on parents to move their children to these schools.

Recently there was a message going round that parents had been given several hundred thousand rupees to move their ‘ruggerite’ son to a school which prides itself on its premier position in the sport. What is the Church doing about such corrupt or at least unethical conduct? Spiritual conscience that his Eminence speaks of is present in these institutions managed by him?

In another sermon recently His Eminence also blamed the State for neglecting the poor. He categorically blamed the Open Economy and seemed to be pining for the era prior to 1977, forgetting that the best years for the economy were as a result of our ability to access markets abroad. We need to look at the opportunities created for the female community in factories which are monitored by developed countries in terms of international standards. He also ignores the huge losses which are being revealed in the State run institutions and the horrendous corruption there. Some of this corruption in fact can be blamed on Catholic officials.

The Catholic Church and of course the Buddhist Temples have vast extents of land and other assets. I think the Catholic Church can do much more for the poor by using its own wealth rather than making statements which places the onus on others. It can perhaps be asked how much interest the parishes take in their flock and what they can do to alleviate poverty. I think one obstacle to individual priests being proactive is the stifling hierarchical management which has always existed in the Church.

The Cardinal said that we have lost our ‘spiritual conscience’. I would say that it is not a mere issue of ‘conscience’ but a lack of adherence to social responsibility by all leaders be they religious, policy makers or officials. Further, I feel that it is an admission that the leadership of the religious sects has failed to carry out its primary mission if spirituality is lacking! Why do we have a clergy at all if the flock is spiritually bankrupt?

There was no message of hope that his Eminence was doing something to rectify the position or that he had answers. In fact in Belgium I read that there is a debate that clerics are now being seen as an unnecessary impediment in what should be an individual search for spirituality? Reading history, we see that Luther had his rivalry with the Catholic Church on issues which also included the right of Christians to read and formulate their own thoughts from the Bible, which they were not allowed to read!

The Church should look inwards and give proper leadership to change the spiritual direction as Jesus did when confronted with Priests and Pharisees who were more concerned about safeguarding their own well-being. The attitude of Pope Francis must be commended as he is always conscious of the need to embrace all those in need of spiritual help rather than passing judgment on them.

Franklyn Amerasinghe

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