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Eminent Group of Lankans fire a battery of tough vaccination questions to DG, Health

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A distinguished group of academics and good governance activists have written an open letter to the DG Health Services (Dr. Asela Gunawardene) about what one signatory called a highly politicized ad mismanaged “public health crisis in which the country is now trapped.”

The letter has been signed in the personal capacities of the signatories, a spokesperson for the group said. Its full text is as follows:

“We are writing to you to express our grave concern in regard to the ad hoc and discriminatory manner in which some aspects of the Covid vaccination programme have been carried out. We also seek clarification and explanation from you, either in a public statement or media briefing, on the specific matters that we raise as issues of public concern.

“The first phase of the Covid vaccination programme of the Ministry of Health commenced in February 2021. Ad hoc decisions of the Ministry on vaccine distribution at the initial phase, created chaos and confusion in service delivery in administering the first AstraZeneca vaccine in the Colombo area identified for vaccine distribution.

“Subsequently the programme was extended to the suburbs of Colombo but many people who could have obtained the vaccine in these areas, did not in fact have access to it. Some people obtained the vaccine from specific areas identified by the Ministry.

“Frequent media briefings by the Army Commander as Head of the Covid Task Force, your deputies, and various politicians including the three Ministers responsible, assured the public that the Sinopharm and Sputnik vaccines are now available, and are being distributed in a systematic manner, according to a plan with identified priorities.

“Both the first and second jabs, are being given to citizens who want these vaccines, from the authorised areas in the country.  The President stated yesterday that he appreciated that this NEW vaccination programme is proceeding well, and  that he is satisfied with it. He instructed officials present to improve the NEW programme and ensure that it proceeds  smoothly.

“Not even a passing comment is made by the President, the Army Commander, Head of the Task Force, or you as Director General,   in regard to the situation of those  who got the first AstraZeneca vaccine, and cannot get the second jab, because “the government has no AstraZeneca vaccines to distribute.”

 “Some from the municipalities of Colombo and its close suburbs received the first AstraZeneca vaccine. They did not seek the vaccine as a privilege. It was understood that the Ministry of Health was acting according to the accepted norms on public health followed so far by the Ministry, on vaccine distribution, and offered the vaccine in an initial phase of the Government’s Covid vaccination programme. They were assured that the second vaccine would be administered within the medically recommended time frame. Some vaccination cards carried a date stamp on the date for the second jab.

“Medical authorities have advised that the immunity obtained by the first AstraZeneca vaccine diminishes according to delays in obtaining the second jab. This, in a context where there has been an exponential increase in the number of daily infections and deaths in the community, due to Covid.

“Information sought from the Medical Officers of Health, in these Municipalities at every level, as well as  media briefings, carry the same response: “The government has no more AstraZeneca vaccines and we are not administering any vaccines. We are awaiting Ministry decisions. Please wait till you receive an intimation on this matter.”

“When asked ‘who can we as citizens  contact in the Ministry of Health’, we are told that ‘it is the Epidemiology Unit of the Ministry of Health that is responsible for the distribution, and will facilitate the administration of the vaccine.’

“All citizens, we think, are entitled to receive answers from YOU as the Director General of Health, on how over three lakhs of persons have already received the second AstraZeneca vaccine, if as  your senior staff and politicians say,  there are no more AstraZeneca vaccines for distribution.

 “We demand that you as Director General of the Ministry clarify for us the following matters: 

1. Dr Hemantha Herath, one of your senior officials made a statement on TV that the Ministry had NOT authorized the GMOA to have the second AstraZeneca vaccine administered to their members, and up to five people in their families, at the Government Lady Ridgeway Hospital. About this time or later, the spokesman for the GMOA, participating in  panel discussion on TV 1, stated that the GMOA had “negotiated” with the Ministry in March 2021, and obtained Ministry permission to obtain the  number of vaccines they wanted. The implication was that other unions could have done this, and it was their responsibility for not doing so. Thirteen thousand vaccines are said to have been given to the GMOA, by the Epidemiology Unit of your Ministry.

 

We call upon you to explain to the public HOW the GMOA was able to get these vaccines from your Epidemiology Unit and have it administered at a government hospital.

 

2. Please also clarify the following:

 

(a) The University Grants Commission authorised Universities to join in the NEW programme of distribution of the Sinopharm vaccine. The University of Colombo has obtained the AstraZeneca vaccine from your Ministry and ensured that it was administered to all their staff who received the first vaccine. These staff (except from the Medical Faculty, who may be front line workers) work from home. Were they considered “front line workers” entitled to priority, and how were vaccines in such short supply made available to them?

(b) Lawyers who are members of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka have received the second AstraZeneca jab. How did they get the vaccine from your Ministry and the Epidemiology Unit, and at what locations were these vaccines administered to these lawyers?

(c) There are members of large and influential private  corporations whose directors and senior staff have been administered the vaccine at State hospitals. On what basis did they obtain a vaccine in short supply?  Did your Epidemiology Unit distribute vaccines to them, as on a high priority list, and or as “front line workers”?

(d) It is alleged on social media that identified Ministers of the government were given large amounts of the AstraZeneca vaccine to distribute to their friends relatives and supporters as a second jab. Did the Epidemiology Unit distribute these vaccines to Ministers for distribution to this wide range of people in their personal and political circles? Please clarify in a public statement whether this report is true or false, since the information on this matter must be available in your Epidemiology Unit.

(e) Some organizations representing the private sector have requested that they be given priority in the vaccination programme, arguing that their staff are an important human resource for the economy. They have also asked that assistance should be sought from the agents of the vaccine manufacturers in helping with the procurement of the Covid vaccines. This is a country which in recent years has permitted the private sector to engage in the areas of education and health. Please clarify the policy of the Health Ministry in regard to vaccine management and the private sector.

 “As you are aware, citizens have a right to information in regard to the administration of public institutions, both under the Constitution and the Right to Information Act. We must know, therefore, how the Covid vaccination programme in your Ministry is planned, managed and administered in the public interest.

“The public has a right to be concerned with the manner in which the administrative units in your Ministry function in regard to Covid response planning and management. There are several Deputy Directors of Health who function as heads of administrative units. The Epidemiology Unit is just ONE of them. We expect that you coordinate their work, in a team. We have a right to think that  as the head of the team, you  know and are informed on how the vaccine distribution is managed.

“The Epidemiology Unit’s management must surely be monitored by all of you as a team, in  this critically important area of Covid  vaccine distribution and public health. 

“In conclusion we reiterate our request for a public clarification on all these matters by you in regard to the vaccination programme undertaken by your Ministry. We ask that this be done in an open and transparent manner so that the public can know whether the Ministry has formulated a policy plan, including a system of vaccine registration with clear priorities in the administration of the vaccine. This is essential to ensure that this country keeps to the practices of the past that have always ensured that citizens have equitable access to vaccination programmes.

“Today, over 600,000 persons, who have received the first AstraZeneca vaccine have no assurance that they will receive the second. Please inform the public without further delay whether the AstraZeneca vaccine has been ordered and will be administered to those who received the first vaccine.  

*Prof. Savitri Goonesekere, Emeritus Professor of Law and Former Vice Chancellor, University of Colombo

* Dr. G. Usvatte-aratchi, Retired from UN/DESA, New York

* Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy, former Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict

 

* Prof. Arjuna Aluvihare, Emeritus Professor of Surgery and former Vice Chancellor, University of Peradeniya, former Chairman, University Grants Commission

* Bishop Duleep de Chickera, retired Anglican Bishop of Colombo.

*Mr. Tissa Jayatilaka, former Executive Director of the United States-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission

*Ms. Mano Alles, Retired Senior Deputy General Manager, Bank of Ceylon

*Mr. Chandra Jayaratne, former Chairman, Ceylon Chamber of Commerce

* Prof. Deepika Udagama, Professor of Law, University of Peradeniya, former Chairperson, Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka

* Prof. Camena Guneratne, Professor, Open University of Sri Lanka

*Dr A. C. Visvalingam – Past President, Society of Structural Engineers, Sri Lanka

* Rev. Dr. Jayasiri Peiris, former General Secretary of the National Christian Council, former Principal of the Theological College of Sri Lanka

*Dr. Ranjini Obeyesekere, Retired Professor, Dept. of Anthropology, Princeton University, USA.



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People to get fuel price shock soon

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The Cabinet sub-committee on the cost of living had decided to increase fuel prices, Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila told the media yesterday (11) in Colombo. He said that the date of the price hikes  would be revealed soon.

The Minister said that if they announced the date, it would lead to long lines at filling stations and it would have disastrous consequences during the pandemic.

“We know that things are hard for everyone, that is why we didn’t increase fuel prices for 21 months. But the government can no longer bear the losses. The oil prices in the world market have been increasing. By the end of 2020, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) had accumulated a loss of RS. 331 billion. Each year we spend three billion dollars to import oil,” he said.

Gammanpila said that the main sources of income for the country had been affected due to the pandemic and foreign investments and tourism had stopped and a large number of Lankans working abroad had returned, decreasing remittances.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Office on May 20 said that a ministerial subcommittee discussed the sharp increase in crude oil prices compared to 2019 and 2020.

The PM chaired the meeting in the Committee Room 8 in Parliament. The Cabinet subcommittee discussed ways and means of addressing the problems caused by the crude price hike.

The PM’s Office said that ministers had discussed how to sustain public relief in the wake of further increase in expenditure. The subcommittee discussed the financial problems of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), among other things. The PM’s Office said that ministers had discussed how to sustain public relief in the wake of further increase in expenditure. The subcommittee discussed the financial problems of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), among other things. (RK)

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HRC asks IGP to explain how he intended to stop deaths of suspects in police custody

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Report called by June 13

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Human Rights Commission has sought an explanation from IGP C.D. Wickremaratne as regards continuing deaths in police custody.

In a letter dated June 8, 2021, HRC Chairman Dr. Jagath Balasuriya has raised the recent deaths in police custody with the focus on two incidents involving Panadura and Batticaloa police.

HRC Acting Director Research and Monitoring Nihal Chandrasiri told The Island that the June 8 dated letter was the latest missive addressed to the IGP regarding this particular issue since the formation of the new HRC following the last general election in August 2020.

Chandrasiri made available to The Island, a copy of Dr. Balasuriya’s letter addressed to IGP Wickremaratne.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in late Dec 2020 named former lawmaker Balasuriya as the Chairman of the HRC comprising· Dr. M.H. Nimal Karunasiri, Dr. Vijitha Nanayakkara, Ms. Anusuya Shanmuganathan and H.K. Navaratne Weraduwa.

Chandrasiri said that the HRC first took up deaths in police custody in the wake of the killing of Dinithi Melan alias Uru Juwa, who had been arrested by the Nawagamuwa police, and Dharmakeerthi Tharaka Perera Wijesekara alias Kosgoda Tharaka in the second week of May 2021.

Civil society activist attorney-at-law Senaka Perera told The Island that continuing deaths in police custody should be examined against the backdrop of a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka delivered that the extra-judicial killing of a suspect in police custody violated the right to life, in spite of the absence of an explicit right to life clause  in the Constitution of Sri Lanka.

According to Dr. Balasuriya’s letter, reportage of the deaths of Chandana Vidushan and Ali Khan in the custody of the Batticaloa police and Panadura (North) police, respectively, prompted the HRC to take up the matter with the IGP. Declaring that the HRC has initiated an inquiry in terms of Section 14 of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka Act, No.21 of 1996, Dr. Balasuriya said that inquiries revealed both victims suffered cruel and inhuman treatment in the hands of the police, leading to their deaths?.

Expressing serious concern over what he called the absence of safety and security of those in police custody, Dr. Balasuriya has pointed out to the IGP relevant sections of the Constitution, in addition to Supreme Court rulings in respect of such matters and two letters dated Oct 21, 2020 and  March 17, 2021 that dealt with the issue at hand.

Asserting that continuing deaths in police custody resulted in deterioration of public confidence in law and order, such incidents underscored the threat to what he called public freedom. Having reminded the IGP that the HRC intervened in terms of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka Act, No.21 of 1996, Dr. Balasuriya has requested the IGP to submit a report to him of measures he intended to introduce to prevent deaths in police custody by or before June 13.

In the wake of several killings in police custody, Romesh de Silva, PC, recently moved the Court of Appeal on behalf of convicted heroin dealer Gampola Vidanalage Samantha Kumara alias Wele Suda held at maximum security Boossa prison. President’s Counsel successfully argued against the police taking Wele Suda into their custody.  

President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) President’s Counsel Saliya Pieris has appeared in the Court of Appeal on behalf of Janith Madushankar alias Podi Lassi. Having brought to the notice of justices, Sobitha Rajakaruna and Dhammika Ranepola, the most recent killings in police custody of ‘Uru Juwa’ and ‘Kosgoda Tharaka,’ Peiris sought the court’s intervention to ensure his client’s safety and security.

The lawyer has requested that the court direct the IGP to transfer his client from the custody of the CID to another unit.

 

 

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Health trade union alliance claims their strike a success

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

Senior health officials including doctors benefited from the current health crisis, Health Services Trade Union Alliance (HSTUA) President Saman Rathnapriya said yesterday commenting on the trade union action resorted to by a number of health sector unions, excluding the GMOA.

Rathnapriya maintained that the strike was a success and non-health sector unions  too had supported them because what he called unfair increases in allowances received by doctors affected the entire state sector. The allowance given to doctors had been increased by 78%, from Rs. 41,220 to Rs. 78,120, however other categories had not received any increase in their allowances, he said.

“Our union action was a success, but we are not happy we had to do this. Nurses and other staffers have not received any increase in their allowances although they too are contributing greatly in the fight against COVID-19. The Health Ministry is unnecessarily creating issues by giving a colossal allowance increase to the doctors,” Rathnapriya said.

College of Medical Laboratory Science (CMLS) President Ravi Kumudesh said that the doctors held top positions in the Health Ministry and for many years they had been ignoring the salaries and allowances of other employees.

“They not only mistreat us but create new issues, testing our patience. Throughout this pandemic you can see this. They get all the perks and have even their family members vaccinated. They are taking advantage of the fact that we are exercising patience in view of the pandemic,” Kumudesh said.

Kumudesh added that the union action had not affected the anti-COVID-19 programme, cancer, maternity and paediatric hospitals, etc.

“We are not doing this to inconvenience the people. We are trying to ensure that the Health Ministry does not create additional problems,” he said

President of All Ceylon Management Service Officer’s Union, Udeni Dissanayake said that they too supported the trade union action because the actions of the GMOA would have an adverse impact on the entire state sector.

Doctors had received certain perks in recent years, and they had contributed to salary anomalies and inequality of remuneration across the board, he said.

“Doctors were treated with great respect in our culture, and this is being eroded by the actions of the GMOA. They have been receiving allowances increased and after a while those of similar standing in other sectors, too, ensure that they get hikes, but those in the lower grades do not see any increase. Although we are not a health sector union, we fully support this action for two reasons. One is that the cause is just and the other is that the impact of the allowance hike given solely  to the doctors will soon be felt by us,” Dissanayake said.

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