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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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After fuel price hike, LPG and milk food price increase now in the pipeline

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by Suresh Perera

With the increase in fuel prices triggering an uproar with an Opposition inspired no-confidence motion against Energy Minister, Udaya Gammanpila also on the cards, the government is expected to decide on the price revision sought by Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) and milk food importers shortly.

Litro and Laugfs Gas have asked for a price revision of Rs. 750 per 12.5kg domestic cylinder, while companies importing milk food have sought an increase of Rs. 350 per one kilogram pack and Rs. 140 on a 400 gram pack.

Speculation was rife that agreement was reached to push up domestic gas prices by Rs. 400 per 12.5kg cylinder, but the Executive Director of the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA), Thushan Gunawardena clarified that the regulator has not approved an increase so far.

He said that on milk food also there was still no firm commitment on an increase though discussions were held with importers.

He said that at one such discussion, the representative of one of the companies was asked how much his Managing Director drew as his monthly remuneration and the value of the vehicle he used.

“After checking back, he replied that the MD drew Rs. 700,000 monthly and the luxury vehicle he used was worth Rs. 18 million”, Gunawardena noted.

These companies should be able to prune operational costs in these difficult times without seeking price revisions as a first option, he said.

Trade Minister, Bandula Gunawardena said the government doesn’t import commodities and when private companies which do so seek a price increase on reasonable grounds, it has to be considered to strike a balance.

“If milk food importers are not granted a price revision on the basis of realistic factors, they will stop imports and the products will no longer be available”, the Minister told journalists last week.

He said that global milk food prices have shot up by 32% coupled with enhanced shipping charges and the depreciation of the rupee against the dollar.

Gunawardena noted that 90,000 metric tons of milk food is imported to the country annually.

Asked whether a milk food price increase has been granted, the Minister replied, “that’s a matter for the CAA to decide on”.

The CAA official said that in terms of a gazette notification issued, an action was filed in the Maligakanda Magistrate’s Court to ensure compliance as, in case domestic 12.5kg were not freely available, Litro Gas Lanka as the manufacturer and its respective distributor/trader will be held responsible and liable for prosecution.

He said the CAA has received more than one thousand complaints from consumers about the non-availability of 12.5kg cylinders in the market. This has forced them to buy the new 18-litre hybrid cylinders.

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X-Press Pearl disaster: More 70 turtles, sea birds, dolphins and juvenile Blue Whale found dead so far

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By Ifham Nizam

More than 70 turtles have died so far due to burning and chemical poisoning following the blaze aboard Singapore flagged merchant X-Press Pearl, experts confirmed.

However, they said further studies are continuing with the number of deaths of turtles due to the disaster expected to exceed 200.

The Department of Wildlife said they had received information of more than 70 turtles, many sea birds, eight dolphins and a juvenile Blue Whale found dead.

“We have never seen such a large number of sea reptiles perishing within weeks”, an official said, while adding that a mixture of dangerous compounds seeping into the ocean could have caused the deaths.

Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) Chairman Darshani Lahandapura said there was no bunker oil spill so far from the stricken vessel which is laden with 300MT of oil.

She said three experts from the United Nations are here to assess the damage caused.

Environment Ministry Secretary, Dr. Anil Jasinghe said that it depressing to witness the deaths of turtles countrywide.

Speaking at a discussion on `Looking Beyond X-Press Pearl’ at the Information Department in Colombo, he said Sri Lanka should forward compensation claims by further studying similar incidents in Hong Kong and Norway.

He also said that the danger to the coral, sea beds and mangroves should also be studied at length.

The Environment Department’s Publicity Director, Hasini Sarathchandra said that there is a grave impact due to the pollution killing all five species of turtles found in Sri Lanka – Green Turtle, Olive Ridley Turtle and Leatherback Turtle, Loggerhead Turtle and Hawlesbill Turtle.

“This is the first time we are experiencing such deaths in large numbers. We fear it is will be far worse,” she added.

However, she said that a sub committee would decide on the compensation.

Samples of the dead animals were sent to the Government Analyst, University of Peradeniya Veterinary Faculty, National Aquatic and Resources Agency (NARA) and the Zoological Gardens in Dehiwela.

She said due to the earlier ship incident, only Olive Ridley Turtles were affected and 20 deaths reported.

The Environment Department believes that the number may be higher going by the species found dead within a short period.

All turtles and their products are fully protected under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance. Anyone found guilty of committing an offense is liable to a jail term and a fine.

Under International Law also, sea turtles are protected. Sri Lanka has banned international trade in sea turtle products.

The cause of deaths of the marine creatures could be determined soon, said Government Analyst  Gauri Ramana.

Investigations were also launched to determine the impact of the ship disaster on the seawater as well as its chemical composition.

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Artificial reefs: Sri Lanka minister dismisses Indian concerns, says ban bottom trawling first

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ECONOMYNEXT – Dismissing objections raised by Indian fisherman against Sri Lanka’s artificial reef project, State Minister of Fisheries Kanchana Wijesekara said India must ban the destructive practice of bottom trawling instead.

Fisherfolk in Tamil Nadu have objected to a Sri Lankan initiative to submerge discarded buses in the island’s northern waters in an effort to create an artificial reef. Twenty such buses were submerged near the Delft Island off Jaffna on June 11. The New Indian Express reported July 16 that experts in India have called the move irresponsible while fishing communities have expressed fears that the buses would drift underwater into India’s territorial waters affecting their fishing industry.

Defending the project, State Minister Wijesekara said it was the result of years of study.

“It is not irresponsible project but one that is globally proven and practiced. We don’t accept their claims or the statements they are making,” he said.

According to Wijesakara, this is the fourth phase of a project initiated about six months ago by the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources to cultivate artificial reefs around Sri Lanka.

The first phase was in Trincomalee, while the second and third phases were carried out in Galle and Matara respectively. The fourth phase, this time in the country’s northern waters, is ongoing.

Marine research in Sri Lanka is carried out by the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA), which is currently dealing with the aftermath of the X-Press Pearl shipping disaster, one of Sri Lanka’s worst ecological disasters in history.

“For about two to three years, NARA and the Department of Fisheries have been studying how we can develop artificial reefs for fish spawning. That is the main idea behind this project. Similar projects have been done all over the world, even in developed countries. Sri Lanka is the first country in the region to do it,” said Wijesekara.

“We did a couple of underwater museum galleries as well,” he added.

Responding to claims made by the Indian fishermen and experts, the minister said they’re  probably baseless, as artificial reef building has been tried globally.

Marine conservationists worldwide have, indeed, attempted to construct artificial reefs with varying degrees of success. Large steel structures such as shipwrecks are considered suitable, while smaller unsecured structures are considered less so.

“If a scientific agency is saying this is an irresponsible move, then they probably don’t have scientific research to back it. The most irresponsible act of the Indian marine research institute is not banning bottom trawling. This is a banned and illegal practice globally which damages marine environment and reserves,” said Wijesekara.

Indian fishermen encroaching into Sri Lankan waters in the north has been a long-drawn issue, as has the alleged robbing of Sri Lanka’s marine resources thanks to bottom trawling.

Fishing vessels from South India had got into the habit of straying over the Indo-Lanka maritime border during a 30 year civil war when Sri Lanka fishermen were banned from entering the Northern waters – a practice that didn’t quite end with the war.

Wijesekara said that despite requests made on numerous occasions to stop bottom-line trawling by Indian fishermen, nothing has been done to minimise it, while Sri Lanka banned the practice entirely in 2017.

“I don’t know who these fishermen are that are objecting to [the reef project], but I assume they engage in bottom trawling. Their concern might be that the submerged vehicles would affect their fishing gear.  But this is a 100% scientifically proven method; it doesn’t cause any damage to the sea bed,” he said.

“This will create more artificial fish spawning spaces and coral beds so I urge our Indian counterparts to make a move on banning bottom trawling instead and to consider its impact to the ocean,” he added.

According to US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an artificial reef is a manmade structure that may mimic some of the characteristics of a natural reef.

These are often made by submerged shipwreck, oil rigs, gas platforms and other offshore structures.

Marine resource managers also create artificial reefs in underwater areas that require a structure to enhance the habitat for reef organisms, including soft and stony corals and the fishes and invertebrates that live among them, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said on its website.

Materials used to construct artificial reefs have included rocks, cinder blocks, and even wood and old tires. Nowadays, several companies specialise in the design, manufacture, and deployment of long-lasting artificial reefs that are typically constructed of limestone, steel, and concrete.

 

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