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Failure to Manage COVID 19: Who is Responsible?

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By Prof. Sunil Wimalawansa

There had been a major hiatus of “systems thinking,” relevant expertise, and leadership, of managing COVID-19 in Sri Lanka that continues to date. These not only led to economic collapse, but also to miss the ongoing community spread during the past few months and the current upsurge of uncontrolled, second wave of COVID-19 started in mid-August 2020. The entire country (24 out of 25 districts) has been affected with multiple community clusters, except in Kilinochchi district.

Brandix event that started in Minuwangoda was just one of many recent clusters, of the ongoing community spread of COVID-19, which the Health Department failed to diagnose. The latter was in part due to using weak and disjointed strategies, the reliance of military-style wasteful curfews, arrogantly refusing to conduct PCR testing in the community (until very recently), inhumane quarantining, and failure to consult Sri Lankans with practical expertise in handling epidemics.

Reasons for expanding community clusters of COVID-19:

The mentioned approach by the COVID-Task Force led to the failure of diagnosing infected people in the community, and therefore, since June 2020 unwittingly allowing the community spread of COVID-19 across the country. Apparently, they were not aware of it, as mentioned above, PCR testing was not performed in the community. It is noteworthy that, the failure to detect COVID-19 during the past few months is not equivalent to, not having community spread. “Absence of evidence” (i.e., lack of PCR testing) is not the same as “evidence of absence” of a disease.

It is a futile attempt by the Task Force and government spoke person to deny the ongoing COVID-19 community spread; the majority of people in the country are aware that is not true. Using modelling, such as reproduction number and by other data, the author predicted in the first week of June 2020, an impending second wave of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka commencing in mid-August. He also predicted that the numbers of PCR positive persons would double, every 7 to 10 days: both materialized.

The responsibility for the failure to control the current community spread of COVID-19 is firmly with the Task Force and the administrators of the health department. There has been a series of errors from the beginning, that still continue. These include but are not limited to, lack of tangible, effective, and realistic strategy and vision, conceit, and the refusal to consult relevant experts, and misleading the public. These issues were exacerbated by the lack of understanding the biology, the importance of natural immunity and ways to enhance it, underlying mechanisms of the spread of the disease, and importantly, the unacquaintance of how to prevent the spread of viral epidemic (particularly COVID-19) and protecting the public.

The government should not keep punishing people, instead, it should help them:

Despite serious hardships to the population, it seems that no lessons were learned from the previous six months and the extended, draconian curfews in Sri Lanka. Consequently, the government is taking the same failed approaches today. Moreover, it has now opted to punish people, rather than guiding, and helping them. The current approach by the government not only ineffective but also inhumane and unethical. One such example is the recently gazetted order by the health minister, designed to punish people, which is highly inappropriate for Sri Lanka. Surprisingly, no one has challenged it through the Courts, to date.

It has become clear that the only solution that the Task Force had to control the COVID-19 epidemic in Sri Lanka is (and still is) to enforce a worthless and destructive curfew for extended periods. COVID-19 virus does not understand nor cares about curfews nor whether it is enforced on day or night, to deciding to infect people. Infectivity is based on behaviour of people and the degree of immunity of individuals and the population. Neither of these is modified or improved by the punitive actions taken by the government. Moreover, it failed to incorporate the established disease prevention structure in the country. For example, the full involvement of Public Health Inspectors, district and council systems, and the Government Agents in each of the 25 districts; instead, many of these officials were marginalized.

 

Using the curfew to punish people will not solve the problem:

Law enforcement using the curfew as an excuse for intrusion into people’s homes and lives, under the guise of contact tracing. The contact tracing, which is an important part of the prevention of viral spread is currently performed as a military manoeuvre rather than per the ordinance. Contact tracing is intended to identify, inform, help people, and safeguard the community from the potential viral spread.

While contact tracing and quarantining are necessary to control the spread of the disease, it must be done in a humane manner to help people. Instead, the current practice of harassing and punishing people; capturing, transporting, and placing them with strangers in quarantine centres, without social distancing are against our culture and is highly unethical. Treating these citizens, of whom the vast majority do not have COVID-19, as enemies should not be tolerated; and must be objected to through the Courts.

It seems that the law-enforcing administrators have adopted a “wrongful attitude” to the contact tracing; army teams carry out orders using, “search and arrest” protocol. The stresses created through this damming protocol continuously harming thousands of people, mentally and physically: not only in the index cases but also their families and neighbours. The acute stresses-related harm created, could last for years or even be permanent in some of the affected people. Examples of such include development of severe depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Law enforcement must stop treating innocent fellow citizens as criminals by using the “curfewquarantine” excuse.

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Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation

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By Jehan Perera

Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.

Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.

Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”

Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.

 

 

NEGATIVE RESPONSE

 

The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”

It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.

International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.

 

 

SEQUENTIAL IMPLEMENATION

 

In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”

As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.

The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.

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Album to celebrate 30 years

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Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.

However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.

All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.

Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.

Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.

Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.

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LET’S DO IT … in the new normal

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The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)

Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.

But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.

Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.

Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.

However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.

And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.

Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.

“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”

The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.

“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”

Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.

In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.

Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.

Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!

Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.

 

 

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