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Opinion

Geographical Information Maps for Covid-19 control

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Around six months ago, the issue about lack of spatial information about the whereabouts of Covid-19 patients, came up, but, unfortunately, it has not been resolved yet. At that time the GMOA gave an ultimatum to the Ministry of Health that it will withdraw from the Technical Committee for Covid-19 control, if analyzed Geographical Information System (GIS) maps of Covid-19 patient-locations will not be made available. Although most don’t agree with the GMOA with some of their actions, on this matter I was more than 100% with them. The GMOA is an organization, which has many knowledgeable specialists in the areas of epidemiology, disease control and Information Technology, and I believe their knowledge, attitude and valuable inputs made it easy for the control teams to prevent the escalation of this epidemic.

The geographical maps are valuable tools to the MOHs, PHIs for their control work, and also to the general public to know of the locations of the patients, at least at the street level, so that they can avoid such areas. I think the Presidential Task Force also should be shown these maps, if they have not seen it yet, to make informed decisions. This week again, the President of the GMOA stated, over a private TV channel, that they, in fact, put up a GIS room next to the Director General of Health Services’ room, and that is a right move. He vented his frustrations when he came out with the difficulty in getting the maps done through the Epidemiology Unit to get this genre going. To fight a war there should be a central command and control room, and maps are a very important tool. Even 30 years ago, the officers in the field sent in the data about the spread of diseases, or they took samples, such as of stools of cholera patients, but they never got the analyzed reports, as someone was keeping them in the centre to write a paper to a journal.

Twenty years ago, when I was the Chief Medical Officer of Health of the CMC, realizing the value of GIS maps, I used them for dengue control in Colombo; and it provided great information to plan and implement control measures. We could see clusters of patients, and the gradual movement of the cluster into newer areas with time. My maps were used by at least the Peradeniya University to train Medical Officers in Health Mapping. I was also invited as the keynote speaker, by the Geographical Information Society. Many came to me from the Ministry of Health, KDU and other institutions to learn what we had done. Since then, the Ministry has trained some doctors who are now experts in GIS mapping, and they could be used to map the patient locations, show high, medium and low risk areas and also put in other information. The Public Health Department of CMC gave Geographical Position System-GPS training to Public Health Inspectors those days, to send in the information from the patient’s location to the GIS centre at the Town Hall, where all such information was collated. We then prepared the maps and sent them out to the MOHs and also discussed the situation at meetings.

I hope they have continued that work and, if so, they also should put out the maps of present patient locations in the CMC website, so that the people in Colombo will also know which areas in the city they should avoid. Colombo city was the centre of transmission of Covid-19 in the country a few months ago as nothing materialised. It is a pity that I can’t even get any information about Covid-19 patients in the CMC area, although I am the Chairman of the Standing Committee on Health and Sanitation at the CMC. The system I built up has come to a standstill, and sometimes even after eight months, I can’t get any answers to my questions given at Council meetings. Frustrated, I even wrote to the Epidemiology Unit asking for information about patient locations to better plan our prevention programmes, at least to prevent patients dying at home. But after listening to the GMOA President, yesterday, I now know it is a futile exercise. Information is power, but why not give it at a time of national crisis for the greater good of the people?

Technology should be used in disease prevention as much as possible, especially in this case, but the people in top positions are scared to use newer technology mostly because they don’t know about such technologies, or do not know how to use them. When PCR testing was started, a few leading private firms wanted to donate the latest automated PCR machine, but it was turned down by the people who were to use it, as they wanted a machine that could be used manually. That was my personal experience. There are other interests involved, too. Now I believe only the Sri Jayewardenepura University has an Automated machine which is 4-5 times faster in giving results.

Similarly, through GIS mapping we can put together a lot of information in a short time, and the analyzed information can be made available to the people who make decisions, and those in the field. Seeing the ground situation with one’s own eyes, is better than seeing some numbers. I hope the President, the Ministers and the Presidential Task Force will seriously take note of this, as this is very valuable public information that can be used to control this epidemic, at this critical juncture. For example, the information through maps could be used at least to know whether we should lock down a city or a district, or a province, or a few of them, etc., to prevent further escalation of this Covid-19 epidemic. There could be even a working sub-committee set up to do this work. Please do not put away this information in cold storage as someone’s private property. Let saner counsel prevail.

 

Dr. PRADEEP KARIYAWASAM

Former CMOH/CMC,

Chairman, Standing Committee on Health/CMC



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Opinion

An appeal to President

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This is to request President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to allow burial of COVID -19 infected corpses of Muslims in the burial ground close to the residence of the diseased instead of sending them to Otamaavadi. It goes without saying that all Health protocols and regulations will have to be stringently adhered to for the burial at the existing burial grounds.

I hope that this request will be granted as the experts in Virology have confirmed that there is no ground water contamination with the burial of those dying of Covid-19.

This will reduce considerably logistic issues and cost to both the State and the family members of the deceased and at the same time expedite burial.

Mohamed Zahran

Colombo

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Opinion

Talk Shows

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COVID-19 has opened up the doors for an umpteen number of “talk shows”: of various types, conveying different TV messages to our people on how to cope with the many daily problems faced by them, including the now prevailing pandemic.

At a time the public are very effectively advised by the relevant health authorities delegated with that task, and highly competent to educate the masses how to cope with this pandemic, what purpose these “shows” give our people hungry for news is left for anyone to guess.

Recently. I happened to watch two such talk shows telecast one after the other, where the same person was interviewed by two different interviewers on the same subject, as if competing with each other. More amusing was the pose shown to the camera by one of the interviewers at the end of the show, as if asking the viewers “how do you like my ‘show’?

These Talk Shows, similar to the virus, seem to be able to develop variants with time to cover other fields, too, such as economy, Port City, reforestation and lesser known local small industry entrepreneurs, diplomats and academics; and how to make Colombo a green city by a programme to plant thousands of trees to get off the ground immediately. Everyone knows that what is being planted are not trees but young plants, only a few weeks old, and no one knows when they will ever grow into a tree as imagined, if they survive the test of time and we are lucky to live till then. But repeating these shows as happening at the moment is a waste of time.

What I appreciated most in one special case was the liberal use of highly scientific jargon, even if the person to my imagination never studied science and more so the use of good English that was encouraging. But what worried me most was if someone else asked why these programmes are not conducted in Tamil?

Finally, the Telecom beats them all, where every call taken precedes a lengthy message on prevention of the Coronavirus pandemic, sometimes repeated twice. It all ends with the message only. But not the call.

 

Eng ANTON NANAYAKKARA

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Opinion

Protecting Sri Lanka’s maritime rights

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Your editorial, Poaching: Grasp the nettle (The Island of 09 June), provides a good analysis of the issue concerning the poaching of fishery resources in Sri Lanka waters, particularly in the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar.

The maritime boundary between Sri Lanka and India was settled by two agreements entered into by the two countries in 1974 and 1976. Accordingly, fishing vessels and fishers of the two countries were debarred from fishing in the waters, the territorial sea and the exclusive economic zone of each other.

Subsequently, the Maritimes Zones Law, No. 22 of 1976 was enacted with provisions for the President to declare the limits of the agreed maritime boundary between the two countries, and different maritime zones of Sri Lanka, such as the historic waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone, pollution prevention zone and the continental shelf. This law prohibits unauthorised fishing in any of the maritime zones of Sri Lanka by any foreign vessel. The President did declare the maritime zones of Sri Lanka by a proclamation published in the Gazette 248/1 of 15-01-1977. Since then unauthorized fishing by Indian vessels on the Sri Lanka side of the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar became illegal.

However, part of the agreement relating to fishing has never been honoured by India, whose fishers continued to fish on the Sri Lanka side of the Palk Bay, and on the Sri Lanka side of the Gulf of Mannar, which jointly form the historic waters of Sri Lanka. According to the Presidential Proclamation, waters on the Sri Lanka side of the Palk Bay form part of the internal waters of Sri Lanka while those on the Sri Lanka side of the Gulf of Mannar form part of the territorial sea (provisions of the Law of the Sea Convention of 1982 relating to internal waters and territorial sea do not contradict such declarations provided they are made on the provisions of the customary international law). On the other hand, although prior to signing of the Maritime Boundary Agreement of 1976, Sri Lankan fishing vessels were fishing in the Wadge Bank, which fell in the EEZ of India since the Agreement came into effect, no Sri Lankan vessels has been found fishing in that area.

At present, three days a week more than 1,000 Indian trawlers fish on the Sri Lanka side of the maritime boundary in violation of the law relating to fisheries in Sri Lanka. Any Sri Lankan vessel, irrespective of the part of Sri Lanka where it is fishing, should have been registered as a fishing vessel of Sri Lanka and obtained a fishing licence. Further, no such vessel is allowed to engage in mechanised bottom trawling.

There have been many discussions between the two countries since the 1990s to stop this illegal practice by Indian trawlers. Such discussions only end up with agreed minutes, but no solution. Fisheries (Regulation of Foreign Fishing Boats) Act, No 59 of 1979 provides for a High Court Judge to impose a penalty of a fine of Rs. 1.5 million on any foreign vessels engaged in unauthorised fishing in Sri Lanka waters. However, this provision was never used against any Indian trawler caught in Sri Lanka waters with unauthorised fishing, owing to practical difficulties. Subsequently, in 2017, the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (Amendment) Act, No. 11 was enacted to impose a two-year jail term or a fine of at least Rs. 50,000 with a view to controlling this problem. Although the Sri Lanka Navy takes into custody Indian trawlers and hands them over with fishers to Fisheries authorities, the moment they get a letter from the Indian High Commission asking for their release, all are released. In this context, sinking unusable buses in the sea in this area appears to be a practical solution to the problem. For that also India has expressed objections. Sri Lanka has sovereign rights to take any decision in regard to its internal waters, and territorial sea (subject to the right of innocent passage of any foreign vessel) and historic waters (these form part of either internal waters or the territorial sea). Therefore, it is not necessary to stop this activity, just because India is objecting.

As regards the claim by India that Sri Lankan vessels also engage in unauthorised fishing in India waters, it should be noted that they are taken into custody rarely in very small numbers; that, too, mostly in the Indian EEZ, while they are returning after fishing in the Arabian sea. Any vessel has the right to navigation in the EEZ of any country. Even when innocent Sri Lankan fishers happen to be caught by the Indian authorities, they are made to suffer in Indian jails.

A few years earlier also, you expressed concern on this issue by an editorial, Saying it with fish, when Sri Lanka released all Indian fishers who were in jail in Sri Lanka pending trials, as a gesture of thanks for India’s vote at the UN in favour of Sri Lanka. Thank you for your concerns.

 

A. HETTIARACHCHI

hetti-a@sltnet.lk

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