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Hobson’s Choice

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By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

The television images and media reports from India are both heart-wrenching and frightening. Visuals of people dying whilst gasping for oxygen, desperately ill patients unable to gain admission to hospitals, and dead bodies floating in rivers were previously associated with movies created by directors with great imagination. But, unfortunately, those visuals and reports are authentic and affirm what can happen due to poor decision making by the Government and the people.

There is no doubt that the Indian Government has to bear the bulk of the responsibility for this humanitarian crisis, resulting in a daily death toll of over 4,000 people. However, the consensus is that this figure is significantly understated.

The relaxation of rules around the holding of election gatherings, religious festivals and attending cricket matches where there were no social distancing nor mask-wearing is now rightly held to be the reasons for the second wave in India. Despite warnings about the risk of these types of superspreader events, the Government allowed them to occur. I recall in February 2021 watching with concern the TV broadcast of the India and England test matches from India, where spectators gathered in thousands without masks. In contrast, in Sri Lanka, we played behind closed doors against the same opposition.

The Madras High Court recently castigated the Indian Election Commission (EC) for having allowed election rallies and even said that there might be probable cause for charging the Election Commission members for murder. The Supreme Court refused an application by the EC to expunge the comments of the Madras High Court. The EC petitioned, saying their standing in the country had been severely eroded due to the tongue lashing they received! It seems the death of thousands due to their irresponsible actions should be subservient to their ego.

I believe the Madras High Court should have extended its comments to the Central Government as well. Just before the second wave started, the Indian Minister of Health Harsh Vardhan had declared that India was in the “endgame” of the epidemic. There were also misguided reports that India had even reached “herd immunity” despite a raging second/third wave in the USA, UK and Europe.

Many in India will blame the Indian Government for having donated and exported millions of AstraZeneca vaccines to foreign governments resulting in a shortage for the local population. There will be a debate whether donations of vaccines by India and China are for political reasons. The people of the recipient countries are no doubt grateful to the donors. However, the many thousands succumbing to the dreaded disease and their loved ones in India will resent that priority was not to Indian citizens. History will record that neither the United States of America nor the United Kingdom donated any dosages and deemed their priority to their citizens.

The situation in Sri Lanka, too, is dire, with a record number of covid-19 positive cases detected daily and the increasing death toll. During the second wave, both government politicians and a few health authorities were adamant that there was no community spread. Thankfully, no such comments this time around. The need of the hour is to acknowledge the gravity of the situation and take urgent action to minimize the death toll.

In Sri Lanka, the third wave is undoubtedly due to poor discipline amongst the public in adhering to recommended guidelines approaching and during the Sinhala and Hindu New Year. No one can argue against that.

In my view, the Government before the New Year should have prohibited the movement of people between provinces. Of course, it might have been difficult to enforce this rule strictly, but those caught breaking it should have been arrested, fined, and even sent to jail. The decision may not have been popular amongst the public, but governments are elected to make tough decisions in the people’s interest. The argument put forward that people were wary of Covid restrictions and needed some space to celebrate the new year is utter nonsense.

When a rule might impinge on an individual’s freedom but benefit the majority, commonsense dictates that such decisions should prevail, overriding the unhappiness of a few. In the USA and Europe, there has been too much emphasis on individual freedom. The propensity of our people to have a good time despite hard times is aptly described in the pithy “Nava Gilunath Ban Chun.” Had the Government decided to prevent people from travelling between provinces during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, in all probability, the resulting loss of life and economic hardship that we are now facing could have been minimized.

There is no doubt that several key elements are essential in arriving at decisions taken as a team that results in a good outcome. This is applicable whether it is in running a country, a company or even a cricket team. A few prerequisites would be that the team should have intelligent members, have the necessary expertise, be selfless, honest, and walk the talk.

It has been proven all over the world that in managing this pandemic, the predominant decision making voice with regards to public health should be with the medical professionals. They are the experts in this area, and as such, they should prevail. Those who manage the economy should indeed have a say, especially in a country like ours. However, short term restrictions and lockdowns that curtail and minimize the spread of the disease is a far better tool than resorting to action after the horse has bolted. The economic repercussions are far more significant. The strategy of China, New Zealand and Australia has been “go hard and go early.” The success of that strategy is all too evident.

The reported episode of Minister Lokuge getting the lockdown of the district of Pliyandala lifted within hours speaks volumes as to what is wrong with the decision making process in our country. That he remains a member of the cabinet is a damning indictment of the lack of accountability for wrongful actions by those who wield authority. Others should also be held accountable for rescinding the order made by the Director-General of Health. The Director-General of Health would have tendered his resignation in some countries because of his authority being usurped by those not empowered to do so; it is futile to hold a position where one’s authority is usurped.

The other decision that made no sense whatsoever was to allow weddings of up to 150 guests. Given that these gatherings are primarily held in airconditioned function halls with poor ventilation, and attendees do not practice social distancing or mask-wearing, the commonsense approach was to ban all weddings immediately. As par for the course in our country, social media was agog with why the restriction was not announced. In the absence of verifiable information such as written confirmation from the hotel that hosted the particular wedding, we should confine such speculations to the dust bin. There is far too much fake news on social media.

The decision not to ban the immediate arrivals from India is also perplexing. It always seems that the Government is a few weeks behind making decisions that seem obvious to the public. These delays result in immense damage to the public and the economy.

Several Government decisions in the last few months, the reduction of duty on sugar when there were several months of stocks available, the overnight ban on the import of palm oil, the prohibition of chemical fertilizers, appear to have been made hastily without thinking through the consequences. One can only assume that the advice of the experts has not been sought or ignored. On the contrary, it all seems arbitrary.

The aggressive vaccination programs in the USA and UK are now being acknowledged as the most critical tool in managing the pandemic. In that regard, too, the various statements made by some Government Ministers seem to be inaccurate. In early March, a newspaper report stated that they had seen a letter from Serum Institute informing the Government of its inability to supply the AstraZeneca doses as per the original schedule. However, the following day the State Minister denied this report and said that we would receive the doses previously agreed. I believe the newspaper report was correct, although the onset of a ferocious second wave in India resulting in a ban on all vaccines exporting will forever cloud the issue. Whether the agreed-upon doses of Sputnik V will arrive in the country in quantities stated and on time is questionable. Every day we hear various figures announced by different Ministers. Given the demand for vaccines worldwide, and the single biggest manufacturer is not exporting vaccines for several months, it will be challenging.

The Sinopharm vaccine has finally been approved for emergency use in Sri Lanka. The vaccine was approved by the WHO the previous day. It seems the WHO has got its approval process to be in line with the urgent demand for vaccines. Within a week, it approved the Moderna and Sinopharm vaccines. The FDA approved the Moderna vaccine on the 18th of December 2020, and why it took the WHO four months to approve a vaccine after the FDA is puzzling.

As to how many deaths could have been prevented had these vaccines been approved earlier, it might need the appointment of another independent panel. It now seems almost criminal that 600,000 doses of Sinopharm remained in storage for over a month. I am not suggesting any shortcuts. However, time is of the essence in these desperate times.

For the people of Sri Lanka and its Government, it’s the “Hobson’s” choice. It seems that we need a nationwide lockdown to minimize the spread of the virus and reduce the number of fatalities. A panel in India has said that lockdowns need be in the range of six to eight weeks to be truly effective. The question is, can our struggling economy and the people with multiple challenges afford a lengthy lockdown, or will we encounter a daily death toll as predicted by a research agency in Washington?

In its editorial, Lancet, a prestigious medical journal, has stated, “India must now restructure its response while the crisis rages. The success of that effort will depend on the Government owning up to its mistakes, providing responsible leadership and transparency, and implementing a public health response that has science at its heart.”



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Echoes of NM’s dismissal may have an impact on present crisis

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by Tissa Vitarana

Dr. N. M. Perera, one of the greatest politicians and statesmen produced by our country, was born on June 6, 1905.

In recognition of his stature as a freedom fighter, a trade union leader, an authority who consolidated parliamentary democracy in the country, an economist who defended the rights of the developing world and sacrificed political power to defend minority rights, he remains in the heart of the people 43 years after his death. Each year on June 6, it has become customary to celebrate his birth anniversary by paying floral tribute at his statue in Colombo. Leaders of the Left and many other political parties participated, together with some leading supporters of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), which he had helped to form in 1935 with socialist objectives.

Among the chief speakers were the current Leader of the LSSP and the Chairman of the Dr.N.M.Perera Centre or his representative. Similar functions would be held at the statues in Thun Korale, Ruwanwella and Yatiyantota, in turn bi-annually.

As usual on June 6, 2021 the function was held, but only with three persons present as a token event, to conform with the three health regulations required to control the Covid 19 epidemic . As the present General Secretary of the LSSP I gave a short speech, the Chairman of the Dr.N.M.Centre who was unwell was represented by Ranil Vitarana, and the LSSP rank and file by Nuresh Rajapakse, a member of the PB whose ample size filled the space left by the absent LSSPers. We retired home to discuss how NM might solve the present crisis if he was alive.

The crisis that NM faced as the Minister of Finance in the SLFP/LSSP/CP Coalition Government in 1972 was far worse than what confronts us today. In 1972 there was the perennial crisis of over production that dogs the capitalist economic system. But in addition the fossil fuel price went up seven times due to the getting together of the oil producing countries to form a cartel, OPEC. The worst global drought in 30 years led to a severe food crisis, with thousands of deaths worldwide. As a result, due to the traditional import dependent policies of the UNP Governments, our people were in grave danger (e.g. the price of a ton of imported sugar went up from $ 40 to $ 600).

NM explained to the people the magnitude of the crisis and called upon the people to tighten belts, stop the import based luxury lifestyle, and develop an import substitution national economy, producing our food and developing value added industry (his budget allocation for science and technology was increased four times). The bulk of the burden should not be passed on to the people but borne by government and the rich. The direct personal tax on the rich was raised to a maximum of 75% (today it is only14%). He managed to balance the budget and in one year in office earn more than the loss. The strict import restrictions reduced the foreign trade deficit and helped to cut down foreign borrowing. The foreign debt was reduced to the lowest in our history.

Today the biggest problem is the high cost of living, mainly due to huge profits made by rapacious middlemen (big mill owners, local money lenders to farmers such as traders etc.). To end this NM and the coalition developed the producer cooperatives (such as farmers) and the consumer cooperatives as genuine peoples’ organizations. By direct dealings between the two he wiped out the profiteering of the middlemen. The cooperatives were so successful that NM brought down the price of essentials to affordable levels, and even gave a measure of rice free. The result was that no one died of starvation unlike in other parts of the world. Due to the opposition of the traders, outsourcing to them was not possible. The result was long queues at the co-ops. This and the other shortcomings were exploited by the media controlled by the rich to lay the blame on the government. They hid the global nature of the problem, but blamed the government.

Besides food shortages a major problem was the shortage of medicine in government hospitals and the high cost of medicines in private pharmacies. Prof.Senaka Bibile, a member of the LSSP, came up with his Medicinal Drug Policy, which was accepted by WHO. NM strongly supported it and it was implemented. The outcome was that medicines for practically every disease was available in all government hospitals free of charge. The shortages were overcome, unlike the situation that prevails today. The foreign drug companies got their governments to intervene and promise a large sum of money to the government to overcome the crisis, provided the NM and the LSSP was expelled. The finance portfolio was taken away from him, and he was given a minor post which he refused and the LSSP was forced out of the Government.

The CP left the next year and the SLFP suffered a major defeat in the 1977 general election. The UNP led by JR Jayewardene came to power in 1977 and opened the door for the commencement of the process of change referred to as neoliberalism. This ideology led by the USA reached its zenith throughout the capitalist world, most of all in America. But it was a failure. It was rejected by the Sri Lankan people at the last presidential and general election.

The anti-UNP political parties helped form the SLPP-led government and are committed to do everything possible to solve the economic, social and health problems facing the country and people.

Like NM, I and the LSSP are very happy that the neoliberal foreign market dependent policies have been rejected, and the commitment is to establish an indigenous economy, where local agriculture and value added industry are to be developed. A major problem is the Covid 19 coronavirus epidemic. In view of my training in virology and experience here and abroad in association with WHO, I could have made some contribution to overcome this problem. In addition where local value added industry is concerned I have already made a significant contribution as the Minister of Science and Technology when Mahinda Rajapaksa was President.

In the four years I established 263 Vidatha Centres, one in each division, and helped 12,300 micro, small and medium entrepreneurs to develop island-wide (17 exporters, 64 suppliers to Cargills and other food chains, and 53 to hotels). To promote large scale industry for the export market I set up a Hi-tech Centre, SLINTEC, with emphasis on nanotechnology near Colombo. But it would appear that I am not fit to be a minister, leave alone a cabinet minister. I wonder whether what happened to NM and Senaka Bibile had any bearing on this.

But why was Prof Sirimali Fernando, Senior Professor in Medical Microbiology at Sri Jayawardenapura University left out. For her post-graduate research in London she not only worked in the field of Virology, but also used the PCR. She could have seen that the PCR test (and the RAT) were properly standardized to give reliable results. Control of the epidemic will be difficult with many false positives and negatives.

You can understand what a person of NM’s stature felt when he was kicked out of the finance ministry, when what has happened to me is related. The only occasion that I could express my views was when the Health Advisory Committee of Parliament met on one occasion, at very short notice, with the Minister in the chair. I proposed that a National Committee of party leaders in Parliament be set up to interact with the minister to exchange views so that we all unite to fight this common enemy. Then truly national Covid committees could cooperate down to village level in the interest of all the people.

The minister turned this down and said that this Health Committee will meet twice a month and any party leader is free to come. Four months have gone and this committee has not met once since then. Secondly I proposed that as community spread had begun a new community based approach was necessary to control the spread and I gave an outline of the necessary measures. She rejected my assessment and approach, stating that it was still in the cluster stage. I said that the cluster approach could continue where indicated, but my proposal too should be implemented. She rejected this proposal.

I might mention that the day Dr. Fernandopulle was appointed as minister she invited me to meet her and I had a fruitful discussion with her for more than an hour. I hope that she will get the necessary support.

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Monastic food – vegetarian food (mildly selective)

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I was directed to the film series on food on Netflix titled Chef’s Table and enjoyed watching the first of series three. It was on the South Korean Zen Buddhist nun, Jeong Kwan, and her preparations of monastic food.

Jeong Kwan

(born 1957) is a Zen Buddhist and chef of . She lives in the Chunjinam Hermitage at the in , where she cooks for fellow nuns and monks, as well as occasional visitors. She had no formal culinary training but is now directing the preparation of vegetarian food in a café in Korea and has visited China and Japan as ‘food ambassador’. Temple food is literally food consumed by ascetic Buddhist nuns and monks. Since their goal is enlightenment, achieved by both mind and body, ascetic food aims at this great achievement – enlightenment.

The bustling Chef

Jeong Kwan ran away from her home in a northern province of South Korea at age 17, leaving her family of seven siblings. At 19 she joined an order of Zen nuns and took to cooking with joy, food for the nuns and monks in an adjoining monastery. She had learned to turn out noodle dishes when she was just seven years old. She refers to her being chef to monks and nuns as her way of spreading the Dhamma as food is a very important component of ascetic life, the food certainly not to be relished, drooled over, hungered for, but eaten mindfully to sustain the body in health and thus contribute to the development of the mind.

Jeong Kwan’s recipes use aubergines, tomatoes, plums, oranges, pumpkin, tofu, basil, chilli pepper, and other vegetables and of course rice or noodles. vegan, Jeong Kwan’s recipes omit garlic, green onions and leeks, which are believed to be mildly aphrodisiacal. In the Netflix film I watched, this fairly well set nun with a serene face and charming smile, grows all the vegetables used in her menus. She sows seeds or plants seedlings, tends then lovingly and then harvests what she needs day by day. She says however: “It’s up to nature and the plants themselves to stay alive. Time flows for them and for myself at the same pace.” Her philosophy on cooking monastic food is: “We cook food that can become one with the person eating it; then it functions like medicine inside our bodies.”

Most of what she used in the film were familiar to me. There was nelum ala or the ‘yam’ of the lotus used; and various leaves she gathered. She uses oil fairly freely in her preparation. I don’t know what oil it was. And of course kimchi is an integral part of what she serves each nun in small dishes; the typical Korean dish always present, made from a certain kind of cabbage dipped in sauces. Nun Kwan dipped into large clay pots of sauces, some of which were very old, the sauces I mean.

 

Vegetarian and Vegan

It is apt to define these two terms here. A vegetarian is one who does not eat meat or fish and sometimes other animal products, especially for moral, religious or health reasons.

A vegan is one who abstains from the use of animal products particularly in diet and believes in the “philosophy that rejects the commodity status of animals.” There are degrees of veganism. The term was coined by Dorothy Morgan and Donald Watson in November 1944. (Wikipedia)

 

Food served at meditation retreats

I wrote a fortnight ago about my experiences of meditation retreats at Parappuduwa Nuns’ Island off Ratgama, Dodanduwa, while Ayya Khema was living there and later; and about 10-day and shorter retreats undertaken at Dhamma Khuta Vipassana Bhavana Centre in Hindagala, Peradeniya. Both places were vegetarian. At Parappuduwa we served ourselves from dishes placed on a trestle table, after the resident nuns and any foreign persons in prolonged retreat, had had their meal. I recollect Ayya Khema would remain in her seat supervising us! I once reached out for a dish to pass on to my neighbour who I thought needed some from that dish. Ayya Khema reprimanded me for reaching out for a dish. I did not explain it was not for me but for another that I did what I did. Extreme respect!

At Dhamma Khuta we went up to the food tables in a two queues – men and women – and held out our plates for rice first and then down the line for the vegetable curries; just four sans red chilly, and a salad or leaf sambal. Everything was served in measured quantities. This was lunch at 11.15 – 11.30. We were served dessert, mostly fruit or a prepared simple pudding. For breakfast we were served boiled seed like green gram, followed by a cup of tea. We were allowed to keep tea and sugar in our dormitories and expected to drink plain tea after noon, which unfortunately some did not follow, copiously adding milk and even snacking, just as they broke the Golden Silence rule. In the evening at around 6.00 we were given the choice of half a glass of fruit juice or a mug of plain tea. Those on medicines were served a couple of biscuits and a banana.

Recollections are many but I will narrate just two. At the first ten-day meditation retreat at the newly constructed and not quite complete Dhamma Khuta picturesque Centre right on top of a hill, with Ven Goenkaji and wife living in the bungalow on the premises, we were rather choc-a-bloc since the organizers wanted to accommodate as many as possible at this unique retreat. We were three in most dormitory rooms with the previous meditators accommodated in the now defunct tea factory below, necessitating an arduous van ride in rain and mud and fog.

One of my roommates was obviously rich and definitely fussy, and oldish. She brought along a huge suitcase which covered half the floor of the room. My small bed was against the opposite wall so I had no jumping across or alongside it. She even brought a winter coat! Before bed there was a ritual she followed: munched crackers and cheese, thala guli and drained a mugful of beverage – cocoa or chocolate made with the hot water given each of us in our flasks after the evening gilanpasa.

The next recollection is me, a novice, standing at the narrow food table with helpers on the opposite side, ready with ladles. On the first day of the retreat, I stood at the rice dish at lunch, waiting for the server to give me another spoonful. I thought the amount served was totally inadequate. A slight wave of her palm to indicate I move on was missed by me. She then moved me to the curries with a big wave of her hand. The point in this story is that by the end of the retreat, say seventh day to tenth, I found the rice served me was too much and waved away the second spoon ready to descend on my plate. Even the measured, restricted quantity was found to be too much as the mind got calmer and body felt rested.

With Ven Goenkaji, samples of the cooked curries were taken to him to be tasted and passed as OK. At latter retreats, maybe Brindley Ratwatte or Damayanthi performed that task to see that not too much spices were added. But bland though the food was, it was so very well cooked by the village women who came to help. We ate with gratitude in our hearts to them, the organizers of the retreats and even the farmers.

A very significant point was that with the glass of juice or tea and the fresh cool water off the clay pots placed at strategic positions, I slept more soundly than at home. I found the cup of tea made before going to bed totally unnecessary and even impeded sound sleep until woken at predawn 3.30.

Conclusion: we normally eat far too much, especially at dinner!

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The Rajeewa Jayaweera I Knew

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For a fleeting period, Air Lanka (before its change to SriLankan) lit up the Oman sky, but it was all too brief, as was the life of the initiator of this success. We commemorate the first death anniversary of Rajeewa Jayaweera and recall with pride the achievements of this dynamic individual who left a significant imprint of Sri Lanka’s landscape among those living in the gulf states.

As a journalist my association with Rajeewa spanned over a decade in the nineties. He was a “stoic and principled” administrator who was forthright and considered in his views. As Manager of the Sri Lankan airline in Oman, he delivered exceptional service not only to our community in many ways over the period of his tenure, but also to those Gulf travelers visiting our island. I was amazed at his dedication, determination and discipline; he did not waver in his search for perfection.

When Rajeewa arrived in Oman in the second half of the nineties, Sri Lanka’s National airline was in the doldrums and was considered “just another airline” competing for a share of the Gulf’s travel market catering mainly to the Lankan workforce. Rajeewa’s vision was different, his desire was to raise the standard of the airline to be on par with the best, but he had to contend with the bureaucrats in Colombo. He faced up to the challenge. Not afraid to speak his mind and to take a firm position on issues that were

important to him and the airline, his persistence to enhance the image of the airline succeeded, commencing with the shifting of the airline’s office premises after 13 long years to a prestigious and prominent location. The airline’s logo was displayed for all to see.

This was followed by familiarisation tours to our Emerald Isle for foreign journalists and travel agents and Rajeewa accompanied them as tour guide, mesmerizing reporters with his in-depth knowledge of Sri Lanka’s history and attractions to leave them in awe.  Rajeewa was a true ambassador for the country and its airline, just like his late father, Stanley Jayaweera, a career diplomat of repute. In 1997, to coincide with 50-years of Sri Lanka’s Independence, Rajeewa hosted Air Lanka’s first-ever glamorous “Top Agents Awards” ceremony at the Muscat Holiday Inn.  The invitees were treated to an extravaganza of what Sri Lanka had to offer interspersed with a cultural show, traditional dancing, and authentic Sri Lankan cuisine courtesy of Jetwing’s finest chefs.  Rajeewa’s positive charm instantly propelled the

airline into the limelight, winning hearts and minds of the Gulf’s expatriate community resulting in Air Lanka becoming the preferred carrier of choice for their holidays. As a disciplinarian he may not have endeared himself to many, but he stood tall with his direct and “no nonsense” approach which provided the basis for the airline’s success in the Sultanate.

After completing his term in Oman, Rajeewa was transferred to Madras and then Paris continuing his drive in these two cities to improve the image of Sri Lanka’s national airline.

In later years Rajeewa bemoaned the plight of Sri Lanka’s national airline and mismanagement.  He had a fierce loyalty for the airline and represented his country with pride and would have been an ideal member to serve on the SriLankan Airlines board with his vision and experience. Unfortunately, those with vested interests thought otherwise and the island nation’s loss was Qatar Airways gain. Those who associated closely with Rajeewa will remember him as a strict disciplinarian with a strong work ethic and an abundance of skill. He was an outstanding role model for young people in particular. He was a beautiful, kind and much-loved friend. We are sad beyond words and extend our deepest condolences to Rajeewa’s family.

 

Clifford Lazarus

New Zealand

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