by Sanjeewa Jayaweera
It was so typical! None were too surprised when it was announced in the media that the 225 Members of Parliament (MP’s) were to be vaccinated against Covid19 ahead of many others whose exposure to the virus was significantly higher. A photograph of a government minister vaccinated at the Army Hospital was published in the media before this announcement. A few erstwhile cabinet colleagues justified this by saying the Minister had twice served quarantine time due to some of his close contacts being infected with Covid19. The presumption is that the Minister was unable to carry out his duties whilst being in quarantine?
I was somewhat surprised but delighted that the Host of Derana TV programme “360 degrees” decided to robustly question the youthful Deputy Minister of Health of Viyathmaga fame. Several questions were posed to the Minister seeking justification as to why the MP’s had jumped the vaccine queue. The Deputy Minister looked like a “deer caught in the headlights.” For once, a Minister looked embarrassed and gave the viewers the impression that he, too, did not believe what he was saying! It seems that not many MP’s have availed of the vaccine at the time of writing this article. Are we to believe that they have developed a conscience, or are they running scared of getting the jab?
It was only last week that a good friend of mine lamented that his wife, a doctor at a private hospital, had not been offered the vaccine yet. Ever since the pandemic commenced in March 2020, he has been worried that his wife might contract the virus while attending to her patients and inadvertently infect the family. He was anxious because his elderly parents, too, were living with him. I read a news report that the government has now decided to offer the vaccine to those working exclusively in private hospitals. I am somewhat surprised that they were not included in the initial group of frontline workers vaccinated. Those working in private hospitals and medical practice perform a commendable service and undoubtedly fill a massive vacuum in the country’s health service due to the poorly funded government hospitals.
I noticed from daily news updates that the number of vaccinations administered was relatively high in the first few days. After that, it gradually declined, and it was averaging about 1,500. The curve depicting the daily administration of people getting vaccinated took a sharp downturn. In most other countries it continues an upward trend. This was the case until the controversial decision to allow the MP’s to jump the queue was announced and the resultant negative publicity.
Now it seems various people from garbage collectors to fish vendors are being offered the vaccine. It begs the question of whether the government and the health ministry have a properly laid down criteria as to who should be vaccinated and in what order? In other countries, after the frontline health workers, the next on the priority list were people aged over 80 years and then came those over 70 years etc. Based on feedback received from friends living in both the UK and USA, the initial criteria is being adhered to.
Recently, the State Ministry of Primary Health Care, Epidemics and Covid Disease Control launched a website to enable those interested in getting the vaccine to get registered. Fortunately, I was able to register myself but within the next hour or so the website crashed. There is now a message saying the website is currently being updated and will be available shortly. I don’t think that the website was in operation for more than a few hours. A reflection of poor conceptualization and execution. Need we say more?.
We received 500,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured in India as a gift from the Indian government. According to newspaper reports, the Chinese government is also to donate 300,000 doses of a Chinese vaccine. Since the initial announcement, there have been no further updates. It is also reported that a purchase order for 18 million doses of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine from the Indian manufacturer has been placed by the State Pharmaceutical Corporation (CPC). No dates have been announced as to when at least the first consignment would arrive in the country. According to news reports, even the Attorney Generals Department had got involved in vetting the purchase agreement, and certain changes have been recommended. Invariably, these issues lead to delays, and many countries are scrambling to get their quotas. In such a scenario, manufacturers are not too amenable to change clauses in standard agreements. We must hope that no further delays will be encountered.
In some countries like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, there are concrete moves to allow the vaccine’s retail sale to those who wish to pay. In my view, this is a sensible move as those who can afford to pay and get the vaccine should be able to do so. I know that my perspective may be criticized by some saying that money should not be a criterion for getting the vaccine. We have had this same argument about the merits of private education. I and many thousands have seen our children benefit from private education. Even those who attend government schools pay for “tuition”, without which it seems none of our children will pass their examinations. So, the concept of paying for education is well entrenched.
I understand that several large organizations in the private sector are keen to import the vaccine at their cost through the local agents and offer them to their staff. This is a very sensible and laudable initiative given that both our manufacturing and the service industry need to be operated continuously. I am certain this is critical to the garment industry that exports and need to meet very tight deadlines. Given the proximity of the staff working in the manufacturing line, these workers should be vaccinated as soon as possible. These are export industries earning much needed foreign exchange and should not be overlooked. The government is short of funds and why the private sector has still not been allowed to import the vaccine at their cost for the staff is anybody’s guess.
Sri Lanka has so far approved only the AstraZeneca vaccine. It seems additional data is required with regards to a Chinese and a Russian vaccine. Pakistan has so far approved four vaccines. Unnecessary procrastination by the authorities will delay the recovery of the struggling economy and, notably, death due to the Covid19.
I have followed the global vaccination statistics with much interest. The state of Israel has been the best example. They have, to date, vaccinated over 75% of their population of nine million. Their approach has been exemplary and is a result of great initiative, planning and determination to resurrect the economy.
They claimed that they signed up with Pfizer for the vaccine supply long before many other countries did. There has been some speculation that they may have paid a slightly higher price for the vaccines, but this has not caused much controversy. The people of Israel understand the benefit of early vaccinations. The government has gone all out to ensure that the project would work like clockwork. The much-maligned Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu recently said that he spoke to Pfizer’s CEO on 21 occasions to secure the vaccine! Just imagine! It just about sums up what single-minded determination can achieve, and the guy certainly in my books is a visionary.
I read a Reuters report describing how a bar in Israel, designated as a vaccination site, has offered free non-alcoholic drinks to customers who agree to the take vaccine! The bar owner justified his marketing strategy by saying that lockdowns and social distancing restrictions have impacted his business significantly and that he is keen to promote the vaccination roll-out to see an end to the pandemic to get back to business as usual. I can imagine the controversy that such an initiative would cause in our country!
The initial data coming out of both Israel and the United Kingdom, where the vaccination programme has been proceeding smoothly, is very encouraging. According to the first real-world data, a recent news report states, “Vaccines appear to cut Covid transmissions and infections by two-thirds.” This is based on limited studies conducted in both these counties.
I am sure many of us would agree that using 225 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to safeguard our hard-working MP’s will not make a difference in terms of the overall vaccine strategy of our country. However, the optics do not look correct. It is said that a vital feature of a legitimate justice system is not only must justice be done, but it must be seen to be done. I think we can extend the same logic to the free of charge vaccination programme of the government.
Playing politics with science!
It is obvious that the only way out of this disastrous pandemic is through science––the use of vaccines that have been introduced in double quick time due to scientific ingenuity. It is the duty of politicians to refrain from playing politics with science.
By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
If you thought it was only our politicians who played politics with science, you thought wrong. Admittedly, ours are pretty bad as evident from the Dhammika peniya episode. We had our Health Minister freely advertising the concoction by ingesting it in her office and wasting the valuable time of academics by instructing them to test it for efficacy. Getting a pretty bad attack of Covid-19 demonstrated the idiocy of her action but she continues unashamedly to be our Minister of Health!
A Professor of Pharmacology turned politician did likewise. Forgetting what he taught his students, he supported the untested therapies, the explanation given by one of his colleagues being that he behaved as a politician, not a scientist! By implication, even scientists can forget science when they become politicians! Funnily, he was rewarded by being appointed the Acting Minister of Health the day the Health Minister was discharged from hospital, which was rather bizarre considering that during the Minister’s prolonged period of hospital-stay there was no acting appointment! Perhaps, fearing that he might take the bread out of her mouth, the Minister returned to office within a few days of discharge.
Although the first wave of the Covid-19 epidemic was very effectively controlled, the loss of efficiency as regards the second wave was due no doubt to allowing non-scientific ideas to creep in. The refusal of permission for the burial of Covid-19 victims in spite of a group of top scientists recommending it, made us look foolish and turned international opinion against the country.
The clamour for vaccination is a welcome sign, more so because the UK is continually producing evidence for the extreme efficacy of vaccination.
The UK was the first country in the world to start vaccination and has already vaccinated more than 21 million of its 66 million population. It started with the Pfizer vaccine, closely followed by the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. EU, which was a late starter, was critical of the Oxford AZ vaccine. The French President Emmanuel Macron is obviously guilty of playing politics with science as he was one of the vaccine’s most vociferous critics, calling it “quasi-ineffective” for the elderly. As a result of political comments of this nature, more than half of EU countries limited the Oxford AZ vaccine to those under 65 years, in spite of the European Medicines Agency approving it for all age groups.
Another political appointee, Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission President, had a public spat with AstraZeneca over gaining more of its vaccine doses and introduced a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland; she was forced to reverse her decision, quickly. She then suggested the UK had compromised on “safety and efficacy” by approving the jab so early, despite the EMA reaching the same conclusions as the UK’s internationally-respected MHRA, which approved the Oxford AZ vaccine for all ages. Millions of doses of Oxford AZ vaccine, which they obtained in spite of criticism, remain unused in France and Germany. Why did they not have the generosity to give these to struggling countries like Sri Lanka?
Data released by Public Health England (PHE) shows that both the Pfizer and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines are highly effective in reducing COVID-19 infections among those 70 years and over. Since January, protection against symptomatic Covid-19, four weeks after the first dose, ranged between 57 and 61% for Pfizer and between 60 and 73% for the Oxford AZ vaccine.
In the over 80s, data suggest that a single dose of either vaccine is more than 80% effective in preventing hospitalisation, around 3 to 4 weeks after the jab. There is also evidence for 83% reduction in deaths from Covid-19 with the Pfizer vaccine and data for Oxford AZ vaccine is awaited.
European aversion to Oxford AZ vaccine is, no doubt, due to Brexit than to science. Very soon, all EU countries would be forced by science to allow all age groups to have the Oxford AZ vaccine which, by the way, is the cheapest vaccine that is easier to transport and store. Politicians who criticised Oxford AZ vaccine have had to eat humble pie but they will no doubt come out with some claim to justify their idiocy!
A Belgian minister, Budget State Secretary Eva De Bleeker, has angered vaccine manufacturers by revealing sensitive and confidential commercial information – the price that the EU has agreed to pay for the leading Covid-19 vaccines. Though her twitter message was deleted quickly, screenshots taken show that the EU agreed prices for the three vaccines used at present are as follows: Oxford/AstraZeneca: €$ 1.78, Pfizer/BioNTech : €$ 12 and Moderna: $18.
Moderna, a Bio-tech company, which has not been profitable so-far, is heading for wind-fall profits and the drug-giant Pfizer will get richer. No one seems to have followed the noble gesture of AstraZeneca, which agreed with the Oxford group to provide the vaccine on no-profit basis.
It is obvious that the only way out of this disastrous pandemic is through science––the use of vaccines that have been introduced in double quick time due to scientific ingenuity. It is the duty of politicians to refrain from playing politics with science.
As Dolly Parton sang with a rewrite of her famous song ‘Jolene’ whilst having her jab:
“Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, I’m begging of you, please don’t hesitate. Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, because once you’re dead, then that’s a bit too late.”
Who wants to live forever?
The haunting lyrics of The Queen song and the almost plaintive tone in Freddie Mercury’s oh so unique voice, when he sang this song (particularly in his live performance at Wembley), echo through my mind these days. There are two main reasons why longevity is foremost these days.
The first, of course, being the pandemic that is among us. It may be the first time that the civilian population of the entire world is facing the possibility of sudden death, not from incoming fire or even suicide bombers but from an insidious, unseen, minute germ!
The second reason why the length of our lives and prolonging it for as long as we possibly can have been entering my thoughts, is when I see the scramble to get the anti-virus vaccine that I observe in the Pearl. Now, most of us are Buddhists and somewhere in those teachings is a belief that we come into this world with a certain amount of AYUSHA or length of life, and that when that is over the end happens and there is no choice. At least, that is the basic interpretation of undoubtedly very complex teaching.
If that is the case, why this scramble for the vaccine? Why are we using privileged positions (connections to rulers and politicians), connections to doctors, and even the Mayors of certain cities to short-circuit the waiting lists? Older people are complaining that they are being denied the vaccine, why? Those people have probably achieved all their objectives in life, completed successful lives, seen grandchildren or even great-grandchildren, why do they want to deny some young man or woman starting out on life with all those milestones to reach, the vaccine, particularly if they are devoted to the teachings of the Buddha.
Is it selfishness, greed, and avarice, things we should avoid according to these self-same teachings, or is it simply one-up-man-ship and the need to be able to boast that they got the vaccine when the “ordinary” man is still standing in queues and probably infecting each other due to the total chaos and non-observance of Covid protocols in these places of administering the vaccine? Think about it dear readers, especially those of you who have completed productive and useful lives, brought up “successful” children, and as is the way in our society provided them with houses, lands, dowries, and other ways of sustenance. Do we really need to join this scramble for the vaccine? Or, use our position of privilege to probably deny some younger person, with a life to live, the chance of getting it. Is it even our ego (something else we should control and make less significant in our lives and decisions) that allows us to justify our long existence in this world? They need my superior intellect, does this world and this society, therefore I must live as long as possible! Or, is it simply the basic animal instinct to live as long as possible, something that we as humans with our superior brains should be able to think around?
Here in Aotearoa, we have re-entered a level 3 lockdown in our most heavily populated city and a level 2 lockdown for the rest of our country. This has been due to certain non-observance of Covid protocols by people of a clearly identified community, living in a certain part of the city of sails, as Auckland is also known. This is the second time that the community, living in that part of the city has brought about an escalation of the pandemic and stricter lockdowns. It has brought more economic misery and spelled the end of the road to more businesses and enterprises. Now, in the Pearl, we may have resorted to attacking those communities and even rioting. All that seems to have happened here are of course the usual vitriolic racist attacks on the internet and a government decision to vaccinate those areas of the city first, in an attempt to control the pandemic. Wow! in the pearl either all these people would have been rounded up and locked up in a camp in the Vanni or locked down under strict curfew with the threat of being shot if violated. The jury with regard to if the Pearl alternative or the Aotearoa alternative of these should have been used is still out …
Maybe some readers are interested in the outcome of the threat that is looming over us from the upcoming United Nations action in Geneva? I have been trying to get some feedback from “intellectuals” currently living in the Pearl, but they seem distracted, and a feeling of helplessness seems to prevail. The incumbent Foreign Minister seems to think that a humble Indian Ocean Island with what strictly speaking, can be considered a failed or at least failing economy, can dictate terms to the UN, behaving like the proverbial bull in a china shop. Maybe our “new best friend” China, probably aided and abetted by Russia has lent strength to his arm.
Even a “victory’ for Lanka at the UNHCR to this resolution should not be cheered too vociferously, as the countries ranged against us will have long term plans. Every step of this government will be monitored closely. The loss of our garment exporting privileges to the first world could result along with other economic sanctions that would make the cost of living in the Pearl even higher.
One rather interesting possibility seems to be travel bans on certain individuals and freezing of their assets held abroad. Now that could be stimulating, especially if the numbers involved are made public! However, if that was the case, I believe the attempt to rectify the situation would have been given to a more competent person than “the bull in the china shop”!
I cannot resist putting this out dear readers and I apologise profusely in advance. What if someone like Ranil W, was in charge of foreign affairs? Do you think we would have had a more professional approach and had a better chance in dealing with the complicated nuances of handling UN diplomacy, in the long term? At least we may have not insulted and possibly humiliated the visiting PM of one of our allies, Imran Khan of Pakistan! On the other hand, Mr. Khan, you may rest assured that even if you had addressed our parliament, no member would have understood anything you said or even been able to decipher your immaculate Oxbridge accent. It is only those of us who have shut ourselves out mentally from the shenanigans or gone into voluntary exile who watch with dismay, who would have savoured your words and briefly wondered …what if … ?
Thanks for quick vaccination; harmful dabblers in the occult should be severely dealt with
There has been much in the daily press on vaccination against Covid-19 in this fair isle of ours, or rather in Colombo and its suburbs
Let’s put aside complaints and say praise be!
Most of what was media-written was on the ensuing chaos of not knowing where to go for the jab; how to get a token; which age group will be given it (apart of course from VIPs and politicians who were close behind frontline health workers). Mercifully, the authorities righted the initial wrong of deciding on prioritizing the 30-65 age group and neglecting the over 65s, who were placed second in the priority list in more enlightened countries following WHO strictures. And so lots have got the jab and we anticipate a drastic drop in infection and Covid death rates. Cass contributed her fair share of criticism in this column but not stridently nor unreasonably. She had not seen the privileged list that passed off as Municipal workers on Tuesday 24 February at the Public Library, Colombo 7, arriving in Mercedes Benzes and SUVs. If she had, her ire would have emerged in pure vitriol! One friend said she enquired from several sophisticates in the queue how they got there, but received mumbled replies. So, a Rose by any other name, even Do-Gooder, smells as bad when it goes unjust! Things got much better and the service worked smoothly once the MOHs came into their own.
What Cass notes in summarizing the issue today is thanks and gratitude to the government and the Health Services particularly, for vaccinating so very many so quickly. People who wrote about this issue, Cass included, were all praise for the actual data takers and vaccine givers. In certain centres, the old and disabled were queued in a different line and vaccinated within an hour.
The gratitude Cass renders is because only part of the total amount of vaccine was gifted by India and the WHO. Our government booked early and paid for the rest, and of the Oxford kind. This vaccine is admittedly relatively cheaper, but it had to be paid for, which cost the government bore. We have to appreciate the massive organization entailed and excuse inevitable hiccups. This fact struck Cass as a feeling of much needed security and elimination of fear was felt, and all for free. Also when a friend in Melbourne wrote they were as yet awaiting vaccination.
Black Magic and witchcraft in Sri Lanka
If you thought as Cass did that we would never ever resemble a dark Congo tribe resorting to occult cures or a re-enactment of shades of supernatural superstitious beliefs in witchcraft as in Salem, Massachusetts, USA, in 1692 (where some young girls caught prancing naked cooked up lies about good women in the village being witches), you and Cass were both mistaken. We’ve had these in different styles right here in supposedly majority Buddhist Free Sri Lanka with other religions holding people together, in the 21st century with some of our own doing brilliantly well in advanced scientific disciplines all over the developed world. Cass, as you now know, was born and bred in the hills of Kandy with its most sacred Dalada Maligawa and picturesquely situated quaint temples in peaceful green valleys with the sound of evening pooja bells, joined by Kovil tinkles and Sunday sonorous Church gantara and the cry of the Muzeen. We never had a bali or thovil ceremony. If an inauspicious time descended on the village or a household, it was pirith chanted by Bhikkhus. So to Cass what has been happening very recently is even stranger than to those who have village cousins who dabble in mantra and kodivina with kattadiyas in action.
I refer here to the stupidly preposterous belief in Dhammika’s peniya as both a prophylactic and cure for pernicious Covid-19. Where is that charlatan veda – oops sorry- Kaliamma devala kapurala now? Safe with his ill-gotten gains, we suppose.
The latest voodoo story, but with such a tragic ending, is that of the 9-year-old Delgoda girl who suffered an emotional (rather than mental) aberration and was subject to exorcism by caning her mercilessly. The exorcist could not be a woman; she must certainly be a sadistic aberration herself. Can you believe that she applied oil on the girl and used the cane on her till the kid went unconscious? Was the cane an ordinary one? At first I could not believe the story read in the papers – how cane a person to death, but it was a child receiving the torture and who knows what sort of ‘weapon’ was used. The mother definitely must be punished more severely. Maternal love, even in the animal kingdom, will never allow harming an offspring, so how on earth did the mother watch all that caning. One shot would have torn Cass to the defence of her child, or for that matter any child, with talons extended and blood now not turned to milk as the Sinhala saying goes, but to vitriolic fury. The woman exorcist with supernatural powers and the mother are in police custody. Why doesn’t she do a Houdini and astound handsome Police high-up Ajit Rohana?
People claiming superhuman clairvoyance and divine power crop up everywhere. Cass accompanied a friend to consult a girl in the suburbs of Kandy to find out where her hub had ‘donated’ a fairly large sum of money. This girl had given clear directions to find a lost Persian cat to a third friend; hence the visit. She was a pretty, soft girl of around 18. Once Cass and the other entered the room, the girl changed, was in a near trance and speaking in an entirely different voice, pronounced the reason for seeking her help and said “Look for a man always dressed in long sleeves and thinning hair parted in the middle.” The friend was baffled and defeated by this long shot, but finally she met a man of this description – the father of a girl in her husband’s office. She did not ask for the money!
Such ‘powers’ are temporary; maybe like poltergeist manifestations in a teenager’s home. But going for cures to them is unthinkable. Buddhist bhikkhus and maybe bhikkhuunis, so also certain Christian priests (the bulk of lecherous Father Mathew intrudes here) do have powers of exorcism. A medical doctor is the best bet, in any case, including even mental upsets.
Imran Khan’s all too brief visit was a successful veni, vidi, vici in spite of being snubbed ungraciously over the address to Parliamentarians (what a weak, threadbare excuse was offered – C-19 precaution!) and missing out two of our cricket greats: Michael Tissera and Anura Tennakoon from the list of cricket folk to say Hi to the great Cricketer at lunch at Shangri La. What was the success apart from charming everyone and showing off what a Statesman can look like and carry himself off? Why – the Muslims of Sri Lanka conquered. Burial was theirs or so it seemed. But hold it, is it gazetted or is this ‘yes’ like the Prime Minister’s definite ‘can bury’ pronounced in Parliament and then brushed aside and explained by the Gaman as “he was merely expressing his thoughts.”
Main headline in The Island of Wednesday 3 March:” PCol report on Easter Sunday carnage: AG won’t be given ‘sensitive’ volumes.” Why on earth? Is it X-rated and the AG underage?
Picture on page I of same issue of Dr Rajitha Senaratne arriving at the Colombo High Court to appear in a case involving two persons who accused then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa of various crimes. We have long forgotten even a single word of what they said. They will not get off free is Cass’ bet unlike Aluthgamage, who emerged very recently from a court house free as a bird, accused of corruption, Cass recalls.
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