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Lankan WHO Covid envoy extols SL’s ‘bounce back’ capacity and established public health system

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Dr. Palitha Abeykoon, former Director, Health Systems Development, WHO South-East Asia Regional Office and Senior Advisor to the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health, was recently named the WHO Director General’s Special Envoy to facilitate the COVID-19 response in Southeast Asia.

Counting many years at the WHO, Abeykoon served as the advisor in human resources for health in Nepal where he helped to set up the Institute of Medicine, the country’s first medical school, and later in Indonesia to establish the Consortium of Health Sciences and five new schools of public health. He also worked as the WHO South-East Asia Regional Advisor on Human Resources for Health and later was appointed the Director of Health Systems Development. He also served as the WHO Representative to India and led India’s polio eradication effort. He has published widely in many international health journals.

In an interview with Randima Attygalle, the respected senior professional who has long been a building bridges of goodwill in the regional health sector, discusses the road-map for the fight the pandemic in which health security and sustaining livelihoods cannot be undermined.

 

Q : What advantages do you think your appointment gives the Sri Lankan health sector and the region?

A: For the past one year, I have been working closely with the WHO, with the Ministry of Health and different groups in the country. I believe my present appointment will help me give further thrust to this engagement and extend it to the highest level, to the WHO Direct General’s and Regional Director’s offices, and also to bring messages down to the local level. This way I hope I could be even more relevant and useful.

As a Sri Lankan who has worked extensively in the region coupled with my experience in the local public health sector, I believe I’ll be able to add value not only to our own setting but to the other countries in the region in a number of ways.

 

Q: What is your mandate?

A: Our Region has a 2.4 billion people and I will try to do justice to their priorities. The Director-General has appointed six Special Envoys on COVID-19, to provide strategic advice and high-level political advocacy and engagement in different parts of the world. The Special Envoys work in close collaboration with WHO Regional Directors and WHO country offices to coordinate the global response to COVID-19.

In coordinating this response, one of the key responsibilities is to promote health security and to take the WHO DG’s messages to stakeholders in the government, the private sector and most importantly to the communities and individuals. The envoys also have to help ensure that the WHO guidelines are implemented correctly. We have weekly meetings with the WHO Chief and his technical staff on COVID-19 where we discuss pandemic-related common regional issues.

The DG strongly believes that we could be strong ‘supplementary voices’ for our respective regions, to be able to communicate fast with him and take his voice downstream as quickly as possible because of the contacts we have already made over the years and are expected to make in the short term.

 

Q: As a health professional who had held many international positions and steered several health projects in the region, do you think your latest appointment is more challenging than those of the past?

A: Every situation where you have to work with large groups of people has its own challenges; but the main difference between what I did then and this position is I suppose the fact that those days I was working within the WHO, in an established system and a structure. Therefore the responsibilities were according to a plan with agreed outcomes which we made with the different countries.

But what we are going through now is a pandemic with a spectrum of issues and a high level of unpredictability. This is a complete novel situation we have to grapple with. It has affected the entire world, and ever since the pandemic broke a year ago, we have been learning something new every day. We continue to learn about the virus, how it circulates, its changing nature, new management strategies both in terms of the preventive and clinical aspects of management. Yet, we do not know enough.

Now we have the new dimension of the vaccine. Nowhere in our history did we have a situation where a new vaccine was developed with the strictest of controls to the stage of administration in just one year. It is an amazing scientific achievement! There is considerable hope with the advent of the vaccine although it is not going to solve all the problems immediately. Thus, there are many challenges and my role would be to facilitate the overall system development.

 

Q: What are the immediate concerns of the Special Envoys in terms of COVID-response?

A: Right now we have three main concerns. We are looking at how best to make COVID vaccines equitably distributed because we have a serious problem where all rich countries seem to be purchasing all the vaccines produced, leaving very little for the poor countries. This is a sad story. In fact two days ago the Director General referred to this as a “catastrophic moral failure”.

Up to now, 50 countries in the world including India have started immunization and 70 – 80 million doses have been administered to their people. One of the things we are supposed to do is to work with regional bodies and the manufacturing countries to advocate that all countries get at least part of the vaccines produced in an equitable manner. Otherwise there will be health problems and also political issues when one section of the world is deprived of a vaccine with the other part grabbing it all.

Many countries have entered into bilateral agreements with manufacturing countries. Sri Lanka as well as some other countries in the region such as the Maldives, Bhutan and Bangladesh have also entered into such agreements with India. Some other countries have bilateral agreements with manufacturers to buy vaccine stocks. For example, Myanmar has an agreement with the Serum Institute of India which is licensed to manufacture the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine (named Covishield) in India. The Institute by itself cannot sell outside India, and hence we have entered into an agreement at an official protocol level.

 

Q: Sri Lankans are anxiously awaiting the arrival of a vaccine. Where do we stand right now in terms of our preparedness to import an effective vaccine and when can such a vaccine be expected to arrive here?

A: The GAVI Alliance (The Global Alliance for Vaccinations and Immunization) which is a global health partnership of public and private sector organizations dedicated to ‘immunization for all’, has developed a facility called COVAX. It is co-led by the WHO and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and aims to accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines, and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world.

At the moment COVAX has been able to procure about two billion doses and by the end of this month they may be able to raise it to three billion doses. The COVAX facility will give vaccines to the poorer countries free of charge. We are likely to get enough to vaccinate about 20% of the population, prioritizing the front-line health workers and the other most vulnerable segments in society including the elderly and those with chronic illnesses.

But all of the four million doses will not come immediately or in bulk. It will come in batches and by end February we may receive the first supply of a COVAX vaccine. Through the rest of the year we may able to get the balance depending on the availability of the vaccine supply. The vaccines through the COVAX facility are likely to be the Pfizer vaccine and the Oxford- AstraZeneca vaccine, which may come through the Serum Institute of India or another facility.

 

Q: Do we have adequate cold chain facilities here at home to store the vaccines?

A: Yes we do. Only the Pfizer Vaccine requires storage facility of minus 70 C. Even for that we have identified sufficient storage space and necessary logistics.

 

Q: What does WHO feel about Sri Lanka’s preparedness and response efforts and what key areas should be strengthened to face the COVID threat in months to come?

A: There are several pillars on which the drive to fight a pandemic rest: the leadership, technical, behavioural, and management. Sri Lanka generally speaking, has handled all these pillars reasonably well.

Our sound public health system which is time tested and had faced epidemics has been applauded. It is a system which is primed to face emergencies and disasters. Secondly, we are also fortunate to have good leadership at multiple levels and tiers. We have used probably the best scientific evidence that a pandemic of this scale requires.

Thirdly, we have had a lockdown at the initial stages which some believed to be ‘too harsh’. But the idea of a lockdown at the onset of an epidemic is to suppress the virus. The suppression also meant time to strengthen the health system so that in the event of an upsurge, the system is well geared to cope. We did that reasonably well – detecting, isolating, quarantining and at the same time strengthening the health system by expanding the bed capacity, ICUs etc.

The success of a good public health system involves the input of multiple professionals and a scientific approach. On the whole, our response to the crisis has been driven by and large by science and evidence. Sri Lanka has one of the best track records with regard to immunization and I am sure we will be able to organize the vaccination programme very well.

Another attribute similar to Thailand, which also has done well, is that we also adopted ‘a whole of society’ approach. This means all groups came together- the government, professional bodies, the private sector, academics etc. in countering the crisis. It is largely the countries which did not have this ‘whole of society’ approach, among them developed countries such as the US, which suffered notably.

In general our people’s behaviour, with the exception of a small segment, had also been good during the pandemic. We also need to applaud our people for sacrificing some of the most important religious and cultural events of their calendar, irrespective of the faith, to protect one another.

Having said that, it is inevitable that sometimes complacency creeps in when the public is too confident. This contributed to the second wave but with the lessons learnt, we should be able to prevent a large third surge.

In terms of strengthening our system, we need to give more teeth to the proven interventions we already have in place and bridge the gaps. There could be better communication among multiple stakeholders. Now we generate a lot of data through various platforms and agencies. This includes clinical data, epidemiology data, laboratory data etc. We need to collate all this data better and redesign a data-driven campaign. This could help us further fine-tune our surveillance mechanism. In that case we need not block large areas of population. We also need to bring in more technology to move forward.

The other crucial need of the hour is to look after our frontline health workers. A good number of them are fatigued and they also face the threat of infection. We should not allow a ‘burn out syndrome’ to creep into our health sector. This has to be managed well. I think the forces cadres are handling their systems well. We need to take good care of those who take care of us in the best possible manner and make them feel that they are valued and respected as an integral part of our COVID management mechanism.

 

Q: What is the immediate forecast of the WHO and their advice in moving forward in this new normalcy?

A: Generally speaking the vaccine will be a game changer but certainly not short-term in the next three or six months. Countries will have to adopt the same measures they have been adopting stringently over the past year- the fundamentals such as wearing masks, regular washing of hands, social distancing etc.

The WHO also urges vigilance to prevent another cycle because what might happen then is that the capacity of the health system can get overwhelmed. Why countries like America and European countries got into trouble was because this surge came quite fast at a time when their health systems were not resilient enough. Once that happens the game changes very quickly.

We have to make sure that we do not create any situation which would lead to another wave. Preventing super-spread events where large numbers of people get together is crucial. This is going to be a difficult year; however if we manage this year well, we should be on the path to recovery.

When you tighten the controls by locking down and isolating areas, naturally there are spillover effects on the economy and education of children. Like most other governments we too need to be mindful of these two crucial factors. So now we have the issue of balancing: how do we save and protect lives as well as livelihoods? This is going to be the biggest challenge.

Good communication which will contribute to the desired behaviour of people is important because it is essentially the behaviour of people that is going to make or break the next six months of the epidemic. We have to make sure that people take ownership of the situation, empower the communities to take responsibility – this is the challenge from now on.

 

Q: There is a serious issue of COVID myths vs Scientific Facts. What is the role of the health sector in disseminating correct information to the public and also the role of media in this regard?

The pandemic response has to be driven by science. The role of the health sector in sharing correct information is crucial and the role of mass media in disseminating that knowledge in an acceptable and an ethical way becomes equally important. Media has to be conscious of conveying credible information without sensationalizing. Their reports must be interesting and factual. This approach may not be attractive to some media organizations, but that, and certainly not controversy, is the need of the hour.

Education per se does not necessarily make people rational; we cannot stop everyone from subscribing to non-scientific measures. In any setting there will be pockets believing in myths. Sometimes, out of desperation, people are driven to such trappings. Hence the responsibility of media and the health system is not to spur the public to subordinate essentials with such behaviour. Media cannot afford to create a false sense of security by encouraging people to displace well known scientifically established facts with unproven phenomena.

 

Q: What are your proposals to the Health Ministry and other local stakeholders in strengthening access to correct information on the pandemic with necessary transparency?

A: It is ideal if we have one designated ‘face’ as a national spokesperson for COVID-19 as in the case of Thailand. This can avoid confusion and contradictions. We could have one designated person or a panel of people who speak the same language in this regard.

It is also important for the Health officials to give more time to the media. Both print and electronic media should also have designated journalists trained in this subject, so that there are specialists who can produce a balanced report.

 

Q: From the lessons learnt during the pandemic, how can our health sector be strengthened to face future catastrophes?

A: Most importantly, we have to make certain that our healthy security is strengthened with strong and resilient public health systems that can prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease threats, wherever they occur in the world. According to the ‘Swiss cheese model’, in a complex system, hazards are prevented from causing harm by a series of barriers. Each barrier has unintended weaknesses, or holes – hence the comparison to Swiss cheese and this term is frequently used by patient safety professionals.

The prime subjects of health security should be the most vulnerable groups such as those with chronic illnesses, the elderly and the disabled. Health security should also pay attention to nutrition, that the children are immunized even in times of epidemics or pandemics and that pregnant women have access to anti-natal care.

Moreover, international Health Regulations articulate certain obligations of a nation. One key regulation is the immediate notification to the WHO at the first sign of any infection, particularly, those diseases which can be transmitted to humans by animals. This is why there is a controversy surrounding Wuhan where the first case of COVID-19 was reported. WHO investigations are being carried out to determine if there was any lapse in this regard by the Chinese officials. Within the WHO system there are ‘incident managers’ for immediate referrals of this nature.

 

Q: What do you think are the inherent ‘Sri Lankan strengths’ as a nation in fighting this pandemic from a cultural and a social perspective?

A: We can take shocks and bounce out of shocks. This has become part of our nation’s DNA. Our people are generally helpful and in a crisis all pull together. This level of mutual help and support, we may not see in many countries. Also our health literacy is very good. We also have a strong history of volunteerism. We donate eyes, blood, kidneys etc. more than in many parts of the world. We are one of the very few countries in the world with a 100% voluntary blood donation service. We are still very much an altruistic nation, a major plus which we should sustain.



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Features

Ranjan loses the People’s Crown

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Last week it was Avurudu Thel Keliya. Now we have come to Ranjan Keliya. 

SJB MP Ranjan Ramanayake has been removed from Parliament, in what is said to be in keeping with the decision of the Court of Appeal, to reject his application against the Supreme Court order sentencing him to four years of imprisonment for Contempt of court.

A parliament, of which Ranjan was a most active and spoken member, has shown its overall failure to deal with an issue that affects the rights of all citizens. The mockery of it all is to have a parliament where a person found guilty of murder and imprisoned by a court order is allowed to be a member of the House, but a person guilty of contempt of Court, who has not injured or killed anyone, is removed from it.

With all due respect and honour to the judiciary, one must begin to look at the entire thinking and process of charging people for and punishing them for contempt of Court. 

In the present parliamentary situation, with all the power that the President and the government have with a two-thirds plus majority, the future Independence of the Judiciary is certainly in question.

If Ramanayake has committed contempt of Court, he is now the player in calling for a change of our legislation on Contempt of Court. Is it truly wrong to criticise a member/or members of the judiciary; are they above the law; what is the practice and trend on this in other democracies?

It is time our Members of Parliament, the Bar Association and organizations of Civil Society made deep study of this entire issue, and moved to prevent the right of free speech being incorrectly restricted. We must look at how Contempt of Court is considered legally in the UK, from where we got this.

How is Contempt of court handled by the Courts of India, our closest neighbour and next to us in years of democracy? How is this issue handled in other democracies too such as France and Germany, and even the US? 

The Ranjan  Keliya  has certainly brought us to realising the Contempt for Democracy that prevails, and is being expanded in Sri Lanka. This contempt is the reality of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, and the prevailing show of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ‘Saubhagye Dekma”.    Changing our laws on Contempt of Court to make them modern and democratic will be the real crowning of Ramanayake.

 

Beauty Queen crowns

We have now come to the Ru Rajina Otunu Keliya too. The story of the crown being grabbed from the new Mrs Sri Lanka has spread in the international media. 

There was a lovely piece of social media, where Queen Elizabeth II of the UK is showing her joy at getting rid of Sri Lanka from the royalty domain as far back as 1948, as otherwise there would have been moves to grab her crown, too.

Mrs Sri Lanka or Mr. World is certainly not of much interest to us who are facing much bigger problems than the ownership of beauty crowns. Yet, the issue of a Mrs Sri Lanka or Mrs World having to be married does raise many issues today. Are the organizers of the global event thinking of temporary or shaky marriages, or those that last through decades and more, with a commitment to each other?

Can a person, who is undergoing the process of a divorce in a court of law, one who wants to leave a marriage through the law, be one who is really married? The very concept of marriage has undergone many changes in recent decades. Should these realities not be accepted by the organisers of these events? 

Why not have a rule that a contestant for Mrs (Country) or Mrs World, should be married several times – as is fast becoming a reality in the west, and countries that are following such traditions.

We will certainly have candidates seeking the crown if a few or many marriages are a condition. It will also show a genuine interest in the promotion of marriages, without confining it to just a single marriage, even with a pending divorce.   

We can then have a Mrs World, with a show of strength to those with achievements of more than one, or several marriages. 

The “Vivahaka Ru Rajina” will then be a “Boho Vivahaka Ru Rajina”.

The current Mrs World, Caroline Jurie, who was the key crown remover in this show of crooked farce, and a model who helped her, are now facing action in the courts.

Marriage or not is certainly an issue for Miss or Mrs Sri Lanka. A winner of the very early Mrs Sri Lanka events had earlier contested a Miss Sri Lanka, while being married. If she had not lost the contest, we would have seen loud calls for her crown to be removed. The senior ladies who played a big role in this Mrs. Sri Lanka event, certainly reminded us of such past records.

Let the crown be with the people, whether married or not. The rising call is for the Janatha Kirula, against a Pol Thel or Seeni Vancha Kirula of the Abhagye  Dekma.

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Bio-Piracy:

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A Pervasive Threat to Biodiversity and Human Security

By Ayodhya Krishani Amarajeewa
Regional Centre for Strategic Studies
Continued from yesterday

According to Prof. Wijesundara, in 1994, a multinational company, W.R. Grace and the U.S. Department of Agriculture were granted a patent by the European Patent Office (EPO) “Covering a (special) method for controlling fungi on plants by the aid of a hydrophobic extracted neem oil” that is diluted with a certain percentage of water was withdrawn in 2000. Lot of concern after 10-year battle, some patents on neem were squashed some still prevail. There are 65 patents so far only for neem. According to Prof. Kotagama, a US company wanted to produce insecticide from neem. They came with Azadariktin as a product. They obtain the patenting required to use and own neem. There is a law that if you are contesting patenting right it has to be in the country it is registered at. So the neem battle has to be fought in the US. With lot of money and help from the NGOs and help along with the Indian government they fought against this patenting. The company contested that they did not bring neem from Asia or India, they brought it from Africa because it grows in Africa. But it was identified that the seeds that had gone to Kenya had been coming from Sri Lanka according to the Registers of the forest department records from Sri Lank. Based on that evidence the patent was revoked. The neem campaign was consisting of a group of NGOs and individuals was initiated in 1993 in India. This was done to mobilize worldwide support to protect indigenous knowledge systems and resources of the Third World from piracy by the west particularly in light of emerging threats from intellectual property rights regimes under WTO and TRIPS. Neem patent became the first case to challenge European and US patents on the grounds of biopiracy.

Basmati Rice patent case is another instance bio-piracy was reversed. Prof. Kotagama remarked that it is known as the India – US Basmati Rice Dispute (Case number 493, Case Menemonic – Basmati; Patent number – US 5663484A, publication). A US company registered a new hybrid variety of Basmati. India and Pakistan got together and they fought using media, using negative advertisement and they squashed American variety of Basmati) proving ‘Texmati’ was not Basmati.

According to Prof. Sarath Kotagama, an Indian Ecologist, Vandana Shiva has said ‘bio-piracy deprives us in three ways: It creates a false claim to novelty and invention, even though the knowledge has evolved since ancient times as part of the collective and intellectual heritage of India”. Secondly “it divests scarce biological resources to monopoly control of corporations thus depriving local communities the benefits of its use” and thirdly “it creates market monopolies and excludes the original innovators (farmers) from their rightful share to local, national and global markets”. She fought a lot for the biodiversity conservation in India and a well-respected ecologist in India who also had to do much with the fight against Neem, Basmati and Turmeric.

There are similar cases where patents were revoked: Kava Kava from Fiji and Vanuatu; Quinoa from Andes; Banaba and other medical plantys from Philippines; Bitter gourd from Sri Lanka and Thailan; Ilang-Ilang from Philippines and Periwinkle from Madagascar, highlighted Prof. Wijesundara.

In 1989 bioprospecting started with the Institute of Biology established in Costa Rica purely for this purpose. It was the idea to do research on rainforests, animals and plants in Costa Rica and give the ownership to the country if something was discovered. However, this institute was dissolved in 2015 in Costa Rica. According to Prof. Kotagama, the institute still exists with the idea surveys on the resources of rainforests and commercialization of the products will be done for the benefit of Costs Rica. Prof. Kotagama highlighted why bio-piracy needs to be also understood in legal jargon. In the research paper “Bio piracy and its impact on Biodiversity: A Special review on Sri Lankan context” (Kusal Kavinda Amarasinghe), it has mentioned that 34 plants and animals have been taken out of Sri Lanka and Indian subcontinent and patent obtained for biological constituents already. According to Prof. Kotagama, Naja naja naja (Cobra) is an endemic spices in Sri Lanka and still it has lost the control from the country and others are using the species to derive benefits. Prof. Kotagama also highlighted that while there is so much indifference, there is so much consorted efforts to prevent bio-piracy and bio-theft in the countries like the Philippine, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Nepal who have strengthen the situation and have increased regulations and continue strict border control measures.

Illegal Trafficking and Bio-Piracy

According to Prof. Siril Wijesundara, illegal trafficking is also directly linked to bio-piracy and theft. One of the ways that can prevent bio-piracy is through detecting illegal trafficking of various types of endemic and endangered plants and animals. Most common plant species affected by illegal trafficking in Sri Lanka at present are Gyrinops Walla Walla patta, Salacia reticulate Kothala Himbutiand Santalum album naturalized sandhun. Sri Lanka Customs have detected many instances of illegal trafficking. Target destination varies from India, Dubai, Pakistan, Australia, and China. The most popular destination for Kothala Himbotu today is China.

Another classic example of trafficking of plants is by misleading the authorities. Prof. Wijesundara highlighted that a plant called Kekatiya (Aponogeton crispus) were exported in large quantities under the name Aponogeton ulvaceus, a plant native to Madagascar. However, Prof. Siril Wijesuriya mentioned that during his tenure at the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, he managed to test this plant and discovered it is a different plant from the one in Madagascar. After this discovery, this Sri Lankan variety of the plant (Kekatiya) was prohibited from being exported and necessary action were taken to a point where the company went out of business.

 

Importance of Utilizing the Chemical Compounds in the Medicinal Plants

Prof. Veranja Karunarathne highlighted the popularity among the people now for medicinal plants. That is because the Medicinal properties and compounds that are useful found in the medicinal plants. Natural products are made out of these compounds. According to him, the use of medicinal plants go over for 5000 years ago. Probably we have used medicinal plants since existence.

According to Prof. Veranja Karunarathne, the medicinal plants are being used in traditional medicinal systems popular in Sri Lanka such as Ayurveda, Deishiya Chikithsa, Siddha and Unani. Siddha and Unani don’t use much of the plants necessarily and have much to do with involving plants. In different medicinal systems, over 2500 plants are being used in Sri Lanka. These are being used for disease curing and ailments in traditional medicine practices. In the Western medicine sense, it is one compound for one disease. In Ayurveda and indigenous system, it is many compounds for one disease many compounds curing one disease. Pollypahrmachology is accepted in the indigenous system. These aspects of pollypahrmachology in traditional medicine are becoming valuable. If we take asprin that cures heart disease, it is isolated from Villon plant. Quinine that is used in Malaria prevention is isolated from cinchona plant. That is the practice of the Western medicine. Prof. Veranja Karunarathne says that if we look at plant evolution, it is evident that the plants didn’t intend to cure diseases. This evolution of the plants happened by co-evolving with the insects. It never intended to cure diseases for humans. In 1915, the Western medicine avoided using plants due to various issues including intellectual property matters and since plants are very difficult thing to manage. However, they have come back discovering medicine from plants. That is why co-evolution is important. Diversity of functional group of plants is important. Diversity of use of plants cannot be matched with the evolution of the plants.

From Kothala Himbotu, an endemic plant in Sri Lanka, water soluble anti diabetic compounds were found by Japanese scientist. There are over 50 patents for Kothala Himbotu plant. Sri Lanka has only one patent which was a discovery of a Sri Lankan team. As a Chemist who worked on the kothala himbotu plant and tried to find the chemical compounds, Prof. Karunarathne felt humiliated when Japanese scientists found that water based compound in the kothala himbotu plant. He used a Sri Lankan source and worked on a zeroing from Sri Lankan lichen, patented at the US patent office the, lichen called ziorine that can be used on cancer patients. Sri Lankan government dealing legally with bio-piracy is when they intervened to stop exporting Kothala Himbotu plant in bulk that is being used for anti-diabetic drug. For anti-diabetic drug creation some sections of the plant are still being exported, but in small quantities.

In the meantime, there is also bogus bio-piracy. An undergraduate student of University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka found out that Clarins skin care product in France is using Hortinia floribanda that is endemic to Sri Lanka.

In their website it was mentioned that this plant is being used to improve the skin tone. When studied their website, closely, they found that they are using plants found in amazon and plant found in Europe during winter. After finding the endemic Sri Lankan plant do not contribute to any skin tone improvement and when the research was published in National Science Foundation journal, the skin care production company removed the name of the plant from their website. This is an instance where bogus bio-piracy is being taken place and that it too needs to fight and that even an average Chemist can make a difference, said Prof. Varanja Karunarathne.

According to Prof. Varanja Karunarathne, there are about 3000 odd plants endemic to Sri Lanka, out of the total flowering plants, 2000 are endemic. Because of this density and diversity, UNESCO named Sri Lanka as a biodiversity hotspot. 1300 of these plants are in the Red book of endangered plants of Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, the value of the plant is only the timber value. The Central Bank of Sri Lanka value plants in Sri Lanka only for its timber value which is a drawback. The government needs to fund for projects that study the chemistry of these plants, government never have done such in that greater scale. The chemists would want be able to study the chemistry inside the plant, the knowledge inside the plant. It is important to lobby to find the chemicals of these plants that are endangered to Sri Lanka. This means conserving the knowledge inside the plant is much more than just evaluating its value for timber. There is a far greater use of the plant than just the timber value.

During the discussion, Mr. Lakshman Gunasekara highlighted the importance of getting media involved along with the Scientists to intervene in promoting knowledge, education and awareness about bio-piracy and possible ways of counter-fighting it. He said that unlike in the past, mass communication can bring this issue to a different level. In this regard the scientific community needs to intervene in order for the media community to get activated. However, Prof. Siril Wijesundara made a remark that media is always working with political agendas, but Scientists are not and they cannot do so. Therefore, it is important, media step aside from political agendas and look at this issue apolitically.

Dr. Nirmal Dewasiri highlighted the colonial dimension of bio-piracy. With the involvement of government in bio-piracy and the inclusion of concept of government and empire –building bio-politics came into being. In empire building, establishing the political centre outside the location of the centre was important. Same is true to colonialism which was more than traditional Empire building exercise. It was new kind of administration, where there was capturing a grip on the land and space, fauna and flora. It was rather “governmentalization” which has multiple dimension. According to him, in that sense, colonialism is a multidimensional phenomenon. It is not more colonialism now; it is a new process. This is very much part of the enlightenment project at the time. It was governed by knowledge. Accumulation of information of social and natural environment became a new kind of project. The new political challenge is also this.

Prof. Nalani Hennayake highlighted the fact that how in terms of conservation and information sharing India came out with digital library registered with patent offices in the inventories library in the United States, while Sri Lanka has our own Red Book of inventory. She further highlighted the fact that countries like Sri Lanka having enough laws that needs immediate activation. Monopolizing the ownership needs to end and commercializing our plants needs to happen according to the Fauna and Flora Act in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka said no to digital register of plants in 1994 and we need to rethink such decisions mentioned the discussants.

In his concluding remarks, Prof. Veranja Karunarathne said that at present, other people are working on synthetic biology, combination of chemistry, biology and genomics, creating biosynthetic pathway of genes. Genes are mass produced in genomic mass factories which is controlled exploitation of bio wealth. That is where the world is heading and he says Sri Lanka needs to value the conserved knowledge inside the plant and explore the immense possibilities that the plants are presenting. Concluded

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Acknowledged (only?) Statesman speaks out; so do a few others

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The editor of The Sunday Island (April 4), mentions in his succinctly titled editorial – Down the pallang with no end in sight – this statesman. He speaks of Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha’s successful manouevre to curtail the power of the Rajapaksas and President Mahinda R’s attempt to go in for a third term of his presidency in 2014. Thus, the editor writes: “It is in this context that the National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ) that Ven Sobitha founded now led by respected elder statesman Karu Jayasuariya ….” The organisation is seeking to push the rulers on to a correction course. It seeks to project an apolitical stance and denies subversive interest. “The 20th Amendment that abolished the 19th has thrown the baby with the bathwater….” Cassandra adds – and we are drowning in the waters; floundering in fear and surrounded by sharks of the sugar and oil scams; also those who are still destroying our natural resources.

 

Karu wise plus experienced and apolitical

The same paper published on page 3 excerpts of what the Chairman NMSJ – Karu Jayasurirya – said at a press conference at Janaki Hotel Colombo, on April 2. His considered warning was ‘Don’t fiddle like Nero as the country plunges into a precipice.’ A due warning of rather mixed metaphors. Cass would have preferred … ‘as the country burns’, but plunging into a precipice is really more catastrophic and that, says many, is what is happening to this wonderful land of ours. We should all read and reread what Karu J had to say; we should analyse and see whether he was correct and then in our own small way try to obtain a change of course. The principle consideration is that Karu Jayasuriya speaks apolitically here as an elder statesman who has been both in politics and the private sector and knows full well what he is speaking about. If you want definite credentials on his ability and sincerity, recollect how he acted as Speaker of Parliament when the then Prez, Maitripala Sirisena stole the government from its elected members of Parliament and handed it over to his dire enemy of yesteryear, now befriended buddy – Mahinda Rajapaksa and his coyotes to govern the land. PM Ranil W with loyalists holed themselves at Temple Trees and bided their time. Karu J faced a battery of assaults: vulgarly vocal, totally injurious thrown bound volumes and deadly chilli powder mixed with water. He braved it all; took his rightful seat and gave judgment that restored order from utter chaos.

He is one politician whom Cass and so many others rooted for. Now he is out of party politics but fighting for the very survival of the nation of free Sri Lanka.

 

Voices should be listened to

At the recent meeting of people to solve their problems and bring succour to them, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa somewhat belittled protestors attempting to save our forest cover. Cass heard him on TV news on Saturday April 3 speaking about people accusing a previous government of running white vans, threatening journalists etc and now it is environmental groups that are out against the new government and him. No, they and we are against those who cut trees, deforest the land, sand mine ruthlessly and of course make money on horrible scams and seem to get away scot free, not even paying to government coffers billions garnered illegally.

He, government Ministers and MPs, and relevant administrators should all listen to the call of even a single concerned person, and know they are calling out completely altruistically with no political biases. One such is Padmini Nanayakkara of Colombo 3 who cries out (we imagine in horror) Reservoirs in Sinharaja? in the Sunday Island of April 4. She starts her letter to the editor with this: “Have we an enemy within or has a foreign force taken over Sri Lanka? I can’t imagine any Lankan contributing to an idea as bizarre as building reservoirs in Sinharaja.”

The editor referring to the pronouncement made loud and clear by Minister Chamal Rajapaksa about building two reservoirs in Sinharaja as if it were a foregone construction plan; writes thus: “A minister from the ruling family outrageously declares that two reservoirs will be built in the Sinharaja reserve to provide water for their pocket borough, He promises to plant 150 acres elsewhere to compensate saying that rubber will be planted to give people an income”. The editor dubs it a “madcap project” (cheers!!). Plenty water could be tapped downstream of rivers flowing near Hambantota; and this for people and not to keep watered vanity projects like cricket stadiums.

 

Semicentennial of a terrible uprising

I speak here of the JVP uprising of 1971 which has been written about with Jayantha Somasunderam from Canberra detailing it meticulously with copious references. Cass has been typically Sri Lankan in that she had forgotten about those days of fifty years ago which she refuses to term either jubilee or never golden anniversary. The Editor/The Island introduced a new word – quinquagenary – a tongue twister but pins down the number five. Whatever its now earned name, it was a brutal and absolutely purposeless shedding of young blood: blood of youth by the government and killing of police and causing utter chaos by the newly marshaled JVP under Rohana Wijeweera. They were disciplined and dedicated to a cause then. Incidentally, his grown son was shown on TV news a few days ago. A misunderstood message to attack police stations, conveyed via radio annonced obituary notices, saved the country because the attack was so deadly, power over the government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike could have been gained. The second JVP uprising was deadlier as it was minus principles and all restraint. Again the rivers flowed with young Sinhala blood. The 1971 insurrection was short lived and we who cowered, emerged to usual routines fairly soon. Not the 1ate 1980s uprising. It created widespread fear psychoses; complete mayhem from hospitals, schools and offices to thé kadés. Universities were closed for two years and thus a considerable exodus of young students to universities overseas. We lost many of our teenaged children and the country – brains and ability.

May such never happen again is our earnest prayer. The young seem to have imbibed or decided to work through principles. Consider the recent protests against environmental degradation, particularly denudation of forests. They were all peaceful and intelligently carried out, and acknowledged as such, and the message they carried should certainly have been given an ear to by the President, PM and Ministers in charge of relevant subject areas. Perhaps it was peaceful marches and speeches and placards because the aim was altruistic – benefit for the entire country and not for self.

 

Beauty gone batty?

The public fracas of excessively groomed and dressed up beauties at the recent Mrs Sri Lanka finals was shockingly disgraceful. It confirmed to Cass that even the slightest mix-up or argument in this land of ours very soon escalates to a debacle, often accompanied by violence. But in this incident, there wasn’t even a whimper of argument. We witnessed how last year’s Mrs S L – Her Mightiness Caroline Jurie – crowned, de-crowned and re-crowned Pushpika de Silva. The latter’s hair was pulled, since the crown was rudely pulled off her by Her Mightiness and another, but unless it had long sharp spikes it could not have injured the stunned winner’s head. And all because of a heard rumour at the moment of crowning. Cass spits out: How dare Caroline Jurie take judgment to her tearing hands when a panel had discussed, gone into details and decided on the winner; the panel including herself! Cass comments the glass slipper gifted to Cinderella Caroline a year ago seems to be a misfit now; her feet swollen to match her head.

Back to the ordinary: Cassandra wishes all her readers a family oriented Aluth Avuruddha, with safety precautions vigilantly observed against infection given first priority. Much should be sacrificed to prevent the deadly third wave of Covid 19.

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