Connect with us

Features

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

Published

on

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.

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Features

2019 Easter Sunday Carnage: An Intelligence Perspective

Published

on

By Merril Gunaratne

Retired Senior DIG

The predicament of those in the highest echelons of defence and police bring to my mind past serious failures, not entirely dissimilar to the massacre on “Easter Sunday” in 2019. Somewhere in the mid 1980s, an LTTE group, led by their Mannar leader Victor Fulgencius ,entered the Anuradhapura sacred city and brutally mowed down a large number of Buddhist pilgrims in broad daylight. The Coordinating Officer of Anuradhapura, SSP of the area and those below them, must have been “deaf and blind”, for they could not have been oblivious to the bursts of gunfire, and the plea of countless witnesses who naturally would have looked upto them for intervention. No positive efforts were made even to stall the retreat of the terrorists after the carnage to Mannar. Nor were inquiries instituted to hold senior army and police officers accountable for their shocking inertia. Likewise in broad daylight, a terror group, the TELO, stormed Chavakachcheri police station and razed it to the ground, killing all police officers in the station. The Coordinating Officer of Palaly, when questioned by the President at the National Security Council meeting following the disaster, stated that in such situations, “each service should look after itself”. The question raised was whether the Army should have engaged in an immediate and timely intervention. Here too no inquiry was initiated to identify accountability for the shocking failures. The “PLOTE” group of Uma Maheswaran came untrammelled up to the Nikaweratiya police station, in the Kurunegala district, attacked it and caused mayhem. No inquiries were held: none were held accountable. In the 1990s, the Katunayake Air Force base was attacked by the LTTE and the JVP, separately, causing death and destruction. None were called upon to shoulder the blame. Again, in the early 90’s, the LTTE ruthlessly killed over 600 police officers in the Ampara sector, because the IGP at the time ordered the fighting officers to surrender on an assurance from political leaders that the LTTE would release them. No Commissions nor inquiries were held in this regard.

There is however an essential difference between these instances and the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage. Ample intelligence from India, backed by a plethora of evidence and reports of dangers from the National Thowheed Jamath [NTJ] stored with the State Intelligence Services [SIS], the CID, and the Terrorist investigation Division [TID], had been in the possession of SIS, well before the disaster took place. Therefore the credibility of intelligence received from India was not in doubt, as also time and space available to adopt schemes to plan arrests and flood the country with optimum security. In such a context, the failure of defence and police officers to evolve plans to nip terror in the bud, differ sharply with previous instances. In previous cases, the security forces were taken by surprise. In the case of the “Easter Sunday” carnage, intelligence was available well in advance, so that ample opportunity was available to forestall terror plans.

THE STATUS OF THE STATE INTELLIGENCE SERVICE (SIS) IN DEFENCE

An aspect that came under scrutiny was whether the Director of the SIS had informed the President about the information received from the Indian counterparts. It may not be inappropriate to deal with two matters which find relevance in seeking to understand what ideally should have been done.

First, the SIS is the premier “Intelligence” service in the country, since it is expected to collect and collate intelligence of the police special branch, the CID and the TID, in addition to their own efforts. It is also responsible to monitor political targets, in addition to those connected with subversion, terrorism and espionage. It also enjoys wiretapping apparatus to enhance its capability.

Second, the Director of the SIS is virtually “primus inter pares” amongst members of the national security council [NSC], when it comes to access to the head of state, and in relation to his vital role of leading deliberations at meetings of the NSC with suitable briefs. Each and every director of the national intelligence service in its long history, will vouch for the veracity of this arrangement. From as far back as 1950’s, even superintendents of police in- charge of national intelligence had far more access to the head of state than the IGP; and the IGP did not often know what the Intelligence head had discussed with the President. The authority of the Director of the SIS therefore at times exceeded that of not only the IGP, but many others in the NSC as well. At the time I was Director of the National Intelligence Bureau, President Jayewardene would see only me before 8.00 am, prior to leaving for Cabinet meetings.

Though in pecking order, the Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) is superior to the Director of the SIS, in actual fact, the latter wields far more authority since all agents and informers are controlled by the SIS. In addition, CNI only plays a supervisory role, while the Director of the SIS is the actual operational head of the intelligence agency.

SUBMISSION OF “SPECIAL”OR “SERIAL” REPORTS BY DIRECTOR SIS TO THE PRESIDENT

Being in a position of such privilege, whenever credible intelligence is received, the Director of the SIS has to take two immediate steps. First, he should immediately, through the shortest possible route, despatch a written, classified report to the President, with copies to the Secretary of Defence and Chief of National Intelligence [CNI]. Traditionally, a special ‘Box’ has been used for such despatch to the President, keys available at both ends to unlock and retrieve reports. The ‘Box’ would impress the president that the document inside was of an urgent nature. Depending on the gravity, nature and the urgency of such intelligence, as with the NTJ of Zahran, the Director may even decide to despatch copies to Secretary to President, IGP and Service Commanders as well. He has to concurrently speak on the telephone to each of the recipients of his report, emphasise the credibility and the grave nature of such intelligence, and also propose that the NSC be convened for discussion without delay. Such a standard arrangement of despatch of reports and telephone calls wherever the intelligence is of a grave and urgent nature, is a precedent in vogue from as far back as 1950s. The role of the SIS is to help the NSC to proact, rather than react. The prototypes of the SIS in the service and the police will play a supportive, rather than a leading role. The Director of SIS therefore can galvanise the National Security Council to act, or “put it to sleep”. There has been no indication from the Easter Sunday Commission findings reported in the media that the Director of SIS had despatched a written, classified report to the President.

 

FLAWED “INFORMATION” REPORT SENT TO IGP.

The ‘Information report” which the IGP received from the CNI, enclosed a note from the Director of SIS. It referred to the plans of Zahran and the NTJ to commit terror attacks, and suggested that further inquiries should be carried out. This report is “flawed” because it is not an Intelligence report. If the Intelligence received was credible (in this instance it obviously was), the report should have been in two parts. In the first part, the piece of information should have been reflected. The second part titled “Assessment or Analysis” is the far more important one, where the Director , harnessing his knowledge of the reliability of the source of information, along with his acquaintance of the background and history of the NTJ available in the subject and personal files stored in the SIS registry, should have stated with conviction that the information was not only reliable, but should be discussed as early as possible, and plans evolved to nip the threat in the bud without delay. A question that arises is whether the report of the Director sans an assessment was adequate to galvanise his superiors to ponder about the gravity of the piece of intelligence received. Even though flawed, the recipients yet had material in the report to discuss and plan on an urgent basis. Of course, a proper intelligence report may possibly have woken them up from slumber. In short, the report or note of the director of the SIS was not exactly an Intelligence report in the classic context. Adrian Weale in his book, “The Army of Evil” said, “Broadly speaking, intelligence is information that is gathered and analysed before informing decisions. Without the crucial analysis step …it is of no-value”

 

DEFENCE AND POLICE OFFICIALS TREATING THE INFORMATION WITH LEVITY

It had been unfortunate that senior officials such as the Defence Secretary, Chief of National Intelligence, Director of the SIS, the IGP and his deputies had acted in an amateurish fashion. They were not minions who should have been inactive, amidst such serious information, simply because the President was out of the country. If Defence Secretary , goaded and galvanised by Director of National Intelligence, summoned members of the NSC for discussion, many salutary proposals leading to an effective security plan may have emerged. The Defence Secretary was empowered on his own to summon members of the N.S.C. for discussion at any time. His “inertia” baffles imagination. In an overall context, none of those who received the somewhat “flawed” information in their enclaves considered it prudent to at least ‘put their heads together’ and discuss what should have been done.

 

ACCESS TO SENSITIVE RECORDS IN THE REGISTRY OF THE SIS.

The SIS, by virtue of being the national intelligence agency, is responsible, apart from ferreting intelligence through it’s own network of agents and informers, to collect and collate all overt and covert information from the CID, the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID), and even from intelligence channels in the armed forces. The comprehensive records that they thereby accumulate, are stored in “subject” and “personal” files in respect of each subversive or terrorist target they monitor. These records are suitably classified ‘secret’ or ‘confidential’ so that only those authorised to see them can have access to such records.

The Director of the SIS, apart from the submission of ‘single piece’ intelligence reports to the Head of State, the Defence Secretary and possibly some other members of the National Security Council, also had to periodically compile periodic reports, based on the comprehensive records stored in respect of a particular target in the registry. Each such report will make a mature analysis of the activities and growth of the target, alert the government to their ramifications and sinister designs, and offer salutary proposals to nip or stall their activities. Such periodic reports are described as ‘special’ or ‘basic’ reports, and are invariably classified secret. This discipline too has been in vogue for a very long time. Such reports help the government to monitor, review and proact against terror threats periodically.

In view of the fact that omissions and lapses of the SIS leading to the massacre of innocents were under scrutiny by the presidential Commission the records in the Registry of the SIS could have been made available to the Commission to assist the probe. Terror groups like the National Thowheed Jamat (NTJ) are extremely clandestine when they plant their underground network in the silent, ‘preparatory’ phase. This is a phase where terrorists are extremely elusive because of their obsession with stealth and secrecy. The activities of this preparatory phase can be discerned only through agents and informers, so that the SIS alone will have records which police, the CID and TID would not possess. The latter are predominantly investigators’ of acts after their occurrence. It is the SIS which should have good intelligence about external and internal links of the NTJ, their financiers, safe houses, military or weapons training etc. This is the kind of intelligence which helps the SIS to submit comprehensive, periodic “special” reports to the government.

Perhaps, the Commission could have been authorised access to the periodic reports and files of the SIS in respect of the NTJ. Such classified material would have been valuable in the quest for the roots and ramifications of the NTJ. Most of the witnesses who appeared before the Commission for evidence may not have possessed the type knowledge of the NTJ and its ramifications which only SIS officers would have possessed.

The SIS usually seeks to protect the identity of their officers as well as their records, for risk of exposure. Such safeguards may be necessary in normal circumstances. However, the carnage and massacre on Easter Sunday in 2019 due mainly to inadequacies of those in Defence and Police echelons, had led to a high level probe by a Presidential Commission, and evoked considerable public concern and interest. The entire tragedy has been in the public domain. It may therefore have been unreasonable if the records of the SIS had been withheld from the probe.

Continue Reading

Features

Steeped in realism, rich in poignant themes and metaphors

Published

on

By Sajitha Prematunge

Asexual relationships are getting considerable limelight in the Sri Lankan cinema, what with Gehan Cooray’s The Billionaire and the recently released film, Ayu portraying such relationships, albeit in the vantage of different sexual orientation. Ayu was screened to a limited audience in celebration of the 74th anniversary of Sri Lankan cinema at Savoy Cinema, Wellawatta, on January 22. It is the maiden movie production of General (retired) Daya Rathnayake and the second film directed by Chathra Weeraman after Aloko Udapadi.

Presented by Weeraman Brothers, based on a story by Saman Weeraman, Ayu stars Sandra Mack, Jagath Manuwarna, Malani Fonseka, Ashan Dias, Kenara Wiratunga, Samanalee Fonseka, Sampath Jayaweera, Priyantha Sirikumara, Thumindu Dodantenna, Nalin Lusena, Udara Abeysundara, Kasuni Kavindi Fernando, Akalanka Prabashwara, Dinushika Senevirathne, Thiwanka Ranasinghe, Prasanna Dekumpitiya and Dasun Pathirana in a guest appearance. The crew includes cinematographer Kalinga Deshapriya, Chamara Selara as Assistant Director, Bimal Dushmantha in production designing, Saman Alvitigala in film editing, Milinda Tennakone in music, Harsha Manjula and Haroon Shaideen in makeup department, Sasika Marasinghe in sound department, Dinindu Jagoda and Lahiru Madhushanka in editorial department, Kumara Karawdeniya in costume designing, Shehan Obeysekara in production photography, Iresh Karunarathne, Primal Ranasinghe and Sashika Ganegodage in Production Management and Anuradha Weeraman as the Associate Producer.

The psychoanalytical film wastes no time documenting stressful therapy sessions or treatment. It is a journey towards the healing of the mind. Nishmi, a female pediatrician, didn’t only lose her baby in the almost fatal car accident that required the blood transfusion that sealed her fate, she’s maimed for life, with no hope of ever having a family of her own. Ravi, her husband’s elated revelation, “It’s negative,” comes as a surprise not to only Nish, but also the audience who was thus far convinced that the sole cause of her predicament was Ravi’s promiscuity.

Much is insinuated and less said in the film. Hardly anywhere is the acronym AIDS mentioned and only in one instance is HIV mentioned. This in itself is symbolic of the stigma HIV AIDS entails. We are given a first hand account of the kind of stigmatization AIDS patients undergo when Nishmi’s coworkers shun her as if they could contract the disease by brushing against her. A mother pulls her child away from Nish with an uneasy smile, while nurses and attendants avoid her. The stigma is so ingrained that Nish cannot expect to be accepted by her family. For example, Nish’s mother, played by Malini Fonseka, profusely washes her hands after dressing Nish’s wound. This is the last straw for Nish, who contemplates suicide.

There is no doubt that excellent casting choices contributed to the success of the film. The anguish of a mother in Fonseka’s words “I am your mother, I am your mother…” uttered to assuage her HIV positive daughter after she slighted by washing her hands, does not fail to evoke empathy in the audience. The film also marks screen queen Malini Fonseka’s 150th performance in an acting career spanning four decades.

Weeraman has commendably captured the anguish of the characters. Specially noteworthy is the performance by Sandra Mack as Nishmi, whether it is to her own credit or Weeraman’s ability to get a novitiate to strike the right emotional chords is irrelevant, because the end product is realistic. The fresh face of Mack helps to heighten the realism. We have never previously seen her acting and this makes it that much easier to identify with her role. Although her dialogue seems a bit contrived at the onset, which could be attributed to a shortcoming in dubbing, she grows on you.

Manuwarna’s ruggedness contrasts sharply with the seeming fragility of Mack’s Nishmi and the repelling magnate-like chemistry between the lead actors adds a novel flavour to the film. Make no mistake, it’s not your typical rich woman falls for poor guy kind of soppy. The film is abound with underlying deep socio-political and economic themes presented in the dichotomy of the upper middle class represented by Nishi and lower class by beach boy Sachin. It is certainly a thought-provoking movie peppered with allusions to Buddhist teachings, from the metaphoric boat that is life, to allusions of rituals such Bodhi Pooja conducted in hopes of being impregnated. Though Nishmi contemplated suicide earlier in the film, at the end, she just wants to row the boat. True to the Buddhist doctrine Nishmi comes to realise that we are but mere cogs in the samsaric machinery and that there is no other way out but to ‘row your boat’.

Inspired by true events, from plot, dialogue, acting to cinematography, Ayu religiously sticks to realism. The fight scenes are commendably choreographed with excellent cinematography helping to enhance realism. Even the songs are well placed, sans the melodrama, typical of Sinhala films.

However the tempo of the 116 minute film is somewhat slow, unnecessarily stretched to create the movie-length feature. The audience does not know where in time a certain scene is set. It is somewhat akin to memento or arrival, in that fragmented scenes are scattered throughout the film going back and forth in time. For example, images of passing lights from the vantage of a trolley being pushed through a hospital corridor, at the beginning of the movie, foreshadows a catastrophe waiting to strike. Although the trope makes it difficult to establish a footing, it adds to the arthouse flavour of the film. Things eventually fall into place when the film comes full circle, reconciling the past and present.

The genre, and by extension the target audience of the movie is ill-defined. Whether it a commercial or art house movie would depend on audience interpretation. The character of ‘Ayu’ is a case in point. Does the kid really exist? After all nothing is revealed about her. Her grandmother is MIA, the audience is in the dark about where she lives and when she is uprooted from her life in the village, whisked away by two strangers no one bats an eyelid. Uncannily similar to the character of child psychologist Malcolm Crowe in ‘Sixth Sense’, who turns out to be a ghost oblivious to his own ghostly existence, Ayu, who’s name literally means ‘life’, has little interaction with the characters other than Nishmi and Sachin, who are both, ironically dying. This life/death juxtaposition forms the crux of the film. Ayu may very well be a figment of one’s imagination, a metaphor for ‘life’. Is she a mere symbol for life or ‘ayu’ in Sinhala? If so, what better symbol for life than a child. If not, then the script is fatally flawed, in that it failed to develop an essential character. It is unrealistic that as a doctor Nish would have no qualms about exposing the child to a life threatening illness.

All things considered, Ayu is welcome respite from the mundane Sinhala movie that only offers unrealistic love stories that involve a lot of running around bushes, obviously phony fight scenes and ill-timed sorry excuses for songs. It is to be released in theatres soon and is not to me missed.

Continue Reading

Features

St. Antony feast Katchatheevu

Published

on

The Jaffna Divisional Secretary informed the public, well in advance, that St. Anthony’s Feast in the Kachchativu island had been cancelled this year due to the Covid- 19 pandemic. The decision was well understood by devotees of both Sri Lanka and India.

This annual feast on a tiny island closer to the India-Sri Lanka International boundary line (IMBL) was an annual meeting place, especially for fishermen of both countries. Last year (2020) the feast was attended by more than 10,000 devotees. For the first time, Sri Lankan devotees out-numbered the Indians. Anticipating such a situation, the Bishop of Jaffna, Rt. Rev. Justin Bernard Ganapragasam had invited Bishop of Diocese of Galle, Rt. Rev Raymond Wickramasinghe as well. The mass last year was conducted in all three languages – Sinhala, Tamil and English.

As a devotee of St. Anthony, the Saint who looks after seafarers, like me, even though I am a Buddhist, I was sad that I might miss this year’s feast.

However, some good news came from the Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenna a few days ago. He said Jaffna Bishop had requested to have a mass at Kachchativu island without the presence of the public and only with a few priests on 27 February 2021, and if I was keen, I could join them. I was delighted to go there.

Kachchativu is located half a nautical mile from the Indo-Sri Lanka IMBL which was ratified by UN Law of the Sea conference in 1976, when maritime boundaries and Exclusive Economic Zones of India, Sri Lanka and Maldives were demarcated and agreed to by all three countries and ratified at the United Nations.

It is mistakenly thought both in India and in Sri Lanka that Indian fishermen can come to this island to dry their nets. That was in the 1974 agreement, where even Sri Lanka fishermen had the right to fish in “Wedge bank”, in the Indian waters closer to Kanyakumari. When the 1976 agreement was ratified, those privileges were done away with and now Kachchativu is part of Sri Lanka’s territory and well within our waters. Please read the famous book on Kachchativu by late Mr WT Jayasinghe, who was our Defence and External Affairs Secretary in the 1970s (father of late Romesh Jayasinghe, our former Foreign Secretary in the 2000s) to learn more about how our beloved Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s diplomatic skills and close personal relationship with the then Indian PM Indira Gandhi won us the Kachchativu island back.

Those who championed in Tamilnadu and in the Indian Central government on taking back Kachchativu from Sri Lanka should refer to what Indian Attorney General Mukul Rohargi told a bench, headed by Chief Justice of India R M Lodha on 26th August 2014: “Kachchativu was gone to Sri Lanka by an agreement in 1974. It was ceded and now act as a boundary. How can it be taken back today? If you want Kachchativu back, you will have to go to war to get it back.”

I stayed at Fort Hammenniel, a beautiful fort built by the Dutch at the entrance of Karainagar channel, entrance to the old Jaffna port of Kayts, now part of our Naval Base, SLNS Karainagar. This tiny Dutch fort has its own history in our country, the place where the late JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera was kept in captivity in 1971 with more than one hundred other JVPers. I could not imagine how it would be with 100 prisoners in this small fort.

I was not accommodated in any of these cells; I stayed in one of the four super Luxury rooms on the top deck of the fort.

My dear friend, Rear Admiral Senarath Wijesooriya, the Commander Northern Naval Area, joined me to travel to Kachchativu on the 26th evening (February). We travelled in an indigenously built Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC), which can move at 38 knots (approx 50 mph). During the final stages of our conflict with the LTTE, under the guidance of then Commander of the Navy, today our Admiral of the Fleet, Wasantha Karannagoda, Navy Engineers built more than 100 IPCs which brought LTTE Sea Tigers to their knees on asymmetric naval warfare as per “Lanchester theory” and helped destroy all their “ultimate weapons at sea” – suicide boats. Visionary leader, Admiral of the Fleet Karannagoda, always told us, “You cannot buy a Navy – you have to build one” ! How true ! We built it for you, Sir. Bravo Zulu to our Engineers !

IPC moved at 38 knots in the mirror-calm sea, and took only one hour and 40 minutes to reach Kachchativu from Karainagar. I was so impressed with Petty Officer in-charge of the IPC, for his boat handling, and beaching the boat at Kachchativu and professional competence. With such junior leaders, our Navy’s future is bright.

With the full moon, calm seas and light breeze from the North East direction, it was a beautiful night. Few scores of sailors were preparing the church and surroundings for next morning.

One thing missing this year was the crowd. Camping in small groups and singing hymns praising St Anthony was not heard this year. The small “street” in Kachchativu, which was full of makeshift Indian shops with sarees, clothes and sweetmeats and Sri Lankan shops with soap, coconut oil and cinnamon were not there this time around.

The new church built by the Navy five years ago on the request from the Bishop of Jaffna was looking beautiful. This was a hundred percent donation by officers and sailors of the Navy. It cost us Rs. 7.7 million, total contribution by the Navy personnel, majority of them were Buddhists like yours truly. This church is a symbol of reconciliation.

The following day (27) by at 9.30 a.m. mass was, led by Very Rev Father Pathinathar Joshopthas Jebarathnam, the Vicar General of the Diocese of Jaffna. 

The Mass was attended by 50 officers and sailors following strict quarantine laws. Vicar General , Very Rev Father Jebarathnam blessed all those present and others who had not been able to get there due to the pandemic. I missed Sri Lankan and Indian fishers. Their request to St Anthony is always very simple; that is for them to have a good catch of fish next year so that they could look after their families and come back to St Anthony’s feast again.

I also kept my request simple. “Thank you St Anthony’s, for allowing me to come to Kachchativu this year and give me strength to come back next year as well !”

Continue Reading

Trending