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Life on Earth, Pandemics and the Covid-19 disaster

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Prof. Chandra Wickramasinghe

University of Buckingham, UK and

National Institute for Fundamental Studies, Sri Lanka

Dr. Sarath C. Witana, MD Dr. Ananda Nimalsuriya, MD

Philosophers and political thinkers down the ages, Locke, Kant and Russel among others, have all stressed the importance of preserving personal and individual liberty as a prime goal of any civilised society. Limitations of liberty are of course necessary but only in so far as they prevent violence and demonstrable harm to others. The limitations of our freedoms being enforced on us in relation to the current pandemic have no rational basis whatsoever, and in our view constitute a flagrant denial of our human rights.

The Earth teems with life of all kinds, lifeforms ranging from the simplest microorganisms to the most complex of life forms – plants, animals, humans. Microbial life forms – bacteria and viruses – are present not only on or near the Earth’s surface, on land and in the oceans – but also in the deep ocean floor, kilometres below the surface, and at least 10 kilometres in the atmosphere. We humans – Homo Sapiens – are perched atop this pyramid of Earthly life declaring ourselves to be in command of all we survey.

Over the past century biologists have unravelled the mind-blowing complexity of life at a molecular level as well as its super-astronomical information content as is clearly manifest for instance in the arrangement of amino acids in crucial enzymes. At the same time astronomers are unravelling a universe that is every bit as complex, informationally rich and as magnificent as life itself. For too long, however, we have failed to appreciate that there must exist an intimate and inextricable connection between life on the Earth and the vast external cosmos. Only by acknowledging this link would it ever be possible to fully understand the world in which we live.

For well over a century the concept of life starting by a process of “spontaneous generation” on the Earth in a primordial soup of organics has been firmly locked into the cannon of science. Attempts to synthesize life from non-life have continued in the most advanced biotech laboratories for well over half a century. With the passage of time all such hopes have turned out to be utterly illusory. Every attempt that has been made thus far to replicate the process of spontaneous generation in the laboratory has ended in dismal failure.

 

Four decades ago, the late Sir Fred Hoyle and one of us (CW) had already accumulated enough supportive evidence to state with confidence that terrestrial life must be inextricably linked to the cosmos at large. The main connecting link was comets and cometary debris that continually gains entry to the Earth’s environment. Supportive evidence came from many different scientific disciplines – astronomy, space science, biology and geology. The conclusion that was evident for over four decades was that life is not and cannot be a planet-based phenomenon, but can only be understood as a truly cosmic phenomenon, the Earth being just one of billions of sites on which life has taken root and evolved. The evidence in support of this cosmic theory of life is everywhere around us, but few have had the courage of link it all into a coherent story. This reminds us of the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay whose sonnet “Huntsman, What Quarry?” says it all:

“Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,

Rains from the sky a meteoric shower

Of facts . . . they lie unquestioned, uncombined.

Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill

Is daily spun; but there exists no loom

To weave it into fabric. . . .”

There can be little doubt that the world is now facing a crisis more serious than any it has seen over the past several decades. The Covid-19 pandemic is an indisputable fact, but to face it squarely and deal with the problem in an honest way is of paramount importance for our survival, and indeed the survival of billions of people around the world. This is a pandemic caused by a new virus. But our human species has faced many millions of similar pandemics in the past. Recorded history is in fact full of accounts of past plagues – the plague of Athens, the plague of Justinian, the Black Death come to mind, and there were many others that punctuated our past.

With the dawn of the new millennium in 2001 the unravelling of our genomes – human DNA, as well as the DNA of primates – has shown clearly that as much as 10 percent of our silent (non-coding DNA) has an origin in viruses. The evolution of our primate line leading from early anthropoids to humans have been marked by a succession of viral pandemics each one of which may have been a close call to extinction. However, a small proportion of survivors were left after each such pandemic and it is likely that the viral information carried through the evolving line at times contributed to the development of new traits and biological functions. This radical point of view in relation to scientific orthodoxy, but one that has to be faced.

 

Biosphere reaching to the sky

Before coming to matters directly related to the present pandemic let us note that tons of viruses are actually swept daily into the sky from all across the world. This happens via tornadoes, dust storms and oceanic spray, and the same viruses (along with others from space) continually fall back to ground in mist and rain. Several independent studies carried out over the past three decades have all shown that a variety of bacteria, viruses and fungi can actually be recovered from the stratosphere from heights of up to 40km. These microbial entities are generally similar to those found on Earth’s surface, the obvious inference being that they are transferred from the ground level to the stratosphere. Other investigations including one conducted by balloon sampling of stratospheric air have led to estimates of an infall rate from space of the order of tonnes of microbes every day.

Recently an international team of scientists placed collectors high in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Spain to collect the shower of viruses that falls from the sky. The number of viruses falling upon the mountain tops was mind-boggling – amounting to a staggering 800 million individual viruses that are deposited daily on every square metre of the planet’s surface. These results when combined with earlier studies that show the existence of some ten million viruses in every single drop of ocean water clearly points to the existence of a vast virosphere (an ecology of viruses) high in the sky which continually mixes with our well-recognized ground level biosphere and microbiomes. Scientists have speculated for some time that there is a stream of bacteria and viruses continually circling the planet above the planet’s weather systems, and this is only recently coming to be established as a fact.

In the light of all the available scientific evidence we can imagine a feedback cycle involving interchange of viruses (and bacteria) between two reservoirs – a stratospheric virosphere at and a ground level and atmospheric biosphere that includes plants animals and humans. Both biospheres, at ground level and in the sky, are interconnected and are involved in the onset and continuation of epidemic and pandemic diseases in our view. As early as 1979 Fred Hoyle and one of us published all the relevant data pointing to this connection in the book “Diseases from Space” (a revised edition of which has just been published.)

 

Tropospheric cloud viral reservoir and COVID-19

One of us along with a team of colleagues have studied all the data relating to the origin and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic began and came to a conclusion that the facts are markedly different from the generally accepted orthodox views of this pandemic. We think President Trump came the closest to articulating the truth about the pandemic when he told Bob Woodward in February 2019 that the virus was in the air and people became sick by breathing the virus laden air.

The bare facts are that in late 2019 a large load of SARS-CoV-2 virions (the causative virus) was somehow introduced into the atmosphere in the environs of the Wuhan in Hubei province of China. There have been many theories of the new Corona virus (genetically related to the viruses that caused SARS-1, MERS some years earlier and also to some prevailing zoonotic viruses) came into existence at this moment in time. Our preferred view is that the causative virions first entered the stratosphere/troposphere/atmosphere from an external cosmic source above this region of China from a comet fragment. This was probably related to the Jilin fireball that exploded over northern China in late October 2019.

Whatever happened is now only of academic interest, but the facts are clear. The evidence points overwhelmingly to the introduction of a vast quantity of the Covid-19 causing virus in the Hubei province of China that began to lead to cases of acute disease and death from November 2019 onwards. It is reasonable to conclude that the atmosphere over many thousand square kilometres of the Earth’s surface became thick with the primary infalling virus as well as with secondary replications from human infections over a very short time. Much of this kept recycling through upward currents back and forth into the tropospheric jet steam. Subsequent breakthroughs from the tropospheric jet stream back to ground level are responsible mainly if not entirely for the subsequent sporadic in falls defining hotspots of infection around the world. Person-to-person spreading of course occurs, but the primary cause is viral infall from the streams of fast flowing gas that makes up the tropospheric jet streams.

The initial first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic is well recorded to have occupied nearly a full calendar year, infalls of virus from the troposphere being essentially controlled by local weather conditions. As in the case of other respiratory viruses this process has a seasonal cycle particularly in the north and south temperate latitudes. We believe it is this cycle that we are now witnessing as a second wave of COVID-19 around the world.

This, in our view, is the only model of the pandemic that can explain many facts:

1. The emergence of new expanding hotspots of infection after the intial Wuhan outbreak straddle a narrow latitude belt centred on 30 degrees North (the location of the northern jet stream)

2. Within each “hotspot” clustering of cases over a wide range of distance scales point to patchiness of incidence at ground level. The pattern is similar to a virus laden mist/dust falling to the ground crossing various length scales of atmospheric turbulence.

3. The many instances of infections with no first cause (first case) identifiable, such as in ships at sea or remote islands.

4. Mysterious clusters called community spread, or attributed to unidentifiable “superspreaders”

5. Medical facts point to the availability of a well-defined protocol for early diagnosis and isolation, followed by regimes of treatment that have been attested to alleviate acute inflammatory responses and serious illness that might follow.

All these facts are now clearly staring us in the face and yet we refuse to take note of them. The devasting consequences of a wrong theory of the pandemic that involved huge curtailments in our personal freedom, lockdowns around the world, causing disastrous effects on every walk of human life are now becoming amply clear.

It is of paramount importance that we take note of the facts as we have presented them in this article, and spur governments to act in the best interests of everyone.

Humanity in 2020 deserves no less. The long march to freedom from tyranny must begin – the tyranny of wrong science, and the tyranny of the governments who are being misled.

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Trump checks-out of his job

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Populist neo-right toughies gear up for a counterattack

by Kumar David

Confirmation of the inevitability of Trump’s departure and the promise that covid-19 vaccines will be available in weeks has created euphoria not seen since the lifting of prohibition in America 97 years ago almost to the day – December 5, 1933. The Dow briefly pierced the 30,000-point ceiling, women and the elderly exposed to heightened domestic violence at the hands cooped up bar-less men espied a light at the end of the tunnel, and millions of Anthony Fauci defying covid-asymptomatic youth took to the skies to go home for Thanksgiving and infect grandparents and elders. (“The young in one another’s arms; those dying generations at their song; caught in sensual music all neglect, monuments of unageing intellect”). But there are dark sides to the jubilation. First, there is some way to go before distribution and mass administration of the vaccine become reality and science though pleased with results so far remains cautious about the duration of immunity. Most important, no vaccine can offer protection against reckless behaviour of a hara-kiri besotted populace.

 

Challenges to Joe Biden

This piece however is not about covid-19, it’s about an equally virulent plague; the rednecks and fascistic heavies gearing up for a counter-attack while Trump calls them to arms, literally, by tweeting “we must overturn the results of the election” and by making all sorts of incendiary interventions. Trump has virtually checked out of his current job as President, he rarely makes a public appearance, refuses to take questions when he does, and most significantly refuses to intercede in burning national issues such as the explosive spread of the pandemic, economy or foreign policy and China. Instead he has taken to stirring up a counter-attack on the election results and mobilising his semi-fascist troops. Mobilisation rallies have been scheduled by team-Trump in Georgia, Arizona and elsewhere though the participation of President-Reject has to be confirmed. The attacks on the incoming administration are geared up around these slogans: Biden’s nominations are an Obama third-term team; there is a retreat from standing up for US interests under the cloak of rebuilding international relations; they are soft on China trade and on will China get away stealing American jobs; Biden team’s accommodative policies in the guise of climate change harm the economy and let foreign polluters off the leash (Who is John Kerry? Obama’s Foreign Policy Tsar who sold out to Iran, now he will sell America to US-hating Global Greens), and overall, the gist is that instead of putting America First, team Biden will let others exploit America and put ordinary Americans last.

These cries will resonate with the rejected-dejected white working-class and with the majority of poor and less educated whites across a swathe of mid-western ‘red states.’ It seems Biden is putting together a clean and elitist all-liberals cricketing team to engage in no holds barred mud wresting with the muck and filth of Trump-rabble. Joe will lose unless he wakes up to reality. CNN reported that Biden has poured cold water on the idea of nominating Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders to his Cabinet, instead suggesting he would like to keep them in the Senate to carry forward his agenda. He claimed, quite incorrectly, that there is already significant representation of progressives in his cabinet but he did add that nothing is off the table.

 

Biden’s thus far yahapalana appointments

From senior appointments made thus far it seems Biden wishes to form a good-governance (yahapalana) liberal not a radical administration. Thankfully, unlike Lanka 2015-2020, he will not be encumbered by an ignorant, self-seeking nutcase like Pissu-Sira. Be that as it may, Trump’s conspiracy in collaboration with Republican leaders (Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham and media types Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity) was to execute a palace-coup but this came undone when public, political, media and business pressure mounted and Emily Murphy, Chair of the General Services Office authorised transition funds for the President Elect, and Michigan and Pennsylvania certified Biden victories; also when in Georgia Bidden scored a third win in a third count. But Trump is selfish, petulant and a vengeful liar and until his political coffin is sealed and riveted down at noon on January 20, 2021, just about anything is possible.

Musing on of Biden’s leadership team and its prospects can benefit from reflection on recent Sri Lankan experiences. Despite the chasm in wealth and historical experience between the countries, don’t dismiss the thought that there are useful parallels. Some common features are that in both cases diehard populism with racist overtones are entrenched, and in both countries, there is deep resentment against the well-to-do classes (Washington Swamp, Colombo 7 elite) who have it all while working-people suffer. A third factor is nationalism and xenophobia. A fourth is that America suffered a loutish president while in our case a suave and avuncular former leader and his near canonised brother prevailed, but in both cases these powers had a firm grip on a big section of the mass mind.

Now a there is new parallel; the Biden Administration in gestation and a hypothetical yahapalana government without Pissu-Sira, have much in common. Biden is a man of working-class origin with an earned a BA (double major in history and political science and minor in English; Wikipedia says he was rated a C student). He also has a JD (doctorate by coursework). His stutter was an obstacle, but it also endeared him to ordinary people. His team as announced so far consists of high-flying ideological liberals and liberals-in-economic-outlook (the former pledge loyalty to justice, parity before the law, freedom of speech and religion, and oppose race bias, while the latter stand for free-markets and business-friendly policies). The former Fed Chair who defied Trump, Janet Yellen (Brown and Yale) will be Treasury Secretary (Finance Minister), Antony Blinken (Harvard and Columbia) an Obama era liberal will get State (Foreign Ministry), Cuban-American Alejandro Mayorkas (Loyola and Berkeley) will head Homeland Security and John Kerry, well known as Obama’s Secretary of State is to be climate Tsar with cabinet ranking. All are policy wonks with a clear mission to rebuild, at home and abroad, the America that Trump wrecked. Non-Cabinet postings are also significant. Two able women, Avril Hains (Johns Hopkins and U of Chicago) will be Director of National Intelligence and a distinguished black Linda Greenfield (U of Wisconsin-Madison) will be UN Ambassador. Jake Sullivan (Yale) will be National Security Advisor. If you look up the CVs of these people you will see that it is a team with a strong intellectual, liberal or liberal-economic bent – better for a University Liberal Arts Faculty than a Cabinet maybe.

There is more liberal talent waiting in the wings; Susan Rice, Pete Buttigieg, Vivek Murthy, Andrew Yang, Sally Yates and too many to name. On the left we have Bernie Sanders (Political Science, Chicago and a “mediocre student” in his own words) potentially for the Labour portfolio, and Elizabeth Warren (BSc Houston, hooray a scientist at last and JD from Rutgers Law School) fit for any portfolio.

However so far, they both seem a bridge too far to the left for Biden to cross. So, Biden team may be all-liberal without a daub of red or radical. Thereby hangs a tale: Will this team deliver; will it be able to carry through a programme of economic and social restructuring which can mollify, not just the baying wolves of the Trump Base but all less privileged America? Markets are cheering the appointment of Ms Yellen instead of Ms Warren to the Treasury; America’s political and military allies heave a sigh of relief that reliable Obama era boy Blinken spells the end of a cranky President who put alliances in jeopardy. Greens the world over cheer the return of the US to climate sense. That’s what the liberals can deliver.

But there are critical issues on which liberalism will fall short; like the things yahapalana fell short on and opened the flood gates for the Rajapaksas to came storming back. The poorer three quarters of the population be it America or Lanka have problems yahapalana-type liberal economics is not designed to address. Indeed, that’s why a Trump Base came into being in the first place and why like a Rajapaksa phenomenon a neo-fascist populist option may storm back in four years in the US. The plain truth is that in January 2015 in Sri Lanka and today in the USA the middle-class, liberal intellectuals and indeed the left hail the defeat of ugly autocracy and the confirmation of democratic values, but in the medium term the lower orders of society, the majority, are driven by the need to feed their families not by the bliss of liberal nirvana. A Biden team without radical colouration does not inspire confidence that that it lives on the same planet as rust-belt workers faced with loss of livelihood and mid-west rural folk who have lost hope in modern capitalist America whose economy is networked into globalism. There is indeed no hope for an all-capitalist USA that is unable to restructure itself profoundly.

One does applaud the return of decency, diversity and political discipline to the US. One is relieved that the institutions of American democracy held up against the most brutal attack they suffered since the Civil War 160 years ago. However, none of that will save America now unless livelihood issues and the social cancer rooted in the country’s soul are taken in hand. I fear that a liberal-democratic Biden Administration which shuts out radicals and eschews a transformative programme will fall short. The failure of numerous yahapalanas style governments stud the contemporary global landscape.

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More on the Burghers

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by HM Nissanka Warakaulle

It was interesting reading the piece by Mr. J. Godwin Perera on the Burghers (SI Nov. 22). I thought it will be appropriate to add a little more about the Burghers who had contributed in a big way to enliven the lives of many Lankans.

First I would like to thank Mr. Perera, who despite being a Royalist, mentioned Mr. Louis Edmund Blaze’, the founder of Kingswood College, Kandy. Blaze’s vision was of a school with with a close relationship between the teachers and students rather than training the boys to merely pass examinations. He wanted to make good citizens with moral values. Other than the important things mentioned by Mr. Perera, such as introducing rugger in schools, cadetting and rowing, he introduced the Prologue at the annual Kingswood prize giving. This narrated what had happened at home and abroad in the year reviewed. He wrote the Prologue until he died. It continued with an old boy doing the honors thereafter.

He also introduced addressing the students as “Gentlemen of Kingswood”, something unique to that school. He, as principal of a boy’s school, was the first to recruit lady teachers to a boys’ school here. The school had such dedicated Burgher teachers (all of them spinsters) to mould the lives of toddlers from the then Baby Class to Standard Two. Some of them were Misses Eileen Clement, Gertrude Thorpe and Muriel Elias. In the middle school there was Miss Joyce Da Silva.

The other famous educationists of the day were Mr. Oorloff of Wesley College and then Trinity, Cannon de Saram of St. Thomas’, Mrs. Labrooy of Girls’ High School, Kandy and Mr. Schockman, the founder Principal of Thurstan who came from Kingswood.

In the University of Ceylon, in addition to Prof. EOE Pereira, mentioned by Mr. Perera, there were Mr. Labrooy and Fr. Pinto in History, Prof. EFC Luduwyke and HE Passe in English, Mr. Ian Van den Driesen in Economics and Dr. Hingert in Philosophy. The Faculty of Medicine had Professors Koch and Chapman and Dr. Jansz among others.

In the sport arena there were many sportsmen and women who were outstanding. Mr. Perera had mentioned Duncan White and Eddie Gray. Duncan White’s brother Freddie (from Kingswood) was considered Asia’s best hockey goalie of his time. The National hockey team had a number of Burgher players in addition to Freddie White, such as Ivan de Kretser, who captained the team for a number of years, Richard Heyn, Derrick Harvie and Dennis De Rozairo.

In cricket there were Vernon Prins, Clive Inman, David Heyn (compared to Neil Harvey as an outstanding fielder at cover point). Richard and David were sons of Brigadier BR Heyn, who has been the only Burgher Commander of the Sri Lanka Army. He represented Sri Lanka in cricket and hockey, a unique achievement.

In tennis there was Rupert Ferdinands who carried the Ceylon flag for a long time whilst in swimming and diving Sri Lanka had the Bollings, and Swan.

As for Beauty Queens we had Maureen Hingert who put Sri Lanka on the map becoming second runner up at a world beauty contest. Like Jacqueline Fernandez joining the Bollywood beauty brigade, Maureen starred in a few Hollywood films.

In music the most famous duo were the de Saram brothers, Rohan and Druvi. Then we had Douglas Ferdinands an exceptional violinist and an excellent teacher who also played in the Symphony Orchestra and had his own junior orchestra where he trained young musicians, some of whom graduated to the Symphony Orchestra led for a long time by Eileen Prins. There were very good pianists such as Noel Forbes, Fr. Eric Bartholomeusz and Clem Croner.

In the entertainment industry there were Burghers of the calibre of Cliff Foenander, Bill Forbes, Alston Koch, Dalrene Suby, Noeline Honter, Desmond Kelly and Ronnie Leach who made their mark here and abroad.

There were a number of very good school cricketers of our vintage. Whilst Royal had Lorenz Pereira, Michael Willie, Fitzroy Crozier and Darrel and Eardley Lieversz, S. Thomas’ had Michael Sproule, Michael Tissera, Dennis Ferdinands, Errol Lisk. In Wesley there were the famous Claessen brothers. The list goes on – Trinity had Eric Roles, Errol Fernando and St. Anthony’s had Ronnie Stevens and the Joseph brothers

The national Rugger teams had very good Burgher players at various times such as Malcom Wright, Eric Roles, Van Langenberg,

In addition to doctors Noel Bartholomeusz and, RL Spittel in Colombo, Dr. Roy Peterson, Dr. Winn and Dr. Frewin who were well known in Kandy. These were in addition to Doctors Darrel Weinman and Travis Pereira.

George Keyt and David Paynter were world renowned painters whilst Wiiliam Blake excelled in cinema, Rodney Jonklaas in under sea explorations and Lionel Wendt in photography and music. He was also a patron of the arts..

And last but not least there was Donovan Andree and later his son Malcolm. Donovan was instrumental in bringing the Holiday on Ice show held on an artificial ice rink and the famous Egyptian magician Gogia Pasha and wrestlers from many countries such as Dara Singh, King Kong and Wong Bok Lee. We never had anybody else to emulate Donovan as a showman.

Editors note: The list of Burgher achievers can never be comprehensive. A reader pointed out that Chief Justice MC Sansoni and Dr. RL Brohier were notable omissions from the first piece by Godwin Perera. Undoubtedly there will be many more gaps and omissions In a long list of the best and the brightest Burghers.

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Covid-19: The Epidemic and the Economy

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Dr. Vitarana very simply explains the basic facts about the virus, its current level of transmission in Sri Lanka, the difficulties Sri Lanka will face in obtaining a vaccine for the entire population within a short-time frame, and calls for “community action” to end the pandemic. He calls the current mode of transmission, “uncontrolled community spread.” He suggests there could be 80% asymptomatic transmission and cites a figure of 30% test positivity from a random PCR study in Colombo by the CMOH.

by Rajan Philips

“What I have learned about pandemics is you have to be very humble. There is no mission-accomplished moment.”

Dr. Vin-Kim Nguyen

Perhaps every medical professional would agree with the sentiment in the above comment by a Vietnamese Canadian doctor, who is affiliated to two international hospitals, one in Montreal, Canada, and the other in Geneva, Switzerland. Unlike doctors who would give you the unvarnished truth, governments and politicians generally have different arrangements with truth and humility. Lack of humility and premature celebrations of victory are all too common in government and politics in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. The country seems to be now paying the price for the government’s premature declaration of victory over Covid-19 and prodigal distractions thereafter – changing constitution just for the heck of it and changing the heck out of the positions of doctors in public health agencies. The infection total is now past 21,000 and the death toll is reaching 100. A sevenfold increase in both in just over seven weeks. What is worrisome, apart from the rate of increases, is the absence of any indication that the government is in control and is able to arrest the trend, let alone reverse it.

 

Sri Lankan numbers are still peanuts in the global context. At Sri Lanka’s rates, the US should have under 400,000 infections and 2,000 deaths. But the superpower has a staggering 13 million infections and over a quarter million deaths. But the finally-on-his- way-out Donald Trump, after single handedly leading America to become the super spreader of the coronavirus, maniacally believes that but for his brilliant stewardship tens of millions of more Americans would be infected by now and a million of them would have died. Americans have managed to get rid of Trump, thanks to their unsung heroes who faithfully counted nearly 160 million votes in the most contentious of situations and the judges who boldly rebuked and threw out every one of Trump’s vexatious pseudo-legal challenges. But America is stuck with the coronavirus which is still spreading in its deadly mutation. And the vaccines, though the result of globally coordinated scientific efforts at the highest level, are not going to be overnight panaceas. Again, every medical professional is saying that.

 

Logistically, there are several hoops to pass through even after one or more of the three lead vaccine candidates are approved for use. Their mass production, storage and transport are all huge challenges, which can be done but not in any hurry. And worldwide vaccination thereafter will be an unprecedented health intervention on a global scale. Then come the challenges of keeping records for multiple inoculation, verifying vaccine effectiveness, and tracking virus transmission after vaccination by pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers. According to experts the now ongoing clinical trials alone are not sufficient to be conclusive about any of this, given the speed at which vaccine development is necessarily being undertaken. The consensus upshot is that masks and physical distancing cannot be dispensed with easily or quickly even after vaccination programs get underway in different countries. All of this would invariably lead to delaying the resumption of economic activity to pre-pandemic levels. Sri Lanka is not alone in this, but there are many things that individual countries will have to do themselves on their own.

 

From Infection to Recession

 

Last week I mistakenly left out what would have been the last paragraph in my article. The paragraph was about Dr. Tissa Vitarana’s statement entitled, “Community action can end the Covid-19 pandemic,” that appeared in the Sunday Island on November 8. That statement is by far the best and the most comprehensive, if not the only, public health policy paper on the subject by anyone who is associated with the present government. There should be no surprise about such a statement coming from a former Director of the MRI and a respected professional and academic. He has also been a Minister in the previous Rajapaksa governments, briefly Governor of the North Central Province, and now a National List MP. What is surprising is that Dr. Vitarana’s expertise and thinking for dealing with Covid-19 are not able to find any resonance at any level in this government.

Dr. Vitarana very simply explains the basic facts about the virus, its current level of transmission in Sri Lanka, the difficulties Sri Lanka will face in obtaining a vaccine for the entire population within a short-time frame, and calls for “community action” to end the pandemic. He calls the current mode of transmission, “uncontrolled community spread.” He suggests there could be 80% asymptomatic transmission and cites a figure of 30% test positivity from a random PCR study in Colombo by the CMOH. He fears that waiting for the vaccine to control the virus could be a “distant dream.” The reason is that apart from logistical delays, Sri Lanka should be in a position to buy the available vaccine for 60% of the population in addition to the expected WHO’s free vaccine for 20% of the population, to vaccinate 80% of the population – the threshold “to break the chain of transmission in a population.”

Until then, it is “community action” that should be relied upon, along with the public health infrastructure and a knowledgeable population observing basic health practices, to contain the community spread of the virus. Dr. Vitarana is confident that “if a good example is set from the top (no large gatherings etc.) and the people follow the health guidelines, the country can get rid of the Covid-19 scourge.”

In fairness to Dr. Vitarana, he is not asking to be in charge of this community action plan, and he is confident in the abilities of doctors in the Epidemiology Unit and of the armed forces for tracking and tracing. And if Dr. Vitarana is just a retired professional without political involvement, no one would be suggesting that he should be recalled from retirement to head this or that coronavirus task force. The only reason that some of us are puzzled about his apparent exclusion, is that he has been so much a part of the PA/UPFA/ULF/SLFP/SLPP governing political formation for 26 years – all the way back from 1994, when some of the current bigwigs were in and out of the country and would not have known the difference between a parliamentary system and a presidential system.

Put another way, the mystifying exclusion of Dr. Tissa Vitarana and the inexplicably ridiculous transfer of Dr. Anil Jasinghe from Health to the Environment, are not signs of a government that is prepared to utilize the best available people and the all the available institutional resources to “methodically” (to borrow presidential terminology) deal with the current pandemic crisis. Equally, if things have been working, and there is no surge of infections, nobody will be talking about Dr. Vitarana or Dr. Jasinghe. And there is no certainty either that everything about containing Covid-19 is going to get better. At least, there are no encouraging signs that things are indeed getting better.

The saving grace for everyone is that the recovery rates are high and the death rates are still low. It would also seem that the symptoms of infected are people are not as severe in Sri Lanka as elsewhere, and hospitalization is not currently overwhelming. Will all these factors hold at their current manageable levels, or can they get out of control? I have not come across any discussion about future projections either through technical modelling, or based on experience and commonsense. The overall uncertainty affects decision making about the levels to which social and economic activities can be allowed to open up or resume. In the absence of certainty and determination, it will not be possible to plan for or promise economic growth, let alone prosperity. Even if Sri Lanka is somehow able to resume significant economic activities, it still will have to face a very sluggish world outside.

It is a sign of the times that the British government has officially declared that it is heading towards its worst recession in three centuries. That last one was in 1709 and was caused by a fierce European winter which ravaged economies and caused famine. This time the British economy is expected contract by 11.3%, worse than every country in Europe other than Spain which is staring at a 12.4% GDP drop. Rishi Sunak, Britain’s Punjabi-Hindu Chancellor of the Exchequer, told the House of Commons last week, “Our health emergency is not yet over, and our economic emergency has only just begun.” The emergency could apparently get worse if Brexit goes wrong. In any event, the British government is not expecting the economy to return to pre-pandemic levels until the end of 2022. That generally is the sentiment in most countries. And China cannot play the same saviour role it played during the 2007-2008 global financial crisis.

This is also the context in which Sri Lankan government leaders should rethink and revisit many of the premises and projections that were included in the new budget. If it is “day-dreaming” to think of buying vaccine to vaccinate 60% of the population, by what yardstick of reality can one expect 60% market capitalisation? Until Covid-19 is brought under reasonable control, it would not be realistic to expect the economy to return to anywhere near full throttle. Clearly, a total lockdown is not the answer, even though it would be the easiest to implement and to claim victory.

Economic targets and infrastructure investments that are inappropriate for the current situation, that are environmentally harmful, and do not carry long term benefits should be avoided. Inappropriate examples include construction of highways and mass paving of 100,000 kilometres of currently unpaved rural roads. The latter would be a drainage disaster. Potential projects that deserve investment green light, are helping garment factory workers to build their own houses, urban and rural water supply and sanitation schemes, countrywide drainage control, and water management as part of agriculture and food production. Such targeted economic activities can go hand in hand with “community action” to contain Covid-19.

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