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Opinion

Lift ‘Lockdown’ – Open economic activities

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by Dr. Pradeep Kariyawasam
Former Chief Medical Officer of Health, Colombo

Most citizens will wonder why I am asking for the lifting of the so-called ‘Lockdown’ now when Health Authorities continue to reiterate that we are not yet out of the woods. Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, says the World Health Organization (WHO). Even during the current COVID-19 pandemic, while we are striving to eliminate this dreaded disease, it is a valid statement: It is ‘Health for all’ and not only for a group of people in our society, divided by religion, race, caste and societal status.

I had mentioned in a previous letter that a week-long island-wide curfew would have met the same target we have achieved with this type of Lockdown, during the past month or so. This Lockdown will not severely affect government servants, as most of them are at home, and every month, whether they work or not, their salary gets deposited in their bank accounts. In the private sector, a large number who worked in smaller enterprises have lost their jobs in the last two years. Similarly, a large number of vendors and small business holders have lost their income and closed down their businesses or are gasping for breath after 18 months of agony, trying to survive. What about the daily wage earners? Most of them may not be recipients of any social benefit and may not have any savings; to them, surviving is out of the question if this lockdown continues, as they are the people who suffer most from these closures. Some have resorted to begging by the roadside, others are going from house to house asking whether there are any household chores they could do for a few hundred rupees; but who wants to invite anyone to their homes these days!

I believe that except for the rich and upper-middle-class, all the others in this country have suffered a lot during the last one and half years, and they make up the vast majority of this country. Consequently, the physical, social and mental wellbeing of Lankans has suffered immensely, and needless to say, they are sick if we follow the definition of the WHO, and in that case, the vast majority in this country are sick!

Even with this kind of a mild lockdown, which looks like it is only affecting the lower rungs of our society, the number of infected and deaths due to COVID-19 goes down with each passing day. The rich and powerful carried out their activities without any hindrance, evident by the number of vehicles on the streets. Some went on vacation, even crossing provincial borders without being stopped, others went to Nuwara-Eliya or Kataragama, or booked hotels to stay there during this period. Indeed, they would not have carried the disease to those areas or brought the disease to Colombo, but the message they give to the ordinary citizen leaves much to be desired. It is due to this kind of behaviour that ordinary citizens in urban areas also roamed the streets during the lockdown, as it was very difficult to be crammed inside small houses or mid-level apartments, where five to six people live in 400 to 500 square feet. Therefore, a lockdown is practically impossible to implement in areas with economic constraints, and the best we could do is to concentrate on such areas when taking preventive action.

Alas, the old tried and tested preventive measure of ensuring community participation in disease control is a thing in the past in Colombo. The breakdown in communication between such communities and the health authorities is alarming, which was the reason for more than 100 deaths at home in Colombo this year. The real numbers should be available with the Epidemiology Unit, but unfortunately, information is not forthcoming and health authorities don’t seem to care. Civil societies and NGOs that took part in these activities physically are not to be seen, and that has contributed immensely to the failure of preventive measures. I have wondered why only tail end COVID-19 prevention activities, such as PCR and antigen testing and quarantining, are being focused on, while no real effort is made to prevent the spread of the disease by carrying out large scale awareness campaigns in vulnerable areas, imposing strict lockdown conditions in areas where new variant outbreaks take place; as it happened in Dematagoda where the spread of the Delta variant started; vaccinating people in vulnerable areas first, looking after their daily needs and putting in place a system to provide emergency relief to such areas.

We could have then stopped the Delta variant from spreading into other areas, and to other parts of the country. I do not understand it when health officials in Colombo say 50 percent of PCR samples are positive for the Delta variant and at the same time say that they have contained the spread of the disease. It is a pity that Colombo city so far has no qualified epidemiologist in their ranks, to analyze data, make proper decisions, and implement prevention and control measures.

The hit, the economy of the country took, is not reversible for a long time to come. We have to get economic activities running again from next week without waiting any longer if we don’t want to hit rock bottom. Factories, shops, bakeries, malls and garages should open under strict health guidelines, and the country should move forward again. How should we do that? Wearing a mask all the time, hand washing, maintaining social distance, not stepping out if one has at least one symptom, are the key to success. For this, every institution and each individual should contribute.

When considering the public service, only 20 percent of staff members should be allowed to report to work on a single day during the next few months, but top officials should report to work daily as otherwise, the system cannot function. This will ensure that at least one day a week everyone will be working. They should be advised to work longer hours on such days and to cover all priority work they are usually assigned. Once they report to work they will have to follow strict health guidelines, and government offices have to issue health protocols and implement the same.

Private sector organisations should also stick to the 20 percent quota of office staff, but factories and stores should be allowed to operate with the full team under strict health protocols. These protocols may vary depending on the functions of each organisation, nature of work carried out and the number of workers. Private transport should be arranged for all staff members, including labourers. This will not be an issue as there must be enough idling school vans due to school closure. Public transport should allocate only 50 percent of seats to passengers, at least for the next three months; and if the number of those who test positive further reduces to less than 1,000 per day, passengers may be accommodated according to the number of seats available, but no more. Shops and small-time trade should be allowed to open with minimum staff, and customers allowed inside should correspond to the floor area; at least a minimum of four to five square metres should be allocated per each customer entering such establishments.

The tourism sector should be allowed to function by getting tourists to travel in bubbles without hindrance and even by restricting access, to destinations of tourism value, for locals for some time. This is a very important measure to improve our economy. The testing facilities at the airport should be improved for locals as well as tourists, to allow the release of PCR test reports before they leave the airport.

No demonstrations, protests, gatherings of more than five people in public place should be allowed for at least the next three months and may be controlled using even emergency regulations. Vaccination programmes should be continued, and perhaps vaccinators can work in shifts to provide this service late into the night. A mobile vaccination drive is desirable in certain areas, rather than getting people to travel long distances and then wait in line. The excellent service rendered by the tri-forces and the police during the vaccination programmes in Colombo must be commended. All children above 12 should be vaccinated with a recognized vaccine, and schools should be reopened at least by November this year. PCR and antigen testing should be done only on those who display symptoms and their contacts, as I believe that carrying out random tests can only give us an estimation of the people who have contracted the disease, and is not an accurate sample of the total population. To achieve the latter, we will have to test all the people in the country within a day or two, but that is not practical. Consequently, random testing is a waste of money, time and resources.

The key to success in this endeavour is discipline. All authorities concerned must ensure that health protocols are followed, the number of meetings and gatherings are kept to a minimum, such activities are not allowed in public places and economic activities are carried out following maximum safety measures. The public must exercise individual responsibility in getting vaccinated not only for the sake of their safety but also for the safety of others, limiting unnecessary travel, looking out for neighbours in their hour of need and helping health personnel to carry out their duties.

There had been complaints against officials about pilfering vaccines and vaccinating for money, charging commissions for PCR testing, allocating certain hotels only for quarantined persons, and lately about playing favourites with funeral parlours when releasing bodies for cremation. These allegations should be inquired into, as there can’t be smoke without fire. We must encourage people to have faith in the ongoing activities, as otherwise, they will also not fall in line. The Delta variant will not be around forever. It will subside but come back one day in another form or variant. However, we should be better prepared to face it next time, by having in place preventive measures and getting all concerned to participate in this endeavour.



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Opinion

Show some sympathy to non-citizen spouses

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(Some errors had crept into this letter, which was first published on 14 October under a different headline. This is the correct version. We regret the errors – The Island)

I have long wanted to lodge a protest against an injustice a dear friend of mine (P.) — and probably many others, too — has been labouring under for over 45 years now.

That is the requirement for non-citizen spouses to regularly — eternally — apply for residence visa renewal.

This must also make one wary of doing anything to endanger the citizenship one is left with and relies upon. When P, a British citizen, first came here, dual citizenship was still not an option, and sole citizenship of an unfamiliar place and people, scarcely tempting.

My English mother came here for the first time in 1955 (with three children). At the time, dual nationality was not allowed here. Naturally, she retained her British citizenship but had to regularly renew the right to residence. And my father’s assent was necessary every time. When, after 23 years of marriage, my parents divorced, my mother had to obtain special permission to remain — her youngest child was not even ten. And my father’s approval was still required. This became more and more difficult, and finally my mother decided to leave Sri Lanka. How life would have turned out for her had she not retained her British citizenship I do not know. Dual nationality was still not permitted. But in England, she had no problem finding a good job and a place to live.

When I returned here in 1975, I had been a British citizen from birth. I needed to work but the first job I was offered required me to be a Sri Lankan citizen. Still no dual nationality. It was a difficult decision to give up what had after all been a valuable asset in so many ways, and to lose certain privileges I took for granted for over 30 years. But this wasn’t a totally strange country for me, and I wanted to commit myself to it in every way. So, I took the risk and to this day I have only Sri Lankan citizenship. But, sadly, there have been many times in the years that followed when I wished I could have escaped the trouble and turmoil.

I don’t know if my friend P. ever contemplated taking SL citizenship only, or even dual citizenship when it became available. And until recently, dual citizenship closed various doors here to their owners — as I believe it should in high positions of politics and government.

P. has thrown herself into life here in every way. She is a much loved and valuable person. Unfortunately, she is not allowed to work, which is also a loss to the country. But naturally she misses her family and goes back regularly to be with them, often together with her solely SL husband.

Were she to take dual nationality now, she could not leave in a time of turmoil/crisis here or to her family in London.

And so, for over 45 years she has had to go through the wretched business of visa renewal — originally every year, but now every two years for people who have been here for a longer period. And this looms large again now, in a few days, amid all the current problems.

Not only that, but forever hangs over her the instant withdrawal of residence rights should her husband predecease her.

I think this last is most inhuman. Just when she most needs the support of people who are close to her here, she is expected to pack up and set up an entirely new home. Not even given time to confront the new situation and decide what to do.

I think that at least two things need to be changed in this matter. The two-yearly renewal should be reduced to at least five-yearly. And the despatch upon the SL spouse’s demise should be changed to a reasonable time, for the bereaved to attend to everything or even consider, at that point, applying for dual nationality. And this should be no less than a year.

I hope this comes to the notice of someone capable of addressing the problem, though it will be too late to make any difference to my now quite “senior” friend, as she stands in yet another queue at the end of this month.

MANEL FONSEKA

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Opinion

The Fertiliser Fiasco: Discretion is the Better Part of Valour

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By Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha

In his novel published in 1891, tiled “The Light that Failed”, Rudyard Kipling wrote the phrase, ‘biting the bullet’ to express the thought that fortitude can be gained by ‘biting a bullet’! As things are, should the President and government continue ‘biting the bullet’ or compromise in sincerity as discretion is the better part of valour.

The farmers have a genuine grievance in that there is no fertiliser, organic or inorganic! And organic fertiliser is not something that can be produced overnight. They are adamantly up in arms, and it would appear most likely that paddy and other arable crop cultivations will incur huge production losses. Farmers in the Mahaweli and other irrigated lands have taken up the unyielding stand that unless fertilisers are available, they will not cultivate this Maha season. Crop losses without fertiliser and other inputs can be as high as 40-50%, if not more, leading to a highly calamitous national situation. The same applies to plantation and other crops. Expert calculations reveal that tea yields too could decline by 50%!

More importantly, there are no readily available organic materials, vegetable, animal or other to meet the nutrient demand of the three million hectares of crops! Most plant–based organic matter has only about 1% nitrogen, if not less. Assuming, however, that together with animal dung and other organic matter sources the figure is increased to 1.5% and on average a hectare of cropland requires 100kg N per year, the total annual organic fertiliser demand should be at least 200 million tons if not more to provide the nitrogen requirement.

The average N demand for tea is at least 200kg/ha/yr, and some vegetables and other crops too, require more N than 100kg/ha/yr. The issue then is, how such a huge demand of organic fertiliser is to be met locally.

The recent fiasco with the attempt to import a seaweed- based organic fertiliser from a Chinese enterprise, Seawin Biotechnologies, is well known. Samples tested locally were reported to be contaminated with a harmful bacterium, Erwinia and the importation was stopped. Incidentally, the local Chinese Embassy had the audacity to contest the report of our quarantine authority, that the culture of the microbe could not have been done in the three-or four-day period as reported, but a senior professor of microbiology of the Peradeniya University and other specialists in the field have debunked the Embassy claim!

The supplier claims that fertiliser is heated to a temperature of 600 degrees centigrade to kill microbes. If so, how was the live pathogen detected. At this temperature not only microbes but also nitrogenous compounds should break down! Then how is the nitrogen replenished?

According to the company’s brochure on ‘seaweed granular compound fertiliser’ there are seven fertiliser formulations available for sale comprising nitrogen (N ) phosphorus (P2O5) and potassium (K2O), and nitrogen is replenished as ammonia, urea or nitrate! (Please see Table)

So, evidently, it is a granular fertiliser mixture of chemical and organic materials. The supplier does not claim that the product is organic, and it cannot as other than the ‘organic matter’ and the’ seaweed extract’ the rest are inorganic chemicals! So, clearly, having heated to the high temperature and losing the nitrogenous compounds, inorganic nitrogenous chemicals have to be added to achieve the required nutrient composition. So, the product is no longer fully ‘organic’. Then, who is deceiving whom?

Moreover, these seaweeds are believed to be essentially harvested from the Yellow Sea off the coast of Quindío City, an area highly polluted with metropolitan waste and excessively contaminated with heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury. The status of these heavy metals are, however, not cited in the fertiliser composition table in the brochure. Further, although the supplier has apparently promised a 10% nitrogen content in the formulation, it is impossible to get such a high value from seaweeds! On the whole, then there are grey areas in the fertilizer deal.

The President and the government are apparently now gradually yielding to the countrywide fertiliser demand pressures of the farmers as evident from a recent news item that chemical fertiliser for corn will be imported. Then what about tea and other crops?

As per the ‘grapevine’ there is evidence that some nano (chemical) fertilisers are also to be imported and the Tea Research Institute has been asked to work out how much ammonium sulphate as the nitrogen fertiliser source is needed for the country’s tea apparently because some stocks of the latter being available. Ammonium sulphate has only 21% nitrogen whereas that of urea is 48%. Because of production interferences due to COVID the urea prices have shot up by 35 -43%, from April to September 2021, and the same should be true for other straight fertilisers.

Ammonium sulphate price globally is now reported to be about USD200/ metric ton whereas that of urea is about 450 USD. So, in terms of N contents in the fertilisers, the cost should be comparable except for the haulage. However, over application of ammonium sulphate can be detrimental in that the added sulphur in the soil is reported to inhibit phosphorus uptake by crops affecting growth and yield! Urea is the better option as the nitrogenous fertiliser when large quantities of it are needed.

In conclusion, it is the ignorance and obstinacy of the authorities that has pushed the country into this calamity. Minister after minister are obsessed with the “wasa visa” myth as evident from their utterances both in Parliament and outside! It is the general belief, without evidence that, agrochemicals are the cause of many non-communicable diseases.

No politician speaks about ambient air pollution, the leading environmental health risk factor locally and globally. Records reveal that nearly 3.5 million premature, non-communicable deaths, for example, in 2017, were from stroke, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, lower respiratory infections, and diabetes.

The President should, as a matter of priority, obtain a report from the health authorities on this matter of agrochemicals and health. This false belief was aggravated as a result of the initial suspicion that the chronic kidney disease (CKD) of the Rajarata was caused by agrochemicals but none of the research supported this contention. Research evidence gathered over several years, especially during the period 2010 and 2018 by no less than five groups of researchers established that the most likely aetiolating agent is hard water and fluoride in the some dug wells especially on high ground, as those who drank such water were essentially the ones that contaminated the disease.

Those who consumed water from the streams, reservoirs or dug wells in the plains did not contact the disease! Some of the research conducted by the current coordinator of CKD activities in the Health Ministry too supported this contention!

However, it is sad that the health authorities have failed to brief the President, the Health Minister and the government in general on this vital matter! Had this happened the President would, not have rushed into this decision of ‘going organic’ virtually overnight!

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Opinion

Jealousy: Is it in our genes?

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By Dr. Upul Wijayawardhana

In making my contribution to the debate on the supernatural, stirred by the faith in astrology and palmistry expressed by three esteemed colleagues of mine, I took the opportunity to highlight the achievements of a Sri Lankan born Cosmologist of international repute. I posed the question, “Do Astrology and Palmistry predict future whilst Astronomy, Astrophysics and Cosmology explore past?” in the title (The Island, October 7), which was tongue in cheek as stated, and was not an article meant to explore the origin of the universe, as I totally lack the expertise in that field. However, I am thankful to Ivor Tittawella for educating me and the readers with his comment’ “The more important and timely question to ask is how the starting material of the Big Bang, the “cosmic egg” if you will, came into being in the first place, coming out of absolutely ‘nothing’” (Understanding of Cosmology and deep physics: The Island, October 12).

I wish Tittawella had expanded on the topic of the ‘cosmic egg’ instead of casting snide remarks: “The anecdotes given are interesting, of course; but is it worth touching at such length on matters which the public are generally aware of anyway? Folk do know the distinction between palmistry and cosmology; they do know, too, and are hugely proud of, a good few Sri Lankans doing excellent research both at home and abroad”. I agree that few folks would confuse palmistry with cosmology but for many Sri Lankans, astrology is a ‘science’ commanding as much respect as astronomy! I presume when he refers to ‘matters the public are generally aware of’, which I am accused of touching at length, he, I believe, refers to my somewhat lengthy reference to Professor Hiranya Pieris. I came to know about her achievements by sheer chance and many who read my article were pleasantly surprised too.

The response I received from someone who works for the judicial service in Canada was interesting: “This is the first time I read about this lady, Hiranya. She sounds like a mini-Stephen Hawking! Sadly, Sri Lankans do not acknowledge their own, most of the time! Is this jealousy?” This got me thinking and made me wonder why we are jealous, instead of celebrating the success of our fellow countryman? I am sure many in the Sri Lanka music industry must be jealous of the tremendous achievement of Yohani Diloka de Silva whose rendition of ‘Menike Mage Hithe’ has gone viral! Is jealousy a trait embedded in our genes?

As a predominantly Buddhist country what we should be practicing are the Four Sublime Attitudes, ‘Sathara Brahma Viharana’: Loving kindness (Metta), Compassion (Karuna), Empathetic joy (Muditha) and Equanimity (Upekkha). Of relevance to this discussion is Muditha, empathetic joy, sometimes referred to as sympathetic joy or vicarious joy, as well. It is the ability to rejoice at others’ success, the cardinal feature of Mudita being that it is pure joy unadulterated by self-interest.

Fortunately, we can have pure joy about many who have excelled in many fields, both at home and abroad. Whilst those at home are well known some who are outside are not so well known. In fact, Ivor Tittawella himself is a distinguished scientist with many papers to his credit published in reputed international journals. As far as I could gather, he is a Microbiologist who worked in Umea University in Sweden.

After reading my article, a friend of mine mentioned Professor Ray Jayawardhana, who is the Harold Tanner Dean of the Cornell University College of Arts and Sciences and a Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University. In addition to researching on the formation and early evolution of stars, brown dwarfs and planets, he is an award-winning writer, his best-known book being ‘Neutrino Hunters: The Thrilling Chase for a Ghostly Particle to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe’. He has won many awards including Rutherford Memorial Medal in 2014 and American Physical Society Nicholson Medal for Outreach in 2018. He also has the honour of an asteroid being named after him: ‘4668 Rayjay’.

I wonder whether the interest of many in Astronomy and related subjects is due to trailblasing by Prof Chandra Wickramasinghe who was a student, and subsequently a collaborator, of the famous British Astronomer, Sir Fred Hoyle. They are well known as the proponents of panspermia, the hypothesis that some dust in interstellar space is largely organic. Their joint work over 40 years resulted in multiple publications. Chandra Wickramasinghe has authored over 30 books on Astrophysics and related topics. However, his reputation was slightly dented by the rejection of some of their theories by the scientific community, including the theory that some outbreaks of illnesses on Earth are of extra-terrestrial origin, including the 1918 flu pandemic and certain outbreaks of polio and mad cow disease. They hypothesised that the 1918 flu pandemic was due to cometary dust which brought the virus to Earth at multiple locations, simultaneously, which has been rejected by experts on the epidemic.

Chandra Wickramasinghe comes from a brilliant family. His father, a mathematics graduate from Cambridge, was the Chief Government Valuer. Chandra is the eldest of four brothers and Suneetha, next to him took to medicine; the third, Dayal is Professor of Mathematics at the Australian National University in Canberra and the youngest, Kumar holds the Chair in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in University of California, Irvine.

Suneetha Wickramasinghe entered medical school in Colombo with me and we sat next to each other during lectures, for five years. He used to drive from his house in Bambalapitiya and I was able to get a lift to and from the Buddhist Medical Hostel ‘Jeewaka’ in Turret Road, Kollupitiya, very often. We both got distinctions in Medicine at the final MBBS examination held in April 1964 and he left for the UK, the day after results were out. He did so because he craved research and ended up becoming one of the world’s leading authorities on congenital dyserythropoietic anaemia, a rare inherited anaemia. He became Professor of Haematology in St Mary’s Medical School in London, in his mid-thirties. Unfortunately, he died prematurely of Myeloma, a disease in his own field, in 2009. ‘World authority on diseases affecting red blood cells’ was the headline for the obituary published by The Guardian newspaper of London on 09 September, 2009.

When I attended the Sri Lanka Medical Association Anniversary session in 2003, to deliver a ‘guest lecture’, I met another batchmate of mine who told me that he would be President, SLMA in 2005. He sought my help and asked who the ideal chief guest would be for the Anniversary Session in 2005. Considering that Suneetha was a prolific contributor to scientific journals and has edited eight books on Haematology, in addition to being a speaker much in demand around the world, without any hesitation I recommended Suneetha to be the chief guest. My friend readily agreed and wished me to contact Suneetha and make all arrangements. Suneetha attended the sessions but I was not even invited. When I telephoned to inquire from Suneetha, on his return, it transpired that he was not the chief guest, the honour being accorded, as usual, to a foreigner! With a degree of embarrassment, he told me that he was made a guest of honour. We were to meet over lunch but Myeloma prevented it. Suneetha died without full recognition in the land of his birth. That is Sri Lanka!

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