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Neglecting the sick and insulting the dead



The Covid pandemic, apart from causing much human misery all over the world, has had a deleterious effect on human values as well. It appears that mankind has regressed by many decades. Freedom of movement, free association and human interaction, which were promoted as ways of a peaceful world without conflict, have all been suspended as a mandatory way of controlling the pandemic. Promoting the younger generation to spend more time on physical activity, rather than sitting long hours in front of television and computer screens, has also been suspended. Online teaching has become the norm. Thus the so-called new normal is a regressive step for the society, which is considered essential at present but hopefully will not last for too long.

Unfortunately, some avoidable situations have arisen due to lack of foresight or scientific thinking on the part of the decision makers. Almost every illness is being considered as Covid, until proven otherwise. Many non-respiratory illnesses are categorized as Covid, thus causing much hardship and even delaying appropriate treatment. I know of at least one case of a 60-year-old lady dying of a curable respiratory illness, without any treatment in a suburban hospital. identified as a centre for treating Covid cases. She was isolated in an ICU with other Covid patients, without appropriate care. Treatment of many chest pains very suggestive of heart disease have been delayed, until the Covid test reports came as negative. Most disgusting is the way every death is considered to be due to Covid, until proved otherwise.

Many unexpected deaths of hitherto normal people are suspected purely because of a very few similar sudden deaths being reported to be due to Covid, elsewhere in the world.

I am personally aware of the deaths of two doctors in the past week. An elderly general practitioner suffering from repeated attacks of heart failure for several years, and not seeing any patients for a long time, died after a bout of breathlessness around 2am. For the next three hours the family had to report to the police, Grama Sevaka, and coroner. The police and the Grama Sevaka came home (the family had to provide transport) and took separate statements from the daughter and the wife of the dead doctor until around 6 am. With the attending doctor’s certificate, a post mortem examination and a Covid test were fortunately not carried out. The body could be cremated that evening because things were expedited as the popular doctor was known to many in the town. Otherwise, it would have taken at least 24 hrs to get the body released. The officers concerned were very apologetic saying that the latest circular on deaths at home requires this cumbersome procedure. No exception is given even when an attending doctor, with all the past medical records on hand, certifies the obvious cause of death.

An 88-year-old emeritus professor, died at home after a fall in the presence of her family members. The corpse was taken to the hospital in a body bag, PCR test done and a post mortem examination performed (may be justified because of the fall and possible head injury). It was more than 24 hrs before the body was released.

In both these instances things happened relatively quickly as they were known to officials concerned. One can imagine the plight of people not influential enough.

As someone has said in social media, loss of the sense of smell and the sense of taste are transient manifestations of Covid. However, loss of common sense appears to be the most serious manifestation of the pandemic. Those who issue circulars from time to time on various aspects, are so totally distant from the practical implications of their decisions.

Maybe there is a general suspicion that the public would be inclined to hide the deaths due to Covid, to avoid the harassment they undergo afterwards. Unfortunately such fear is created by the attitudes and policies of the authorities themselves, from the very onset of the epidemic. The armed forces coming to the forefront made it appear that getting the disease and dying of it was a criminal act. How households are labelled as isolated, the occupants are hounded up and transported in crowded buses with armed escort, how bodies are cremated in the absence of any kith and kin and handled by fully covered men with personal protection clothing, and how the entire area is disinfected afterwards is fully displayed on television. The social stigma thus created could prevent people from visiting such households or associating with family members for weeks on end.

How bodies of Muslims are cremated against their staunch religious beliefs, thus denying their basic human rights with no firm scientific evidence against burial, is a disgrace to all Sri Lankans. Our leaders requesting a country in the neighbourhood to accept bodies for burial adds insult to injury.

It has to be acknowledged that we were caught unawares by a hitherto unknown illness becoming a pandemic. Hence at the beginning draconian measures had to be taken to control an illness causing havoc everywhere. It is not reasonable to find fault with such retrospectively. However now that much is known about the nature of the illness one should constantly review the situation and modify the control measures accordingly. Much of the unnecessary hardship mentioned above could be avoided with new knowledge, genuine desire to minimize human suffering and of course, with common sense.



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The faithful Lankan matriarch from Negombo



(UCAN) Every day around 7pm, octogenarian Sembuwalage Mary Hariyat faithfully recites the rosary and litany from her old prayer book with lightly frayed edges and irregular-shaped pages.She is never alone as she settles before the statues of Mother Mary and the saints at home. Among those around her are some of her growing brood of 24 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren, not to mention her eight children.

“My prayer book and rosary are my weapons in times of joy and sorrow,” says the 82-year-old from the tourist village of Negombo, known as the “little Rome” of Sri Lanka because of its predominantly Catholic population.

The majority of some 150,000 Catholics in Negombo depend on fishing, just like many other coastal communities in the island nation. Despite a life hit hard by poverty, thousands of Catholic mothers like Hariyat are considered important in building up the local Church.

Hariyat never forgets to neatly arrange a small dish of raw white flowers and light an oil lamp before her prayers at home. On some days, she will burn incense sticks according to traditions passed down from generation to generation.But above all, Hariyat loves to teach the kids prayer rhythms and styles.

Her son Liyanage Samantha said: “It is our mother who taught us rhythms of all prayers. We learned every prayer from her. Now she is teaching our children and their children too,” he said. Her sons, daughters and their families credit her for teaching them how to live their Catholic faith.

“All my eight children and their children and grandchildren are devout Roman Catholics,” Hariyat proclaims with pride.

“I stay with one child for a week. That’s how I divide my time among all my eight children, week after week. If a family member is sick, I stay longer to help and serve in that house,” she says.Every word she utters hints at how grateful she is to God for everything she’s got.

“God has abundantly blessed me and all the members of my large family,” she saiys.

In February 2021, Hariyat suffered a severe heart attack and had to be hospitalized.  She says God and Mother Mary “stayed close to her during the terrible time” and if not for their blessings she would have been long gone. Like a true Sri Lankan Catholic, whenever she or a member of the family faces a problem, Hariyat takes a vow to visit national shrines on a special pilgrimage.

Most of the time it is Our Lady of Madhu, a Marian shrine located in a dense forest in Mannar district, some 220 kilometers from Negombo. The shrine is considered the holiest Catholic site on the island.Hariyat has been attending the August festival at the shrine since she was 20 years old. She even visited during the height of the Sri Lankan civil war, when the shrine was surrounded by refugee camps and shelled many times.After recovering from the heart attack, Hariyat accompanied by the family of one of her sons visited Our Lady of Madhu last June.

Her son too had recovered from a major illness even though the doctors had said he could not be cured. He could not stand or do any work and suffered unbearable pain that prevented him sleeping. Doctors said some tissue lining his spine was torn and could not be rectified.Hariyat recalled praying to Mother Mary for months to heal him. She believes that Mother Mary intervened at her request.

“My son had a major operation and the doctors wanted about 600,000 rupees (US$ 1,715) to carry out the operation. His children decided to hold a lottery to find the necessary amount,” she said. “I continued to pray to God, Mother Mary to heal him and vowed to bring my son” to Madhu and Kattara churches in Mannar diocese.

Hariyat said no operation was required and even the doctors were surprised with her son’s miraculous recovery.

“For more than fifty years, I have been going to Madhu and Kattara churches with my children. I have experienced many miracles in my life,” Hariyat said.

She remains as enthusiastic as ever about the pilgrimage to Hiniduma Calvary shrine and joins other Catholic faithful in walking around the small hill on which the shrine stands overlooking St. Anne’s Church and the Gin River quietly flowing beside it.Hariyat’s house is located in a beautiful village called Pitipana nestled between the sea and a lagoon. It is a village of fishers and except for a few families, everyone else is Catholic.

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Evening with Julia Cameron



We were treated to a Sri Lankan cultural feast on Sept. 9. It included old photographs, old paintings, glimpses of the old sculptures, temple paintings – together a cultural heritage most of our countrymen are ignorant or have little knowledge of. However prevalent Buddhist fervor has given some knowledge to the average Buddhist about the temple paintings that are a part of this heritage. Fortunately, the audience present at the film that evening comprised people familiar with what was on offer and continue their quest for more knowledge.

The evening was an ode to the life and times of Julia Cameron, who was born in India in 1815, but chose to make Sri Lanka her home. She lived for some time in the Isle of Wight in high society making friends with many famous persons like Lord Carlyle, Lord Tennyson and Sir John Herschel, the British astronomer, among them.

Julia, from a young age was interested in photography but it was rather late in life that she took to it seriously. Apparently encouraged by her friend Sir John (Herchel), she in her late forties went on to become one of the most famous photographers of the 19th century, best known for her soft focus photography. She is today considered one of the greatest photographers of all time. The short film screened on Sept. 9 was indeed a treat and revelation.

This was followed by another short film on the 43 Group. That included Lionel Wendt, well known to most Lankans. I don’t think he had the same international reputation that Julia Cameron did but enjoyed seeing his work again. Then came a series of pictures of paintings by our best known artists: Keyt , Ivan PIeris, Daraniyagala and Manjusri to name a few. The 43 Group had a great reputation at that time but are almost forgotten now. Its last member, June Somasunderam died a few years ago. Seeing these pictures was a pleasure, like seeing old friends. They are hardly seen today and maybe many are in private hands here and abroad.

There was also a short clip on a dance form making you aware of the many dance forms Sri Lanka has: up country, low country, ritual dances including one to drive away the devils and one to intervene between God and the supplicant in time of illness or bad times. Few people are familiar with these rituals, but they are not that many. Thanks to the Kandy Perahara, most people are familiar with the Kandyan dance form.

The creator of this lovely film didn’t forget the lowly kite which rose in splendor to the sky at the end of the film.We owe this pleasurable evening to two people whose intrepid research and study documented our cultural heritage for posterity. Thank you Ismeth Raheem and Martin Pieris.

Padmini Nanayakkara

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The Sri Lanka Police has come a long way from where it started having celebrated 155 years of its existence this year. I thought of adding my perception of how the police have changed from being people’s friendly force to one that has gone down in many ways.

Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) having been a colony under the British gained independent status in 1948 as a Dominion. We adopted the Westminster system of government and all other good things that the British were used to at that time. Even the police force was similar to the British counterpart in that they acted impartially without interference from the politicians. The officers in charge of police stations and their subordinates would carry out their duties without fear or favour. They never curried favour with the politicians and the politicians did not interfere in their duties.

However, all these changed after 1977 and the rot set in. Thereafter, the bootlicking started. Now most of the transfers and promotions began to take place according to the whims and fancies of the political leaders. Even when it came to the appointment of the Inspector General of Police (IGP), on many an occasion, it was a person who curried favour with the political leaders who got the position.

Sometimes the persons so appointed had got the promotion over more deserving and honest officers senior to them, who refrained from stooping to low levels. While the honest police officers did a job of work according to their conscience, there were the others who stooped low to get their promotions and perks.

For a long time as I remember there were nine Superintendents of Police (SPs), one in each province, and four Deputy Inspectors Generals (DIGs). Each province had a few gazette officers – One SP and a few ASPs. I believe it was President DB Wijetunga who got the cadre of senior officers increased with a view to accommodating more favorites.

It has come to a stage now where a Senior DIG is subjected to manhandling by the people for the wrong things he had done. This has never happened earlier. This happened because the people were frustrated and angry that the police who are supposed to look after the safety of the people turned a blind eye when political goons attacked peaceful protestors.

I wonder whether we will ever get senior police officers like Mr. WB Rajaguru. When he was a DIG, he used to go to the fish market which was at Saunders Place then, in a pair of shorts to buy the requirements for his home. Usually this is a task entrusted to a police constable by such senior officers, as in the Army where the batman must attend to these matters.

I have read a few memoirs of senior police officers (who never stooped to low levels to seek promotion) after their retirement and some articles in the daily newspapers where they have indicated how the standards of the Sri Lanka police have deteriorated so badly that they seemed to be ashamed to state they were officers in the police force at one time.

At least after celebrating the 155th anniversary, we hope that there will be change in the attitudes of the police in carrying out their duties. Of course, this will depend on the political leaders who must change their ways first.


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