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Ontario’s Bill 104: ‘Tamil Genocide Education or Miseducation Week?’

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By Dharshan Weerasekera

In May 2021, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario adopted Bill 104. The stated purpose of the Bill is to, a) designate the week following May 18 each year as ‘Tamil Genocide Education Week’ and b) educate Ontarians about ‘Tamil Genocide and other genocides that have occurred in world history.’ The crucial question is, whether the charge of ‘Tamil genocide’ is true.

To the best of my knowledge, there has been very little substantive discussion of the above question in Sri Lankan or Canadian newspapers or academic journals in recent years and it is in public interest to begin such a discussion. Otherwise, there is a danger that the proposed ‘Tamil Genocide Education Week’ would turn out to be an exercise in mis-education of Canadians, most of whom are relatively unfamiliar with Sri Lanka.

In my view, there is absolutely no factual basis for anyone to claim that Tamils have been subjected to genocide in Sri Lanka. In this article, I shall briefly summarise the arguments made in a case filed in the Court of Appeal in September 2014, Polwatta Gallage Niroshan v. Inspector General of Police, Members of the Northern Provincial Council and others, CA/writ/332/2014. It is a public document. I was the Counsel in the case. The petitioner sought a writ of mandamus to compel the Attorney General to take action against members of the then Northern Provincial Council who had signed a letter (forwarded to the UN Human Rights High Commissioner) alleging genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Unfortunately, the Court declined to take up the case on technical grounds, namely, that the petitioner had failed to file a police complaint. The petitioner, a humble three-wheeler driver, did not have the financial wherewithal to pursue the matter further, but the case is very important in the present context because of two reasons: First, it shows that Sri Lankan citizens have rejected the allegation of Tamil genocide and even gone to the courts with regard to this matter.

Right of reply

Second, and more importantly, since the provincial legislature of a foreign country has asserted that Tamil genocide has happened, it is incumbent on the said legislature to provide a right of reply to all concerned Sri Lankans who reject the charge. Otherwise, one cannot expect the stated purpose of the Bill, education, to genuinely take place. In this regard, it is well to recall that natural justice, which includes the injunction “hear the other side” is an overriding principle (jus cogens) of international law.

Furthermore, one could argue that any funds allocated by the Ontario legislature, to advance the goals of the Bill, should be made available to members of Sri Lankan origin living in Ontario as well, who wish to tell their side of the story during the week in question. For all these reasons, the Sri Lankan case is important as a starting point for a substantive discussion of the charge of Tamil genocide. I give below the relevant portion:

“The 3rd – 35th Respondents, 28 of whom are members of the Northern Provincial Council and five are members of the Eastern Provincial Council, are signatories to a letter sent to the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navinetham Pillay, titled, “Joint letter by members of the Northern Provincial Council and Eastern Provincial Council, 17 August 2014.” In the said letter the 3rd – 35th Respondents request the former UN Human Rights High Commissioner to acquaint her successor, as well as the investigating panel presently investigating Sri Lanka, with the matters contained in the letter.

Petitiner’s contention

The Petitioner contends that the said letter contains explicit statements capable of causing disharmony, ill-feeling and discord among the different ethnic groups of Sri Lanka, particularly the Sinhalese and the Tamils, that the 1st and 2nd Respondents have not taken any steps to investigate or prosecute the 3rd – 35th Respondents for the said statements under Section 120 of the Penal Code (raising discontent or disaffection or feelings of ill-will and hostility among the people) and therefore the Petitioner has a right to request the court for a writ of mandamus to compel action.

The letter makes three requests of the High Commissioner, the second of which is: “The Tamil people strongly believe that they have been, and continue to be, subjected to genocide in Sri Lanka. The Tamils were massacred in groups, their temples and churches were bombed, and their iconic Jaffna Public Library was burnt down in 1981 with its collection of largest and oldest priceless irreplaceable Tamil manuscripts. Systematic Sinhalese settlements and demographic changes with the intent to destroy the Tamil Nation, are taking place. We request that the OHCHR investigative them to look into the pattern of all the atrocities against the Tamil people, and to determine if Genocide has taken place.”

The Petitioner respectfully draws the attention of the court to two matters in the above passage:

i)

The assertion that Genocide has been practised against the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

ii)

That “Sinhalese settlements and demographic changes” are being carried out with the “intent to destroy the Tamil Nation.”

The Petitioner is of the view that, the above two assertions are demonstrably false, and, as a citizen of Sri Lanka, is personally offended and angered by them, and considers that thousands of other citizens of this country feel this way also.

The Petitioner further considers that, false accusations regarding highly sensitive issues made directly to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights urging her to investigate the purported offenses constitute an attempt to “raise discontent or disaffection amongst the People of Sri Lanka, or to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different classes of such people” for the following reasons. The crime of genocide has a technical meaning in international law, and one can assess objectively whether or not that crime has been committed. The definition of genocide is set out in the Convention on the Prevention of Genocide (1948) and is as follows:

“[Article 2] In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

a)

Killing members of the group;

b)

Causing serious bodily harm or mental harm to members of the group;

c)

Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.

d)

Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

e)

Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

From the above, it is clear that the crime of “Genocide” has two components: the intention to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, and also the committing of one or more of the acts enumerated under points a – e. It is possible to objectively assess whether, in a given set of circumstances, each of those components is present. Similarly, the accusation regarding settlements and the claim that the intent behind these settlements is to destroy the “Tamil Nation” can be objectively assessed.

The Petitioner asserts that, the Sinhalese people have not committed genocide against the Tamil people, or imposed settlements to destroy the Tamil People, or any “Tamil Nation” within this country, and that facts exist to prove these matters. In particular, the Petitioner wishes to draw the attention of the court to the following points: With respect to the accusation of genocide, the following facts are relevant:

Statistsics

Firstly, if the charge of ‘Genocide’ is with respect to the period from Independence to the start of the war, roughly 1948 – 1981, then statistics are available regarding key economic factors such as income, production assets in agriculture and manufacturing, employment, access to education, and access to health services. ((The most recent island-wide census was in 2012 which is after the war. But there is a census for 1981.) If discernible discrepancies exist between the statistics for the Sinhalese and the Tamils with regard to the above factors, a reasonable inference can be drawn that the Tamils have been systematically discriminated against, which would support the contention that the Tamils have been subjected to a genocidal campaign.

The Petitioner is of the considered view that a comparison of the aforementioned factors will show no discernible differences between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, and draws support for this contention from the assessment of Professor G.H. Peiris, one of Sri Lanka’s most respected scholars, who analyses the said factors in a chapter titled “Economic causes for ethnic conflict” in his book, Sri Lanka: Challenges for the new Millennium (2006). The said assessment is as follows:

“To generalize, the overall impression conveyed by these conclusions is that, except when the “Indian Tamils” of the plantation sector (who still suffer from various deprivations compared to other groups) are taken into account, up to about the third decade after independence, socio-economic stratifications—variations in wealth, income, power and privilege, or dichotomies such as those of “haves versus have-nots” or “exploiter versus exploited”—did not exhibit significant correspondences to the main ethnic differences in the country. And, there was certainly no economically “dominant” ethnic group.” (p. 436.)

Secondly, if the charge of “Genocide” is with respect to the period of the war, census data exists which indicate that between 1981 and 2001 (the period of the war) there was a substantial increase in the Tamil population in the Sinhalese-majority areas due to the migration of Tamils from the North-East to that area. Such a movement of Tamils could not have occurred if the Tamils were being subject to genocide.

Also, one can consider the fact that throughout the 30-year civil war, the salaries of government workers in the North and East, large parts of which were under the de facto control of the LTTE, were paid by the Government. Medicine, food, and other essentials were also sent to those areas throughout the conflict. All this does not bespeak an attempt at genocide, rather, the exact opposite.

Finally, if the charge of “Genocide” is with respect to the last phases of the war, i.e. January 2009 – May 2009, the undisputed fact that the security forces were able to rescue approximately 350,000 Tamils who were held hostage by the LTTE indicates the absence of “Genocide.” The Petitioner therefore draws the natural inference suggested by all of the facts set out above, namely, that the Tamils have not been subjected to genocide in this country.

Settlements

With respect to the accusation about settlements, the following facts are relevant. Firstly, if by “Tamil Nation” what the signatories mean is a territorial unit, what are the boundaries of this unit, and by what law is it recognized? If answers cannot be provided to these questions, then no “Tamil Nation” exists. If the existence of such a territorial unit cannot be established, the assertion that the intent behind the settlements is to destroy the “Tamil Nation” cannot be sustained, since that which does not exist cannot be destroyed.

Secondly, if by “Tamil Nation” the 3rd – 35th Respondents mean the areas of the island where Tamils comprise the majority ethnic group relative to the Sinhalese and the Muslims—i.e. the Northern and the Eastern Provinces—it is true that a certain number of Sinhalese settlements were established in the course of various development projects. Nevertheless, statistics exist in the public domain that show Tamil settlements were established along with the Sinhalese settlements, and that, taken as a whole, the distribution of the settlements, when considered in terms of area, as well as development project, was done in an equitable and fair fashion. (See for example, Professor K.M De Silva Separatist Ideology in Sri Lanka: A Historical Appraisal, 2nd ed. International Center for Ethnic Studies, 1995).

Thirdly, if the 3rd – 35th Respondents are claiming that settlements are being systematically established at present, it is incumbent on the 3rd – 35th Respondents to name what those settlements are, and to address the following matter: the Sri Lanka Constitution guarantees to every citizen, “Freedom of movement and of choosing one’s residence within Sri Lanka” (Art. 14(h)) which means that anyone who claims that Sinhalese settlements are illegal or wrong must show that those settlements are being established in excess of, or in ways that contravene, the aforesaid right.

The Petitioner repeats that, facts related to the points enumerated above are in the public domain. Therefore, the claim by the 3rd – 35th Respondents, that the Sinhalese are committing genocide against Tamils, and also imposing settlements to destroy the “Tamil Nation” are deliberate falsehoods, unless they can present some evidence to justify and explain their claims.

The Petitioner is of the view that, deliberate falsehoods such as the ones mentioned above can have only one result: the promotion of feelings of ill-will and hostility between different groups in this country, in this case the Sinhalese and the Tamils, and that if the signatories cannot produce evidence to justify and explain their claims, those claims show an ex facie intention to promote the said feelings of ill-will and hostility between Sinhalese and Tamil people.”

Conclusion

The stated purpose of Bill 104 is to ‘educate’ Ontarians about Tamil genocide. However, there is a grave danger that this will result in ‘mis-education’ of Ontarians along with Canadians in general, about the issue in question leading to a possible break-down in good relations between Canadians and Sri Lankans which should be a matter of concern for the Canadian Federal Government. Therefore, a substantive public discussion about whether or not Tamil genocide has occurred is urgently needed and this must necessarily involve giving Canadians a chance to ‘hear the other side’ of the story. Polwatta Gallage Niroshan’s case offers a good starting point from which to offer Canadians and other foreigners a glimpse into that ‘other side’.

(The writer is an Attorney-at-Law and consultant for the Strategic Communications Unit at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute.)



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Features

A Good Guide to the Omicron Variant

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By M.C.M. Iqbal, PhD

Despite the WHO adopting a neutral system to name the variants of the coronavirus that keep emerging (using letters of the Greek alphabet), the Omicron variant is associated with South Africa. The last variant of the virus to emerge was the Delta variant, which surfaced in December 2020, in India. There are two more letters between Delta and Omicron in the Greek alphabet that the WHO decided not to use. These are ‘Nu’ and ‘Xie’, which the WHO thought could be confused with ‘new’ while Xie is a common surname in China.

The Omicron variant is spreading in many countries. With the number of infected persons rising and another wave expected, many countries in Europe have imposed the usual methods to arrest the spread, with immediate lockdowns. However, scientists are still collecting data to find out how bad Omicron is, since the data seems to indicate that in South Africa, the disease is not as bad as the Delta variant. At the same time, in Europe, there is no significant change in the number of persons hospitalized. Of immediate concern to health authorities are, is the Omicron variant spreading faster than the earlier variants, does it cause more or less severe disease, and can it bypass the vaccines available?

Discovery

Scientists in South Africa announced on 25 November the discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus. On 26 November, the WHO named it Omicron. Although South Africa has been labeled as the country of origin, the virus was identified in neighbouring Botswana. In addition, there are reports of an earlier detection of this variant in the Netherlands.

PCR tests look for four markers on the virus genome to identify it as the coronavirus. The tests in Botswana showed a reduced sensitivity because one of the four targets was not being detected. These samples were sent to South Africa, where scientists have state-of-the-art facilities to look for changes in the genome of the virus. Changes are found by reading the ‘letters’ of the virus genome (called sequencing) and comparing it to the already available genome of the virus. The new Omicron variant had many more changes than the Delta variant.

Global status

By 14th January, the Omicron variant had spread to 116 countries in all six continents since its discovery on 26 November 2021. The figure below shows the gradual replacement of the presently dominant Delta variant by the Omicron variant; at present global data on the coronavirus, maintained by Nextstrain (https:// nextstrain.org/ncov/open/global) shows a decline of the Delta variant from 88% on 30th October 2021 to 42% on 8th January 2022, while correspondingly the Omicron variant has increased from less than 1% to 56%. Nextstrain is a global database presenting a real-time view of the evolution of the genomes of the coronavirus and other globally important pathogens. The interactive platform provides information to professionals and the public to understand the spread and evolution of pathogens, including information on individual countries.

Distribution of Delta and Omicron variants on 1st January 2022 from Nextstrain. (Please see graph)

What’s unique about Omicron?

Unlike the previous variants of the coronavirus, this variant has over 30 changes (mutations) to its spike (a protein), the characteristic flower-like protrusion on its surface. It was these changes to the spike, one of the four targets of the PCR test that raised alarm bells in Botswana. This spike makes the coronavirus special – it is the key it uses to gain entry into the cells in our throat and lungs. The previous variants, Alpha and Delta also had changes in their spike protein, enabling them to enter cells more efficiently and thus making them more infectious. The vaccines against the virus are based on this spike, and the antibodies produced by our immune system are specific to the spike protein. Thus, any significant changes to the spike means the previous vaccines may not be effective against the newly changed spikes on the Omicron variant.

While the Omicron variant can spread rapidly, it appears to cause milder disease compared to the Alpha and Delta variants. Scientists believe this is because Omicron infects the upper airways or the throat, and not the lungs further down. Based on experiments done on hamsters and mice, scientists found the concentration of the virus was much lower in the lungs than in their throat. The earlier variants of the coronavirus caused severe damage to the lungs of the infected people, with extreme cases needing oxygen. This does not seem to be the case with Omicron. Scientists believe the changes to the spike enables the virus to enter cells in the throat more easily than in the lungs.

It can spread rapidly

The virus is quickly expelled into the air if it infects and multiplies in the throat. Since it causes a milder form of the disease, infected persons may be unaware that they carry the virus. They would be moving about socially and at work, spreading the virus. Thus, the obvious means of slowing or preventing the spread of the virus is to strictly wear the mask at all times, and avoid social gatherings.

Studies have suggested that the period between exposure to the virus and onset of symptoms has also reduced to three days for Omicron. At the pandemic’s beginning, this was more than five days, and for the Delta variant it was four days.

What is of immediate concern?

Of concern to scientists is the better ability of the Omicron to spread rapidly in the population and its suspected ability to bypass our immune system. Our immune system is our internal defense system, using antibodies and an arsenal of chemicals and cells. The available vaccines are designed on the coronavirus variants circulating in the population. Thus, major changes to the coronavirus can reduce the efficiency of the available vaccines. Both these concerns have been observed in the past month: Omicron can spread more rapidly than the presently dominant Delta variant, and observations on vaccinated people show a reduced ability by the vaccines to prevent infections, compared to the Delta variant. This has called for booster doses for people who have already received the two mandatory doses. In Israel, even a fourth vaccination is being administered.

How could the variant have evolved?

Variants of the coronavirus result from changes to the virus’s genome, called mutations. What is troubling about the Omicron variant is that it has many mutations in its spike. Mutations happen spontaneously as the virus multiplies in our bodies and spreads to others. Thus, the virus gradually accumulates small changes to its advantage. These advantages are infecting us more efficiently, spreading to others more easily, and multiplying more rapidly. Scientists believe that one possibility is that the virus circulated in a small isolated group of people (say a village), piling up the mutations over time, and then escaping into a broader population, and then eventually crossing borders.

Another possibility is that it developed in a single individual and spread to others. This happens when a person has low immunity, resulting in a prolonged infection because the immune system cannot eliminate the virus. This leads to the virus developing changes (mutating) to overcome the mild immune response. Answering this question needs scientists to painstakingly reconstruct the history of the virus, using tools from molecular biology. Unfortunately, locating patient zero is difficult since it is impossible to analyze the virus (or sequence its genome) of all the persons infected with the Omicron variant. What is usually possible is to determine a general area or community and the time of origin.

What can we do about it?

Vaccinate! This is the primary tool we have to prevent the spread of the virus and not give it opportunities to multiply. In addition, we should rigorously follow the simple rules we are familiar with – wear the mask when outside, physically distance ourselves, and follow hygienic practices by washing our hands with soap, and avoiding touching our nose and face with possibly contaminated hands.

The good news

The coronavirus has been with us for over two years. Many were infected and have recovered from the virus during this period, providing natural immunity. Others have acquired immunity through vaccinations. When a new variant infects these people, they will manifest a milder form of the disease. This may explain the reduced hospitalisation of Omicron patients.

A booster dose to those already vaccinated or were naturally infected by the coronavirus, appears to provide reasonable protection against the Omicron variant.

And the bad news

The Omicron variant can evade immunity from previous infections. A recent analysis of surveillance data from South Africa, involving over two million persons, indicated suspected reinfections of those previously infected. This is in contrast to Beta and Delta variants, which did not lead to reinfections on such a scale.

The Future

The coronavirus is here for the long haul. Variants will keep emerging, and it seems unlikely it can be eradicated. The media should help counter vaccine hesitancy and the spread of misinformation. As individuals, we need to understand the biology of the virus to avoid spreading the virus and infecting ourselves and others. Science has to be supported in a broad sense to develop strategies by the health authorities and policymakers.

Further reading

S. Wild. How the Omicron variant got so many scary mutations. Scientific American, 3rd December 2021.

Michael Chan Chi-wai.

G. Vogel and K. Kupferschmidt. Early lab studies hint Omicron may be milder. But most scientists reserve judgment. Science, 20th December 2021.

K. Kupferschmidt and G. Vogel. Omicron threats remain fuzzy as cases explode. Science, 7 January 2022.

(The writer is a scientist in Plant and Environmental Sciences, National Institute of Fundamental Studies, Hanthane Road, Kandy. He can be reached at iqbal.mo@nifs.ac.lk)

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Rebirth in Buddhism

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By Dr. Justice Chandradasa Nanayakkara

The question of what happens after death naturally arises in the mind of thoughtful people, as we do not know what lies beyond death, because no one has ever returned to the living to recount his experiences life after death. Almost every religion across the world has a defined belief on what happens when a person dies, yet the question is still widely debated and discussed without any finality being reached on the issue. Most of the religious teachers from the earliest times, have been unanimous in affirming that life continues beyond the grave, but they differ widely on the question of what form and in what manner the survival takes place. Nevertheless, mankind continues to believe in some form of survival after death.

Regarding the question of survival after death, thinkers have generally followed one of two philosophical concepts. That is to say annihilationism and eternalism (in Buddhist, ucchedavada and sassatavada). First view is held by nihilists who claim that there is no life after death. They hold the view with the disintegration of the physical body the personality ceases to exist. This view accords with materialistic philosophy, which refuses to accept knowledge of mental conditionality. Those who hold the second view think that there is an abiding entity which exists forever and individual personality persists after death in a recognizable form as an entity called soul, spirit or self. This belief in some form or another is the basis of all theistic religions.

If you stick to the first view and deny that there is no continuity of life after death there would not be no moral law and vipaka (actions and results) operating in the universe enunciated by Lord Buddha and there would be no object in practicing self-restraint or endeavoring to free ourselves of the craving thanha which brings suffering in its wake. The cardinal teachings of the Buddha such as path to nibbana, Four Noble Truths and the eightfold path would be rendered nugatory and meaningless if death is followed by complete extinction. Similarly, those who believe eternalism which presupposes that individual personality persists after death in the form of soul or self as an enduring personality by means of transmigration is also rejected by Buddhism. This view runs counter to the very essence of Buddhism which denies existence of soul. This is the teaching of anatta doctrine, which distinguishes buddhism from other religions and marks it out from all other religious concepts.

In view of the virtual impossibility of establishing the truth of survival after death through empirical methods, question arises what is the attitude of science to this important and abstruse question which has baffled the minds of many people. Although, it is not possible to posit ‘rebirth’ as a scientific fact many men of science are of the opinion that mental, moral and physical inequalities can be accounted for on no other hypothesis than ‘rebirth’ hypothesis.

The idea of a cycle of birth and ‘rebirth’ is part of the teachings of the Lord Buddha. For many Buddhists death is not seen as an end, but rather as a continuation. Buddhists believe a person goes from life to life and see it another part of their long journey through samsara.

Buddhists do not regard ‘rebirth’ as a mere theory but as fact verifiable by evidence and it forms a fundamental tenet in Buddhism along with the concept of karma. Therefore, two principles-kamma and ‘rebirth’ are fundamental to understanding the teachings of Buddha. Kamma and ‘rebirth’ go in arm in arm. According to Buddhism there is no life after death or life before birth independent of kamma. Kamma is an immutable law of cause and effect, and we cannot avoid its consequences. Where there is kamma there must be ‘rebirth’. Most experiences in our present life are the results of our previous actions. Our actions of body, speech and mind (volitional activities) rebound back to us either in the present life or in some future life. It is the karma that conditions ‘rebirth’, past kamma conditions the present birth, the present kamma in combination with past kamma conditions the future. The present is the offspring of the past, and becomes in turn the parent of the future. For Buddhist death is not complete annihilation of a being though that particular life span ended, the force which hitherto actuated it is not destroyed. After death the life flux of man continues ad infinitum as long as there is ignorance and craving. Man will be able to put an end his repeated series of births by realizing nibbana, the complete annihilation of all forms of craving (Narada Thera).

The Buddhist doctrine of ‘rebirth’ should be differentiated from the theory of reincarnation, which implies transmigration of a soul and its invariable ‘rebirth’, as it is enunciated in Hinduism.

In his book What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula Thera posed the question “if we can understand that in this life we can continue without a permanent, unchanging substance like self or soul, why can’t we understand that those forces themselves can continue without a self or soul behind them after the non-functioning of the body? ‘When this physical body is no more capable of functioning, energies do not die with it, but continue to take some other shape or form, which we call another life… physical and mental energies which constitute the so called being have within themselves the power to take a new form, and grow gradually and gather force to the full: King Milinda questioning venerable Nagasena asked: “Venerable Nagasena, does ‘rebirth’ take place without anything transmigrating? Yes, O king, ‘rebirth’ takes place without anything transmigrating? “Give me illustration, venerable Sir. Suppose, O king, a man were to light a light from light pray, would the one light have passed over to the other light?” “Nay, indeed, Venerable Sir. “In exactly the same way, O king, does ‘rebirth’ take place without anything transmigrating.

In this connection, it should be mentioned the word ‘rebirth’ is not a satisfactory one, as it implies that there is something that after death takes on flesh again. It connotes transmigration of soul or other entity consequent to a death of a person. The Pali Word used in buddhism is arising or Phunabba.

As there is no soul or self in Buddhism, question arises if there is no soul or self what is there to be reborn. This has been most vexed question among many religious scholars. This has been a topic of debate for centuries. According to buddhism there is no enduring, substantial or independently existing entity that transmigrates from life to life instead there is simply an apparent continuity of momentary consciousness from one life time to the next that is imbued with impressions or traces (samskaras)of the actions one has committed in the past. For Buddhists everything is changing and nothing is permanent. So, when a person dies not he but his energies that shape him take a new form. New life is connected to previous life through kamma. There is rapid succession of thoughts throughout the life continuum.

The Buddha is our greatest authority on ‘rebirth. Therefore, for Buddhist no other evidence is necessary is prove ‘rebirth’.

On the very night of His enlightenment during the first watch, enlightenment, Buddhas mind travelled back through all of his unaccountable past lives. This was facilitated by the development of retro cognitive knowledge. Though his mind stretched back to countless eons he never saw a beginning to his past existence. He found no beginning and no end. He also saw all the beings in the universe being born, living dying and being reborn over and over again without end, all trapped in a web spun by their past actions. This process is the round of ‘rebirth’ known as samsara, which means wandering from life to life with no particular direction or purpose.

The Buddha before his enlightenment as bodhisattva was born in different forms of existence. As such Buddhist have a firm belief in many realms of existence, both above and below the human realm. Therefore, we can safely assume we all have lived through countless different lifetimes before being born in the world and our birth here as a human being is the result of predominantly good kamma we have committed in the past life. Those good kamma may have been done in many life times before, or more likely done in the previous life. Therefore, the quality of future births depends on the moral quality of our actions now.

In Dhammachackka Sutta too in his first discourse referring to second noble truth, Buddha declared this very craving is that leads to ‘rebirth’.

In ancient Greece philosophers like Empedocles and Pythagoras too taught the doctrine of ‘rebirth’ and Plato made it an important assumption in his philosophy, as pointed out by Ven Piyadassi Thera.

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A Good Guide to the Omicron Variant

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By M.C.M. Iqbal, PhD

Despite the WHO adopting a neutral system to name the variants of the coronavirus that keep emerging (using letters of the Greek alphabet), the Omicron variant is associated with South Africa. The last variant of the virus to emerge was the Delta variant, which surfaced in December 2020, in India. There are two more letters between Delta and Omicron in the Greek alphabet that the WHO decided not to use. These are ‘Nu’ and ‘Xie’, which the WHO thought could be confused with ‘new’ while Xie is a common surname in China.

The Omicron variant is spreading in many countries. With the number of infected persons rising and another wave expected, many countries in Europe have imposed the usual methods to arrest the spread, with immediate lockdowns. However, scientists are still collecting data to find out how bad Omicron is, since the data seems to indicate that in South Africa, the disease is not as bad as the Delta variant. At the same time, in Europe, there is no significant change in the number of persons hospitalized. Of immediate concern to health authorities are, is the Omicron variant spreading faster than the earlier variants, does it cause more or less severe disease, and can it bypass the vaccines available?

Discovery

Scientists in South Africa announced on 25 November the discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus. On 26 November, the WHO named it Omicron. Although South Africa has been labeled as the country of origin, the virus was identified in neighbouring Botswana. In addition, there are reports of an earlier detection of this variant in the Netherlands.

PCR tests look for four markers on the virus genome to identify it as the coronavirus. The tests in Botswana showed a reduced sensitivity because one of the four targets was not being detected. These samples were sent to South Africa, where scientists have state-of-the-art facilities to look for changes in the genome of the virus. Changes are found by reading the ‘letters’ of the virus genome (called sequencing) and comparing it to the already available genome of the virus. The new Omicron variant had many more changes than the Delta variant.

Global status

By 14th January, the Omicron variant had spread to 116 countries in all six continents since its discovery on 26 November 2021. The figure below shows the gradual replacement of the presently dominant Delta variant by the Omicron variant; at present global data on the coronavirus, maintained by Nextstrain (https:// nextstrain.org/ncov/open/global) shows a decline of the Delta variant from 88% on 30th October 2021 to 42% on 8th January 2022, while correspondingly the Omicron variant has increased from less than 1% to 56%. Nextstrain is a global database presenting a real-time view of the evolution of the genomes of the coronavirus and other globally important pathogens. The interactive platform provides information to professionals and the public to understand the spread and evolution of pathogens, including information on individual countries.

Distribution of Delta and Omicron variants on 1st January 2022 from Nextstrain. (Please see graph)

What’s unique about Omicron?

Unlike the previous variants of the coronavirus, this variant has over 30 changes (mutations) to its spike (a protein), the characteristic flower-like protrusion on its surface. It was these changes to the spike, one of the four targets of the PCR test that raised alarm bells in Botswana. This spike makes the coronavirus special – it is the key it uses to gain entry into the cells in our throat and lungs. The previous variants, Alpha and Delta also had changes in their spike protein, enabling them to enter cells more efficiently and thus making them more infectious. The vaccines against the virus are based on this spike, and the antibodies produced by our immune system are specific to the spike protein. Thus, any significant changes to the spike means the previous vaccines may not be effective against the newly changed spikes on the Omicron variant.

While the Omicron variant can spread rapidly, it appears to cause milder disease compared to the Alpha and Delta variants. Scientists believe this is because Omicron infects the upper airways or the throat, and not the lungs further down. Based on experiments done on hamsters and mice, scientists found the concentration of the virus was much lower in the lungs than in their throat. The earlier variants of the coronavirus caused severe damage to the lungs of the infected people, with extreme cases needing oxygen. This does not seem to be the case with Omicron. Scientists believe the changes to the spike enables the virus to enter cells in the throat more easily than in the lungs.

It can spread rapidly

The virus is quickly expelled into the air if it infects and multiplies in the throat. Since it causes a milder form of the disease, infected persons may be unaware that they carry the virus. They would be moving about socially and at work, spreading the virus. Thus, the obvious means of slowing or preventing the spread of the virus is to strictly wear the mask at all times, and avoid social gatherings.

Studies have suggested that the period between exposure to the virus and onset of symptoms has also reduced to three days for Omicron. At the pandemic’s beginning, this was more than five days, and for the Delta variant it was four days.

What is of immediate concern?

Of concern to scientists is the better ability of the Omicron to spread rapidly in the population and its suspected ability to bypass our immune system. Our immune system is our internal defense system, using antibodies and an arsenal of chemicals and cells. The available vaccines are designed on the coronavirus variants circulating in the population. Thus, major changes to the coronavirus can reduce the efficiency of the available vaccines. Both these concerns have been observed in the past month: Omicron can spread more rapidly than the presently dominant Delta variant, and observations on vaccinated people show a reduced ability by the vaccines to prevent infections, compared to the Delta variant. This has called for booster doses for people who have already received the two mandatory doses. In Israel, even a fourth vaccination is being administered.

How could the variant have evolved?

Variants of the coronavirus result from changes to the virus’s genome, called mutations. What is troubling about the Omicron variant is that it has many mutations in its spike. Mutations happen spontaneously as the virus multiplies in our bodies and spreads to others. Thus, the virus gradually accumulates small changes to its advantage. These advantages are infecting us more efficiently, spreading to others more easily, and multiplying more rapidly. Scientists believe that one possibility is that the virus circulated in a small isolated group of people (say a village), piling up the mutations over time, and then escaping into a broader population, and then eventually crossing borders.

Another possibility is that it developed in a single individual and spread to others. This happens when a person has low immunity, resulting in a prolonged infection because the immune system cannot eliminate the virus. This leads to the virus developing changes (mutating) to overcome the mild immune response. Answering this question needs scientists to painstakingly reconstruct the history of the virus, using tools from molecular biology. Unfortunately, locating patient zero is difficult since it is impossible to analyze the virus (or sequence its genome) of all the persons infected with the Omicron variant. What is usually possible is to determine a general area or community and the time of origin.

What can we do about it?

Vaccinate! This is the primary tool we have to prevent the spread of the virus and not give it opportunities to multiply. In addition, we should rigorously follow the simple rules we are familiar with – wear the mask when outside, physically distance ourselves, and follow hygienic practices by washing our hands with soap, and avoiding touching our nose and face with possibly contaminated hands.

The good news

The coronavirus has been with us for over two years. Many were infected and have recovered from the virus during this period, providing natural immunity. Others have acquired immunity through vaccinations. When a new variant infects these people, they will manifest a milder form of the disease. This may explain the reduced hospitalisation of Omicron patients.

A booster dose to those already vaccinated or were naturally infected by the coronavirus, appears to provide reasonable protection against the Omicron variant.

And the bad news

The Omicron variant can evade immunity from previous infections. A recent analysis of surveillance data from South Africa, involving over two million persons, indicated suspected reinfections of those previously infected. This is in contrast to Beta and Delta variants, which did not lead to reinfections on such a scale.

The Future

The coronavirus is here for the long haul. Variants will keep emerging, and it seems unlikely it can be eradicated. The media should help counter vaccine hesitancy and the spread of misinformation. As individuals, we need to understand the biology of the virus to avoid spreading the virus and infecting ourselves and others. Science has to be supported in a broad sense to develop strategies by the health authorities and policymakers.

Further reading

S. Wild. How the Omicron variant got so many scary mutations. Scientific American, 3rd December 2021.

Michael Chan Chi-wai.

G. Vogel and K. Kupferschmidt. Early lab studies hint Omicron may be milder. But most scientists reserve judgment. Science, 20th December 2021.

K. Kupferschmidt and G. Vogel. Omicron threats remain fuzzy as cases explode. Science, 7 January 2022.

(The writer is a scientist in Plant and Environmental Sciences, National Institute of Fundamental Studies, Hanthane Road, Kandy. He can be reached at iqbal.mo@nifs.ac.lk)

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