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REFLECTIONS ON THE COVID PANDEMIC

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BY SARATH AMUNUGAMA

Despite the carping criticism ,particularly from the social media, SriLanka is one of the few countries which has survived the Corona epidemic relatively unscathed. According to the latest figures available while writing this article 85,695 persons have tested positive for the virus and over 80,000 have now finished their quarantine period. A total of 502 deaths have been recorded. While the numbers given daily of those infected is relatively unimportant, since it is only a reflection of the numbers tested which is a comparatively small sample of the total population or ‘’universe’’- to use statistical phraseology.

The more people are tested the more likely that the numbers would increase till the effects of isolation and vaccinations kick in. The number of deaths is relatively small when compared to the death toll in developed countries. Research has shown that Asians living in tropical zones are less likely to succumb to the virus. On the other hand with the onset of winter there was a steady increase of reported cases in countries with a cold climate.

The initial ‘’roll out‘’ of the vaccine has been quite successful with nearly 730,000 people especially in the ‘’At risk’’categories receiving the injection. Unlike in many other countries the numbers resisting getting the vaccine injection seems to be small which is a good sign. In many other countries in our region that is a major problem. If we can rapidly vaccinate a large segment of the population the pace of testing need not be a priority. It would be more reasonable to deploy our limited medical services to administer the vaccine. The rumour that there will be insufficient vaccines to go round seems to be disproved by the regular shipments that are arriving.

 

PUBLIC HEALTH SERVICE

Sri Lanka is fortunate to have a good public medical service as the WHO has noted on several occasions. Since the introduction of the adult universal franchise our political leaders of different persuasions have all agreed on the need for an efficient public health service. The trauma of the Malaria epidemic of the 1930s led to the State Council supporting an extensive rural health programme which is associated with the name of George E de Silva, MSC for Kandy. He was the Minister of Health in the State Council and supported by Dr S A Wickremasinghe then of the LSSP and later of the Communist Party, became the ‘’Father of the Rural Health Scheme’’ which transformed the health standards of the disadvantaged village population.

It also laid the foundations of the demographic surge of the 40s and 50s, the results of which are seen in the overwhelming population configurations and economic planning dilemmas of our present times. Under this initiative Rural Hospitals were built all over the country. Midwives were appointed countrywide and pre-natal and post natal care was undertaken by the state. As a consequence there was a sharp drop in infant and maternal mortality and a rise in the years of life expectancy. A world renowned economist summarized this situation when he said ‘’Sri Lanka is third world country with a first world health service’.

Social scientists are aware of a debate that took place many years ago in the ‘’Demography‘’ journal regarding the reasons for the population surge in Sri Lanka. Some argued that this was due to the discovery of DDT and the elimination of Malaria,particularly in the Dry Zone with the introduction of colonization schemes. Others led by Ananda Meegama replied convincingly that this development was not mono-causal but depended on several innovations and policy packages associated with the Rural Health Schemes which were put in place by the State Council and continued by Parliament after Independence.

This debate drew attention of scholars to the welfare measures undertaken in our country. The Nobel prize winning Economist Amartya Sen wrote that SrI Lanka and Kerala had adopted a style of growth which could provide a model for the Third World. I must say however that whenever I met Dr Amartya Sen at meetings and discussed our situation he would say that his sanguine prognostications about Sri Lanka had been derailed by the failure to address the ethnic issue. His bets on SriLanka were off because we could not solve our ethnic problem.

I have always felt that George E de Silva has had a raw deal in our history writing. If CWW Kannangara has been lauded as the father of Free Education ,De Silva should receive a similar accolade as the Father of Free Health .

As shown above we have a health service we can be proud of. Even from the aspect of inoculations our health services have administered the polio vaccine and the triple vaccine countrywide and have been lauded by the WHO. Today no SriLankan child dies of these infections. The best example of our able medical service is Dr Sudarshini Fernandopulle, State Minister of Health who was my State Minister when I was Minister of Science and Technology. As a specialist physician she boldly and courageously held her ground when other bigwigs of the Ministry were throwing holy water into rivers and swallowing magical potions in front of Television cameras. Never in the history of the Government health sector has there been an exhibition of such stupid behavior by political authorities. Another Minister is reported to have generously provided government funds for a nutmeg crushing machine to make more of the anti-covid brew. A few intelligent journalists blew this snake oil salesman’s credentials sky high when they reported that the gullible swallowers, including famously the lady Minister of Health, had contracted Corona and were hospitalized under intensive care.

In a noteworthy coincidence two of the ‘’peni’’ drinkers were struck by the virus within a few days. Mr Speaker who hosted the swallowing session in Parliament in the glare of publicity was shown a few days later meekly getting the anti -corona jab. But what took the cake was his statement published in the newspapers that he agreed to be vaccinated because he wanted to set an example. As a former MP who was continuously in the House for 26 years I was dismayed to find the Speaker’s office used to promote dubious products merely because an MP wished to accommodate one of his constituents.

Of late Speakers have tended to act as political leaders in waiting who have no hesitation in using their high office for personal benefit. That is another recent development contributing to public disenchantment with Parliament. [As a social scientist I was intrigued by the discovery via Baas Unnehe the snake oil salesman, that Kali – a fond abbreviation for Badrakali, the demoness- was a Tamil language speaker. When this ‘Peniya’’ lost his cool with the throng of supplicants surrounding him at home, he ,on behalf of Kali ,Shouted ‘’Poda Poda Poda ‘’at a woman who also responded in gibberish .A Tamil friend told me that ‘’poda’’ is ungrammatical Tamil when addressing a female.]

While there may have been a few mishaps which have been reported in the media, the vaccination programme has been carried out smoothly thanks to the public officials and the army. Many of my friends, admittedly over 60, were anxious that they would not be able to access the vaccine but in a couple of days were able to get it without much difficulty. Whatever may have been the instructions in most centres there was a queue for over sixties and the grama sevakas could recognize the people from their divisions. All in all the initial ‘’Roll Out’’seems to be successful without the usual absentees that have been reported in other countries.

Presumably it will now be extended to other parts of the country so that we can reach a proportion of coverages so that the ‘’herd tendency’’would make it possible for us to open the economy and the social life of the country. Medical Scientists have said that to reach such immunity about 70 percent of the population have to be vaccinated. I read with interest that Basil Rajapaksa had said that we should aim at such an immunization. As a small country we should find this possible and would help in positioning us as a lead country for investment and tourism. In this Isreal provides us with a good model.

Being a small country with good links to their compatriots in the scientific and business fields in the West, Israel has set a blistering pace in vaccinating its population. Sadly their racial policies have left out the Palestinians from the vaccination programme. This discrimination is so reminiscent of what Hitler did to their forefathers in the thirties and early forties. What we can learn from their vaccination programme however is the clear prioritization of access to the vaccine. They identified the over 60s as their target group based on demographic data and covered this category promptly. According to the Economist, hospitalization of the over 60 cohort dropped substantially after 70% of the number in that cohort was vaccinated by the Isreali government.

One of the grumbles about our vaccination programme, as seen in the letters to Editors, is shifting attention away from the over 60 cohort which is abnormally large in our particular demographic profile. By uncritically following the WHO guideline in this matter we seem to have ignored the ground realities of our demography. This was shown in the unanticipated demand from this category which had to be accommodated by hastily adding a separate queue for the over sixties in the vaccination centres.

Let me now turn to some basic issues which came to the fore due to the Covid pandemic. The first is the need to recognize the role of modern science. All too frequently our media has highlighted anti-scientific ‘’ mumbo Jumbo’’ to direct the conversation away from the need to establish a science based society in our country. Many people supported President Gotabaya Rajapaksa because he was a tech savvy modernizer. Unlike our other leaders he was not seen weighed against gold, half naked in a ‘’Thulbaram’’. [It is an irony that many of these Godmen or Pusaris died recently after contracting Corona.] Indeed unlike our politicians GR knew that wars cannot be won by making Pujas. You need manpower, planning and training, use of proper modern weapons, latest communications technology and research and logistical superiority to overwhelm an opponent who had access to top weapons experts worldwide.

I was a minister when the LTTE with superior weapons such as MBRLs were on the verge of driving our armed forces out of Jaffna peninsula. One of the reforms introduced by the GR-Fonseka team was to immediately get the latest weaponry. Unfortunately the leaders of the UNP, led by Ranil, could not understand any of this and were setting up the media to question the financing of those planes and weapons.

The discovery of the Covid vaccine is nothing short of a modern scientific miracle, says the Economist of February 2021. ’’To call vaccination a miracle is no exaggeration. A little more than a year after the virus was first recognized medics have already administered 148 million doses. Although the vaccines fail to prevent all mild and asymptomatic cases of Covid 19, they mostly seem to spare patients from death and the severest infections that require hospitalization, which is what really matters’’.

Another problem which is facing the country is the inefficient provincial health system. Many of our Chief Ministers were small time politicians who had very little idea of management. I am now revealing a secret that JRJ never wanted to appoint politicians as chief Ministers. His idea was to appoint senior public servants with a proven track record of management to run the newly established provincial councils.I remember that politicians like Dissanayake of Gampola lobbied against this saying that officials had no political savvy. Instead he proposed himself for the post of Chief Minister of Central Province and JRJ was made to change his mind by confidantes like Gamini and Ronnie de Mel.

Any investigation will show that the rural hicks who became Chief Ministers plundered the revenue of the provincial councils for salaries and perks for their colleagues. Money set apart for education and health were squandered to give jobs for the boys in order to get political mileage for their attempt to enter Parliament. This irresponsibility has led to a crisis in provincial education and health. Except perhaps in the North, the public in all other provinces want this subject reverted to the Central Government as the local education and health systems have broken down.

The health services in the provinces can effectively function at present because fortunately the Councils are dissolved. It is up to the Government to make a realistic assessment of the provincial council system which has been an utter failure in the Sinhala provinces. I would suggest the setting up of an international group of experts to evaluate the provincial council system which has been in operation for over 30 years. As I shall show later a streamlined health system will become a necessity in the ‘’Post-Covid World’’. A better framework for health and education, especially in rural areas must be evolved. An inquiry must be launched as to how the funds allocated to PCs have been misappropriated and wasted in political ‘’gift giving’’.

Scientists and economists are now talking of the ‘’New Coronormal’’. The epidemic has created a new normal with which we have to live. Says the Economist ‘’To the extent that medicine alone cannot prevent lethal outbreaks of Covid 19, the burden will also fall on behavior, just as it has in most of the pandemic. Habits like mask wearing may become part of everyday life. Vaccine passports and restrictions in crowded spaces could become mandatory. Vulnerable people will have to maintain great vigilance. Those who refuse vaccination can expect health education but limited protection. But even if Covid- 19 has not been completely put to rest, the situation is immeasurably better than what might have been. The credit for that goes to medical science.’’

Finally we cannot avoid the mega question of our attitude as a country and administration to the process of modernity. Though cranks and eccentric academics may muddy the waters we cannot avoid the thrust of modernization. All countries in this interrelated world follow a path to modernity which is time tested and, above all, practical. The covid virus has clearly shown the pathetic inability of non–science to address practical issues. While individuals may be delusional and call on gods like Natha to answer their prayers, real life is different and cannot succeed by rhetoric and speech-making. We need to get our priorities right and seek rational solutions. It is clear that countries that have successfully negotiated the modernization process can give a better life for the people Covid is a wake up call. I invite all concerned politicians, administrators, business people and academics to begin a discussion on the rational path to modernization which alone can lift us out of the morass in which we find ourselves now.



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Features

Strong on vocals

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The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.

 

 

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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year

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Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.

 

 

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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations

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Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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