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Respect the virus!

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BY Dr. Nimesh Rajapaksa

Let us start respecting the virus at least now. Boastful statements and media circuses will not help get rid of it. No country has been spared. Bigger and more powerful countries than us have been brought to their knees by it. The countries and States that were held as lighthouses of COVID control had to eat humble-pie within months.

Swift and decisive action taken by the President, the Armed Forces, the Public Health and Hospital staff from March to June protected us. We should ensure that the economic hit that we have taken so far should not be in vain. What can we learn from the current outbreak and what should we do?

Did it leak from the airport? Faulty quarantine? Introduced purposefully? Or is there a less dramatic, but a more concerning explanation?

Looking at what happened elsewhere in the world can give us insights. In the initial stage, around March and April this year, there was an explosion of cases and deaths in many countries in Europe and in the US. Evidence is now accumulating that this virus started circulating in these countries three or more months before this happened. Even in initially successful countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Vietnam (including Sri Lanka), mostly unexplained eruptions of cases occurred after 2-3 months of no indigenous cases being reported.

A conclusion that can be drawn from this is that the virus can circulate in the population causing no symptoms or causing minimal symptoms that people ignore for some time. This is borne out even in Sri Lanka where the vast majority of those diagnosed as harbouring the virus having no symptoms or minimal symptoms. Going by news reports, even though over 1,000 workers were infected in the factory at the epicentre of the current outbreak, only a proportion of them displayed symptoms, and only a handful needed hospital admission before it was diagnosed as COVID 19.

When a sufficiently large number say 100,000 in a population is infected, everyone begins to see that it is here. When it reaches such a figure, even if only 1% need intensive care, there will be around a thousand in ICUs. If the mortality even as low as 0.1% (one in one thousand), one hundred people would have died.

These figures are just for illustrative purposes and there are many technical aspects to consider and formulae to be used in such estimations. Mind you, official figures will not show the hundred thousand, because all of them would not have been tested.

For the virus to appear out of nowhere, the virus needs to be circulating in groups that will not show much symptoms, mainly in the younger and fitter people. When it reaches vulnerable groups, such as very old people or those with other conditions, we see hospitalizations.

This is assuming that it is suspected and diagnosed in hospitals. We may have been very lax during the previous three months even on this. In some hospitals even sending a routine PCR sample for surveillance purposes created a major stir, which discouraged the process.

A place where people work in relatively close quarters, regularly, for very long hours and then live in very close quarters in hostels, is an environment where respiratory viruses thrive. Overworked, tired and stressed employees who presumably possess less immunity would also make the virus very happy.

Since we have not been shown of a convincing explanation on how this started, we should not be blind to other other possibilities. If it cannot be proved that the virus was not imported directly to the factory which is at the epicentre of the current outbreak, we have to consider if it was circulating in a small scale outside and suddenly found the ideal nesting ground. It is a very concerning possibility that we should look at carefully.

However, we should also bear in mind that these conditions are ideal even for an accidental leak to this factory from faulty quarantine or any other way. This write-up is not intended to shift the culpability of what happened from anyone. It intends to look at other possibilities that we should guard against.

If this outbreak originated at this premises, we are on much better grounds to control it than in the case of it coming inside from an active asymptomatic chain in the community.

Although there were no reported cases of non-imported COVID in Sri Lanka for a relatively long period of time, there is the theoretical possibility that there could have been low-grade, asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic, and undetected chains of infection during this time.

The real-world sensitivity of the RT-PCR test for detecting the virus is 70-80%. It is much higher in controlled conditions. This means that it can identify 70-80 persons out of 100 persons that are actually having the virus in routine testing.

So, for every one hundred tested we will miss around 20. This is a crude generalization for explanatory purposes. The real technical aspect of this is more complex and nuanced and there are approaches to minimize this. Though a person is even tested three times, there is a statistical possibility of missing positive cases. Compounding this is the behaviour of the virus – the vast majority of those infected and capable of spreading it does not even know that they are infected.

By mid July, the country started working as before, public events were in full swing, and the usual unacceptable overcrowding of public transport and public offices became the norm again. Mask-wearers were rare as wings upon cats. Shows and religious gatherings were the norm rather than the exception.

Amidst this, the Kandakdu outbreak occurred in early July. By the second week of July, the election campaigns were in full swing. This was in the backdrop of infections linked to the Kanakadu cluster being identified in many parts of the country.

If there were a few low-grade chains of infections around, however small and remote, the election campaigns (of all the political parties) would have been ideal foil for amplifying the spread. The campaigning in earnest began around the 20th of July or just before. Large public gatherings with minimal precautions were seen throughout the country. This sense of normality was broadcast unfettered in the media adding to the complacency.

The Ministry of Health has gone on record that the symptoms began to appear in the affected factory around the 20th of September. The virus would have been in circulation in the factory since early September at least, for symptoms to appear by then. Early September is around 6 weeks (three incubation periods) from mid July. Theoretically, if the amplification of the spread occurred during the campaign period, this time line fits for an eruption to occur.

Let us hope that this is not what really happened. If it is true, there can be many other yet-unseen, low-grade chains of the virus spreading without being detected. One more reason to wish that this is not the case is that permission was given quite recklessly to conduct the Book Fair.

This attracted tens of thousands of people daily to gather in a relatively small area and the 18th to 27th of September. All this time, the Minuwangoda cluster was raging undetected and infecting thousands.

Many young people from all parts of the county mingled there daily and went back to their homes and hostels. There could have been many with the virus there, not knowing they had it. One can argue that the elections gatherings were local affairs, and if any chains were active these would be limited to their localities. This does not hold true for the Book Fair.

If another amplification happened there, we will only see the results in mid to late November or early December. Hopefully if any chains were started or amplified during this period they will be detected through intensified surveillance that will follow because of current outbreak. Such chains will appear as unrelated, unexplained clusters, which we may be seeing even now.

So what can be done now apart from the standard advise given to the public?

First, we should start respecting the virus and bring down our ego several notches. Respect does not mean fear, spinelessness or subjugation. We have accepted that we were lax, which is an excellent start.

We should also immediately start assuming that community spread has begun. This is the only way to prevent community spread if it is not taking place, or controlling it if it is occurring.

Most importantly, we should demystify and de-stigmatize the illness. Those infected with the virus are not to blame. Those who had infected others at workplaces and weddings have done so unknowingly. They are victims. Victims of those responsible for controlling the virus, who took their eyes off the ball. Victims of lobby groups that kept pushing for loosening restrictions to keep profiteering as before.

Public support will continue to dwindle if high-handed, uncaring and insensitive action continue to take place “against” such victims who are infected, and those who were exposed.

If the economy is to be protected, we should not allow events or activities that can amplify the spread without giving much economic benefits. Some examples are sports, concerts, events such as weddings, parties and funerals, religious gatherings, university and other higher education activities, tuition classes, continued operations of saloons, spas etc. Each day that we procrastinate, is a day of joy to the virus

We should also seriously consider shutting down the entire epicentre area. There are thousands of more factories and millions of jobs outside this zone. We should not jeopardize all these by obstinately continuing as before within this zone, for a few to profit at the expense of many. Short term pain is much more preferable to long-term agony.

We can minimize crowding in public transport as we did earlier. All institutions should have a business continuity plan – making sure all employees are not exposed at once to any person or group with the virus. Public and private institutions should not have to involuntarily cut down their activities due to unforeseen exposure of staff. It will be much graver than a controlled slowing down according to a plan, operating with minimum staff and dividing staff into groups. This is nothing new. We did all of this only a few months ago.

There is more action that can be taken, although it may not be politically palatable or acceptable to businesses. The businesses that have made huge profits in the past, but refuse to pay their employees and pretend that they will collapse if closed for two weeks.

We should also realize the less effective action. For example, most of the infected do not show symptoms. Therefore, checking temperatures (even correctly) has only a small protective value although it has a large symbolic value.

Through all this, we have been shown very clearly that people should be treated as people. Not “human resources”. Resources are there for exploitation for profit. This is exactly what seems to have happened at the epicentre. It may still be happening. If the workers were treated as humans, this outbreak would have been detected much earlier. Things would have been back to normal by now.



Features

Port City Bill Requires Referendum

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by Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne,PC

The Colombo Port Economic Commission Bill was presented in Parliament on 08 April 2021, while the country was getting ready to celebrate the traditional New Year. With the intervening weekend and public holidays, citizens had just two working days to retain lawyers, many of whom were on vacation, and file applications challenging the constitutionality of the Bill in the Supreme Court within the one-week period stipulated in the Constitution. One wonders whether the timing was deliberate.

Special economic zones are common. They are created mainly to attract foreign investments. In return, investors are offered various concessions so that their products are competitive in the global market. Several negative effects of such zones have also been highlighted. The sole purpose of this article, however, is a discussion on the constitutionality of the Bill.

The Bill seeks to establish a high-powered Commission entrusted with the administration, regulation and control of all matters connected with businesses and other operations in and from the Colombo Port City. It may lease land situated in the Colombo Port City area and even transfer freehold ownership of condominium parcels. It operates as a Single Window Investment Facilitator for proposed investments into the Port City. It would exercise the powers and functions of any applicable regulatory authority under any written law and obtain the concurrence of the relevant regulatory authority, which shall, as a matter of priority, provide such concurrence to the Commission. The discretion and powers of such other authorities under the various laws shall thus stand removed.

The Commission consists of five members who need not be Sri Lankan citizens, quite unlike the Urban Development Authority, the Board of Management of which must comprise Sri Lankan citizens only. One issue that arises is that the vesting of such powers upon persons with loyalties to other countries, especially superpowers, would undermine the free, sovereign, and independent status of Sri Lanka guaranteed by Article 1 of our Constitution. It would also impinge on the sovereignty of the People of Sri Lanka guaranteed by Article 3 read with Article 4.

The removal of the discretionary powers of the various regulatory authorities is arbitrary and violative of the right to equal protection of the law guaranteed by Article 12 (1).

Under Clause 25, only persons authorized by the Commission can engage in business in the Port City. Clause 27 requires that all investments be in foreign currency only. What is worse is that even foreign currency deposited in an account in a Sri Lankan bank cannot be used for investment. Thus, Sri Lankans cannot invest in the Port City using Sri Lankan rupees; neither can they use foreign currency that they legally have in Sri Lanka. The above provisions are clearly arbitrary and discriminatory of Sri Lankans and violate equality and non-discrimination guaranteed by Article 12. They also violate the fundamental right to engage in business guaranteed by Article 14 (1) (g).

Under clause 35, any person, whether a resident or a non-resident, may be employed within the Port City and such employee shall be remunerated in a designated foreign currency, other than in Sri Lanka rupees. Such employment income shall be exempt from income tax. Clause 36 provides that Sri Lankan rupees accepted within the Port City can be converted to foreign currency. Under clause 40, Sri Lankans may pay for goods, services, and facilities in Sri Lankan rupees but would be required to pay a levy for goods taken out of the Port City, as if s/he were returning from another country! The mere repetition of phrases such as ‘in the interests of the national economy’ throughout the Bill like a ‘mantra’ does not bring such restrictions within permissible restrictions set out in Article 15.

Clause 62 requires that all disputes involving the Commission be resolved through arbitration. The jurisdiction of Sri Lankan courts is thus ousted.

In any legal proceedings instituted on civil and commercial matters, where the cause of action has arisen within the Port City or in relation to any business carried on in or from the Port City, Clause 63 requires Sri Lankan courts to give such cases priority and hear them speedily on a day-to-day basis to ensure their expeditious disposal.

The inability of an Attorney-at-Law to appear before the court even for personal reasons, such as sickness, shall not be a ground for postponement. These provisions are arbitrary and violate Article 12.

Clause 73 provides that several Sri Lankan laws listed in Schedule III would have no application within the Port City. Such laws include the Urban Development Authority Act, Municipal Councils Ordinance, and the Town and Country Planning Ordinance. Under Clauses 52 and 53, exemptions may be granted by the Commission from several laws of Sri Lanka, including the Inland Revenue Act, Betting and Gaming Levy Act, Foreign Exchange Act, and the Customs Ordinance.

The Commission being empowered to grant exemptions from Sri Lankan laws undermines the legislative power of the People and of Parliament and violates Articles 3 and Article 4 (c) of the Constitution.

Several matters dealt with by the Bill come under the Provincial Councils List. They include local government, physical planning, and betting and gaming. Article 154G (3) requires that such a Bill be referred to Provincial Councils for their views. As Provincial Councils are not currently constituted, passage by a two-thirds majority will be necessary in the absence of the consent of the Provincial Councils.

The exclusion of the Municipal Councils Ordinance from the Port City area is not possible under the Constitution. When the Greater Colombo Economic Commission was sought to be established in 1978 under the 1972 Constitution, a similar exclusion was held by the Constitutional Court not to be arbitrary. Since then, under the Thirteenth Amendment under the 1978 Constitution, local government has been given constitutional recognition and included under the Provincial Council List. Under the present constitutional provisions, therefore, the Port City cannot be excluded from laws on local government.

The writer submits that in the above circumstances, the Colombo Port Economic Commission Bill requires to be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and approved by the People at a Referendum. Quite apart from the constitutional issues that arise, such an important piece of proposed legislation needs to be widely discussed. It is best that the Bill is referred to a Parliamentary Committee before which the public, as well as citizens’ organizations and experts in the related fields, could make their submissions.

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Investigative Journalism?

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I usually end up totally exhausted when I finish reading the local newspapers from the Pearl. There are so many burning questions and so much is written about them but there are no conclusions and definitely no answers. For example, we seem to have three burning issues right now and this is not in order of importance.

We have a lengthy report that has been published on the Easter Sunday carnage. Everybody knows what I am talking about. However, no one, be it an editor, a paid journalist or a single one of the many amateurs who write to the papers, has reached a conclusion or even expressed an opinion as to who was responsible. At least not a believable one! Surely there are energetic and committed young people in the field of journalism today who, if asked, or directed properly will go out and find a source that would give them at least a credible hypothesis? Or do conclusions exist and has no one the courage to publish them?

At least interview the authors or should I use the word perpetrators of that report. If they refuse to be interviewed ask them why and publish an item every day asking them why! Once you get a hold of them, cross-examine them, trap them into admissions and have no mercy. It is usually geriatrics who write these reports in the Pearl and surely a bright young journalist can catch them out with a smart question or two, or at least show us that they tried? The future of the country depends on it!

We have allegations of contaminated coconut oil been imported. These are very serious allegations and could lead to much harm to the general populace. Do you really believe that no one can find out who the importers are and what brands they sell their products under? In this the Pearl, where everyone has a price, you mean to say that if a keen young journalist was given the correct ammunition (and I don’t mean 45 calibres) and sent out on a specific message, he or she couldn’t get the information required?

We are told that a massive amount of money has been printed over the last few months. There is only speculation as to the sums involved and even more speculation as to what this means to the people of the Pearl. Surely, there are records, probably guarded by extremely lowly paid government servants. I am not condoning bribery but there is nothing left to condone, is there? There are peons in government ministries who will gladly slip you the details if you are committed enough and if you are sent there to get it by a boss who will stand by you and refuse to disclose his sources.

I put it to you, dear readers, that we do not have enough professional, committed and adequately funded news organisations in the country. We can straightaway discount the government-owned joints. We can also largely discount those being run by magnates for personal gain and on personal agendas. As far as the Internet goes, we can forget about those that specialise in speculative and sensationalist untruths, what are we left with O denizens of the Pearl? Are there enough sources of news that you would consider willing to investigate a matter and risk of life and limb and expose the culprits for the greater good of society? Can they be counted even on the fingers of one hand?

In this era when we have useless political leaders, when law and order are non-existent when the police force is a joke, it is time the fourth estate stepped up to the mark! I am sure we have the personnel; it is the commitment from the top and by this, I mean funding and the willingness to risk life and limb, that we lack. Governments over the last few decades have done their best to intimidate the press and systematically destroy any news outlet that tried to buck the usual sycophantic behaviour that is expected from them by those holding absolute power.

Do you think Richard Nixon would ever have been impeached if not for the Watergate reporting? Donald Trump partially owes his defeat to the unrelenting campaign carried out against him by the “fake news” outlets that he tried to denigrate. Trump took on too much. The fourth estate of America is too strong and too powerful to destroy in a head-to-head battle and even the most powerful man in the world, lost. Let’s not go into the merits and demerits of the victor as this is open to debate.

Now, do we have anything like that in the Pearl? Surely, with 20 million-plus “literate” people, we should? We should have over 70 years of independence built up the Fourth Estate to be proud of. One that would, if it stood strong and didn’t waver and collapse under pressure from the rulers, have ensured a better situation for our land. Here is Aotearoa with just five million people, we have journalists who keep holding the government to account. They are well-funded by newspapers and TV networks with audiences that are only a fraction of what is available in the Pearl. Some of the matters they highlight often bring a smirk of derision to my face for such matters wouldn’t even warrant one single line of newsprint, should they happen in the Pearl.

Talking of intimidation from the rulers, most of us are familiar with the nationalisation of the press, the murder and torture of journalists, the burning of presses to insidious laws been passed to curtail the activities of Journalism. These things have happened in other countries, too, but the people and press have been stronger, and they have prevailed. We are at a watershed, an absolutely crucial time. It is now that our last few credible news sources should lift their game. Give us carefully researched and accurate reports with specific conclusions, not generalisations. Refuse to disclose your sources as is your right, especially now that the myopic eye of the UNHCR is turned in our direction.

All other ways and means of saving our beloved motherland, be it government, religion, sources of law and order and even civil society leadership seems to have lapsed into the realm of theory and rhetoric. Our last chance lies with the Fourth Esate and all it stands for. I call for, nay BEG for, a favourable reaction from those decision-makers in that field, who have enough credibility left in society, DON’T LET US DOWN NOW!

 

 

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The world sees ugly side of our beauty pageants

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Yes, it’s still the talk-of-the-town…not only here, but the world over – the fracas that took place at a recently held beauty pageant, in Colombo.

It’s not surprising that the local beauty scene has hit a new low because, in the past, there have been many unpleasant happenings taking place at these so-called beauty pageants.

On several occasions I have, in my articles, mentioned that the state, or some responsible authority, should step in and monitor these events – lay down rules and guidelines, and make sure that everything is above board.

My suggestions, obviously, have fallen on deaf ears, and this is the end result – our beauty pageants have become the laughing stock the world over; talk show hosts are creating scenes, connected with the recent incidents, to amuse their audience.

Australians had the opportunity of enjoying this scenario, so did folks in Canada – via talk show hosts, discussing our issue, and bringing a lot of fun, and laughter, into their discussions!

Many believe that some of these pageants are put together, by individuals…solely to project their image, or to make money, or to have fun with the participants.

And, there are also pageants, I’m told, where the winner is picked in advance…for various reasons, and the finals are just a camouflage. Yes, and rigging, too, takes place.

I was witnessed to one such incident where I was invited to be a judge for the Talent section of a beauty contest.

There were three judges, including me, and while we were engrossed in what we were assigned to do, I suddenly realised that one of the contestants was known to me…as a good dancer.

But, here’s the catch! Her number didn’t tally with the name on the scoresheet, given to the judges.

When I brought this to the notice of the organiser, her sheepish reply was that these contestants would have switched numbers in the dressing room.

Come on, they are no babes!

On another occasion, an organiser collected money from the mother of a contestant, promising to send her daughter for the finals, in the Philippines.

It never happened and she had lots of excuses not to return the money, until a police entry was made.

Still another episode occurred, at one of these so-called pageants, where the organiser promised to make a certain contestant the winner…for obvious reasons.

The judges smelt something fishy and made certain that their scoresheets were not tampered with, and their choice was crowned the winner.

The contestant, who was promised the crown, went onto a frenzy, with the organiser being manhandled.

I’m also told there are organisers who promise contestants the crown if they could part with a very high fee (Rs.500,000 and above!), and also pay for their air ticket.

Some even ask would-be contestants to check out sponsors, on behalf of the organisers. One wonders what that would entail!

Right now, in spite of the pandemic, that is crippling the whole world, we are going ahead with beauty pageants…for whose benefit!

Are the organisers adhering to the Covid-19 health guidelines? No way. Every rule is disregarded.

The recently-held contest saw the contestants, on the move, for workshops, etc., with no face masks, and no social distancing.

They were even seen in an open double-decker bus, checking out the city of Colombo…with NO FACE MASKS.

Perhaps, the instructions given by Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana, and Army Commander, General Shavendra Silva, mean nothing to the organisers of these beauty pageants…in this pandemic setting.

My sincere advice to those who are keen to participate in such events is to check, and double check. Or else, you will end up being deceived…wasting your money, time, and energy.

For the record, when it comes to international beauty pageants for women, Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth and Miss International are the four titles which reign supreme.

In pageantry, these competitions are referred to as the ‘Big Four.’

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