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Opinion

Review Covid-19 deceased disposal on scientific evidence

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Open letter to Secretary of Health Dr. S. H. Munasinghe

Currently, the only available method of disposal of COVID-19 dead in Sri Lanka is cremation.

The basis to arrive at this decision when the guidelines were prepared was based on the factor that in January/February and early March 2020, the scientific community in Sri Lanka did not have adequate information on the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Based on this lack of knowledge on the part of Sri Lankan experts in Judicial Medicine, Epidemiology and Microbiology, Sri Lankan health authorities decided to recommend measures to take no chances for the virus to spread from the dead to the living, and thus recommended cremation only, in the absence of conclusive scientific, ethical and moral evidence to do so at the time.

The time elapsed since the identification of the virus in late December 2019/early January 2020, and is now 180 days or approximately six months. In this period, there have been numerous scientific publications on the structure/characteristics (virology), epidemiology and pathophysiology of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

In this context. it is time to look back at the scientific literature published on the virus with a particular reference to its spread from the dead to the soil, water, and its further spread through soil, water (water table) to the general public, and cause a public health issue in the international and local (Sri Lankan) arenas.

As said before, we do not know the science of the SASR-CoV-2 virus fully. In this massive lacuna of knowledge on the virus, acting in the interest of public health and safety becomes a challenge, and goes beyond hard core science itself. This is because scientists will always have diametrically opposing views with evidence to drive home their hypothesis with passion. This lacuna of knowledge creates a situation where there is a dilemma in terms of the science and the ethics of any and all decisions taken, even with the best of intentions.

In this context, have the decision makers in Sri Lanka paid adequate or indeed any attention to resolve this scientific and ethical dilemma with regards to the issue of final disposal of the dead due to COVID-19 in the accepted ethical scientific manner?

The position of the political leadership of Sri Lanka has always been that they will follow the advice given to them on the disposal of COVID dead by the health authorities. The position of health authorities to arrive at the decision to recommend cremation only has been based on the following three principal reasons:

1. The ‘current’ knowledge on the SARS-CoV- 2 virus is unknown as of now (This statement was made on 13th April 2020 and reiterated on 15th April 2020 at technical meetings held with Health Ministry Officials).

2. The SARS-CoV-2 virus in dead bodies when buried in Sri Lanka can spread to the water table, thus contaminating it and spreading the virus to a large section of the population through water, thus worsening the pandemic situation.

3. Given the militant history of the Sri Lankan Muslims (example sighted was the Easter Sunday Bombings of 21st April 2019) the Sri Lankan Muslims may use the dead body of the COVID-19 person as a Biological Weapon against other Sri Lankan citizens. This statement was publicly repeated by the Health Ministry Official on a BBC television interview a few days later (18th April 2020).

Let’s review the evidence for each of the above as of November 2020.

1. The notion that the dead bodies of Sri Lankan Muslims will be used to extract the virus and weaponize it as Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD) has not materialized anywhere in the world. The technological and science to even attempt creating a biological weapon using the SARS-CoV-2 virus, is far too complex and advanced to be attempted by extremist Islamic groups operating in Sri Lanka, as per current available intelligence reports. The process of weaponizing the COVID-19 virus will at the minimal require Biological Safety Level (BSL) 3 or above laboratory facilities, and at present only the Medical Research Institute of the Ministry of Health and Universities of Sri Jayewardenepura, Colombo and Peradeniya have BSL 3 level laboratories. No evidence exists that BSL 3 level laboratories exist outside the direct purview and close supervision of the Government of Sri Lanka, and the intelligence and defence establishments. A literature search of the international databases for weaponization of SARS-CoV-2 virus yielded no results. If such a process is indeed available at international level, it has been kept classified out of reach of potential rouge scientists.

2. With regard to the knowledge of the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreading to cause public health issues in countries where burial of such dead bodies has occurred, the international scientific data bases yield no results. The WHO in its “Infection Prevention and Control for the Safe Management of a Dead Body in the Context of COVID-19 – Interim Guidance dated 24th March 2020 and 4th September 2020” clearly recommends burial as an option, after having reviewed all the available scientific, ethical and moral issues related to burial of COVID-19 dead as way back as March 2020. The WHO has not changed its stance on recommending burial as an option for COVID-19 dead to date.

3. A review of the international literature on the mass spreading of the SARS-CoV -2 virus to the ground water table in the international databases, too, yields no results. The WHO and UNICEF publication titled “Water, Sanitation, Hygiene, and Waste Management for the COVID-19 Virus – Interim Guidance dated 19th March 2020, 23rd April 2020 and 29th July 2020” – gives information and recommendations on the issue of contamination of ground water by SARS-CoV-2 virus. An extract from the interim guidance report is given below; (The WHO and UNICEF have not changed their stance on recommending burial as an option for COVID -19 dead to date).

‘Currently, there is no evidence about the survival of the COVID-19 virus in drinking-water or sewage. The morphology and chemical structure of the COVID-19 virus are similar to those of other human coronaviruses for which there are data about both survival in the environment and effective inactivation measures. This document draws upon the evidence base and WHO guidance on how to protect against viruses in sewage and drinking-water. This document will be updated as new information becomes available’.

Given the above, the three principal factors cited by the Sri Lankan health authorities are in direct conflict with international guidelines, and in the situation that no local data has been made available to the scientific community on Sri Lankan studies to confirm the hypothesis given by the Sri Lankan health authorities, there is a clear case for reviewing the decision for cremation only for COVID-19 dead in Sri Lanka.

Furthermore, in an interim guidance dated 4thNovember 2020 tilted Consideration for implementing and adjusting public health and social measures in the context of COVID-19 the WHO has clearly advices member states that such PHSM measures ‘…should be weight against the impact these measures have on societies and individuals. Consideration includes impact on economy, security, mental health and psychosocial well-being, human rights, food security, socioeconomic disparities….’ It summarizes its guidance by stating that ‘the overall health and well-being of communities should therefore be at the forefront of considerations when deciding on implementing phsm.

The continuation of the cremation-only policy for COVID-19 dead is seriously affecting the mental and psychosocial health of 2 million Sri Lankan Muslims, who have accounted for almost 48% of the COVID deaths in Sri Lanka as of 7/11/2020.

The social impact of the cremation of COVID-19 Muslim dead bodies is best summarized by the following statement made by an elderly Muslim gentleman recently:

‘I don’t fear getting Corona at any time anywhere in the world; Nor do I fear dying of Corona anywhere in the world; but I fear of being cremated in Sri Lanka if I die of Corona’.

As we have depicted, and no doubt you as a representative of the people, are fully aware this decision to ONLY allow cremation for COVID -19 death on unsound scientific, medical, ethical and moral grounds, is causing severe mental and psychosocial hardship to the all Sri Lankan Muslims, regardless politics, social status or any other parameter.

We have been making scientific, medical, and political representation since March 2020 to the Sri Lankan government to at the very least review the cremation only policy, and include the burial option for COVID -19 dead, to no avail.

Hence, we as an integral part of the citizenry of Sri Lanka, have now to resort to pleading to the authorities on humanitarian grounds and grounds of sympathy, for the government of Sri Lanka to very kindly consider reviewing the decision to continue with the cremation only policy for the COVID-19.

We sincerely hope that you will facilitate the necessary scientific and administrative process to be put in place to review the current cremation only policy for COVID-19 dead in Sri Lanka, based on the review of the facts presented.

 

PATRIOTIC SRI LANKAN

MUSLIMS



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Opinion

Right to travel

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A.G. Noorani

VERY few would dispute that travel broadens the mind. But in the developing nations of this world, the state asserts that it can determine whether its citizen has the right to go abroad or not. The supreme court may take its own time to decide whether or not a citizen — even if he or she lives in a country that claims itself to be a democracy — has the right to possess a passport. Even if that is allowed as an essential travel document, the authorities might decide who can use it or who cannot. The government of India, regardless of which party is in power, seems to have assumed the right to decide whether or not to let a chief minister travel abroad.

The victim is the chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, who was to speak at the World Cities Summit in Singapore. But the BJP-ruled government, headed by Narendra Modi, felt that he could not go and did not give him clearance. Its approach was nonsensical.

By now, most of the countries of the Third World have ratified the United Nations. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966). This is an international treaty in law while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is, in law, just a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly. Article 12(2) of the covenant provides that “Everyone shall be free to leave any county including his own” — in other words, there should be no restrictions on travelling abroad.

The covenant sets up a human rights committee of distinguished persons who are not representatives of the government but are individuals of note who have “high moral character” and are elected by the states, who have ratified the covenant.Parties to the covenant have to file reports to the committee on their observance of the stipulations contained within. States send mostly their attorney general to defend their reports. Members of the committee grill representative of the states. They do not publicise much of the report within their own countries or the contents of their reports. Both err on the side of exaggeration.

Unfortunately, civil liberties movements in the Third World are generally not articulate nor well-equipped. The exception that stands out is the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan based in Lahore whose prominent chairperson, the late Mr I.A. Rehman, never failed to stand up for civil rights.

In India, following Indira Gandhi’s defeat in the election in 1977, a liberal government came to power which ratified the UN covenant in March 1979. They ratified it only with certain conditions but these did not concern Article 21 of the constitution of India that says very clearly that “No person shall be deprived of his life and personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law”.

The Indian supreme court has ruled that fundamental rights can be exercised outside the country. In 1978, the apex court had to deal with Maneka Gandhi’s case concerning the impounding of her passport. The supreme court held:

“…[F]reedom to go abroad is one of such rights, for the nature of man as a free agent necessarily involves free movement on his part. There can be no doubt that if the purpose and the sense of state is to protect personality and its development, as indeed it should be of any liberal democratic state, freedom to go abroad must be given its due place amongst the basic rights.

“This right is an important basic human right for it nourishes independent and self-determining creative character of the individual, not only by extending his freedoms of action, but also by extending the scope of his experience. It is a right which gives intellectual and creative workers in particular the opportunity of extending their spiritual and intellectual horizon through study at foreign universities, through contact with foreign colleagues and through participation in discussions and conferences.

“The right also extends to private life; marriage, family and friendship are humanities which can be rarely affected through refusal of freedom to go abroad and clearly show that this freedom is a genuine human right.

“Moreover, this freedom would be a highly valuable right where man finds himself obliged to flee: (a) because he is unable to serve his God as he wished at the previous place of residence, (b) because his personal freedom is threatened for reasons which do not constitute a crime in the usual meaning of the word and many were such cases during the emergency, or (c) because his life is threatened either for religious or political reasons or through the threat to the maintenance of minimum standard of living compatible with human dignity.” This ruling has stood the test of time.

(The Dawn/ANN)
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

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Opinion

If visitors pay USD at airport, no fuel queues for them

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The above statement was made by Manusha Nanayakkara our Labour & Foreign Employment Minister. How the Minister is going to do it is not known.I wish to make a few suggestions to the Minister for his consideration to implement his proposal. Tourists, migrant workers and the dual citizens were the people whom the Minister referred to in his proposal. Many expat Sri Lankans of whom some could be dual citizens visit home once a year to spend their holidays with their families. Since Covid this might have slowed down.

With the Covid jabs even though one could catch Covid people have started to travel. Travelling to Colombo again will slow down due to the pathetic situation that exist with a shortage of everything, particularly fuel, gas and medicines. The Minister’s statement is some encouragement, but he must place his plan for the consideration of the prospective travellers and shoe by action.

The Bank Of Ceylon Branch at the Airport can sell a Dollar debit card to expats, migrant workers and tourists or in other words those who arrive with a return ticket. The minimum value can be USD 500 with provision to put more dollars attending any BOC Branch. When selling the card, a separate certificate in a little booklet format can be given with the Passport details of the traveller entered. The registration details of the vehicle the traveller intends to use can be entered in the booklet by any BOC branch after the traveller finds the vehicle, that is hired or owned by a relation. If the traveller changes the vehicle the new vehicle details can be entered only after 3 days of the first registration. This will help to prevent misusing the debit card.

The traveller must be able to purchase fuel and other rare commodities on production of the certificate to pay by the debit card referred to in the certificate.

Expats and the tourists visit to travel, and fuel must be available at petrol stations, at least one station ear marked in every town with stock always available for this category. Purchase of fuel can be restricted to at least 15 litres per day that will be good to run about 150kms approximately.

I have suggested the above as a base for the Minster to work out a reasonable plan. Once it is made and implemented whether it works smoothly or with hiccups will be known to prospective travellers through the newspapers. If the system works well, the travellers will have confidence in visiting Sri Lanka and there will be many wanting to visit in the near future.

Hemal Perera

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Opinion

‘CEB restructure must be apolitical says CEBEU’ – a reply

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The above captioned news item appearing in your Sunday issue quotes CEBEU mentions that Cabinet approval has been granted to commence restructuring of Ceylon Electricity Board [C EB] and a committee has been appointed to submit its recommendations within a month; a very important and urgent action indeed seeing and learning the mismanagement and conflicting views and action taken to serve two masters viz, the Ministry for Power and Energy and the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka [PUCSL] and also political interferences as correctly stated by CEB engineers –”The engineers stressed that political non-interferences is of paramount importance”. The interference of the Minister to award a tender for the construction pf 350 Mw LNG plant at Kerawalapitiya to a Chinese construction Company as against the recommendation of the Tender Board, causing a delay of over four years, and the cabinet approval for a wind farm in the north by an Indian company without consulting CEB are a couple worthy of mentioning. It should be emphatically stated, CEB has knowledgeable expert electrical engineers and I believe there are none outside, other than those retired CEB engineers who have set up lucrative consultancy firms, internationally recognized. During my time serving this sector for nearly two decades, with directives by the Ministry, in electrical engineering, administrative and financial matters, the CEB ran to the satisfaction of consumers and also invested elsewhere which made the Treasury to compel CEB to invest on Treasury Bills. The interferences in the administration and matters were directly settled by CEB and also directives of the Ministry have now to obtain the approval of PUCSL.

I remember that the PUCSL called for tenders to remove electric poles, a minor job done by area engineers. There was an instance where the PUCSL sought legal action against CEB for not consulting the PUCSL on a certain matter. Recently, the PUCSL has reduced the tariff worked out by expert proposed by the CEB. What does this mean, the CEB will have to cut down or cancel certain items which it had, to accommodate PUCSL reduction. For efficient running of the CEB, the committee should recommend an end to PUCSL interference with CEB. Do not forget consumers of electricity, commuters etc., could directly place their grievances to the authorities or through organizations, associations concerned and Trade Union, to get redress. The interference I mentioned is not my not my view alone. This was a request made by former Ministry for Power and Energy, Dallas Alahapperuma to the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa; it was approved but overruled by the then Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, Mahinda Rajapaksa. For reasons perhaps ut ab ordine – chaos from order.

It is hoped the Committee appointed will look into what is stated above and make recommendations accordingly.

G. A. D.S irimal
BORALESGAMUWA
Former Assistant Secretary, SLAS, Ministry P&E.

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