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
Amend Cabinet decision on new Rajagiriya – Nawala Canal bridge
The Cabinet, at its meeting held on 09.11.2020 granted approval for the construction of a new bridge across the Rajagiriya-Nawala Canal (Kolonnawa Canal), connecting Angampitiya Road, at Ethul kotte, and School Lane, at Nawala.
As a resident of Nawala, I would like to make two proposals in this regard. One is to reconsider the suitability of the proposed link between School Lane and Angampitiya Road to connect Nawala with Ethul Kotte. The second is to make an additional link between Narahenpita and Nawala, by constructing a new bridge across the Kinda Canal, which flows past the Wall-Tile Showroom on the Nawala-Narahenpita Road and the McDonald’s outlet at Rajagiriya. This will provide a direct access from Narahenpita to Ethul Kotte, and at the same time avoiding congestion on Kirimandala Mawatha and Parliament Road, during peak hours.
The decision to construct a bridge, linking Nawala and Ethul Kotte, is commendable, but the selection of the site for the bridge needs reconsideration. Once Ethul Kotte is linked with Nawala, through Angampitiya Road, and School Lane, one would expect a substantial increase in the volume of traffic on these two roads. Located on School Lane is the Janadhipathi Balika Vidyalaya, a popular girls’ school in the area. Even at present, the area around School Lane has heavy traffic comprising mostly school vans and other vehicles bringing children to and from this school, in the mornings and afternoons. Linking School Lane with Ethul Kotte will make this traffic situation worse, causing congestion.
A better option is to connect Ethul Kotte with Nawala, by constructing a bridge, linking New Jayaweera Mawatha in Ethul Kotte, with Koswatta Road, in Nawala. A by-lane, branching off from the Koswatta Road leading up to the canal, at an appropriate location, could be used for this purpose. On this link, only a short distance of roadway about 250 m, needs to be developed, whereas the School Lane extension needs development of at least 700 m of roadway. Earlier, motorists used Koswatta Road as a shortcut to access Parliament Road. Now, turning right, at the Parliament Road junction, is not permitted, and hence, there isn’t much traffic on this road at present.
One advantage of extending the Koswatta Road, to Ethul Kotte is that it could be linked in the other direction, with Muhandiram Dabare Mawatha, on the Narahenpita side, providing a direct route for motorists coming along Thimbirigasyaya Road to go to Ethul Kotte. With this link, it will be possible for traffic to avoid both Parliament Road and Chandra de Silva Mawatha, Nugegoda, the only two access roads to Kotte, from Colombo, available at present.
To complete this access, it is necessary to construct a bridge across Kinda Canal, linking Galpotta Road with Muhandiram Dabare Mawatha, after extending both roadways up to the canal. This area is still not developed, except for a reservation made for a playground on the Nawala side. A new roadway, which is only about half a km distance, is necessary, and this could be built without any problem linking these two roadways. Galpotta Road could be linked with Koswatta Road via Ratanajothi Mawatha, which crosses the Rajagiriya–Nawala Road, at Koswatta Junction.
The construction of these two new bridges, one across Kolonnawa Canal and the other across Kinda Canal, will provide a direct route from Colombo to Ethul Kotte, via Muhandiram Dabare Mawatha, Galpotta Road, Koswatta Road and New Jayaweera Mawatha. This link will reduce congestion, at present experienced on Kirimandala Road and Parliament Road.
Dr JANAKA RATNASIRI
A tribute to my mother-in-law
My mother-in-law, Mandrani Gunasekera, nee Malwatta, passed away peacefully in our home a few weeks ago. The funeral arrangements were complicated by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic situation, and the resultant weekend curfew in Colombo.
It is a privilege for me to reflect on my mother-in-law and her role in our lives. Vocationally, she was a practitioner of one of the noblest professions on earth, that of being a teacher, with the responsibility of educating and molding young lives. First in the public-school system, then overseas, and finally in Colombo’s leading international schools. As someone who topped her batch at the Peradeniya University, teaching was an unusual and perhaps unglamourous choice, but it demonstrated her commitment to the service of others.
In private life, she, was a mother to two daughters, one of whom is my wife, and their strength of character are a tribute to her. Her four grandchildren, including my two sons, are, I am sure, left in no doubt, that their mothers were raised in the home of a teacher, with a strong commitment to both education and discipline. I saw first-hand, that my mum-in- law, was an enabler and facilitator, guiding and molding her family. Her eldest grand-daughter, Thisuni Welihinde’s wedding late last year, was a milestone for her and we were never sure who was more excited, the bride or her grandmother.
To me, she was always “Ammi” and having lost my own mother when I was very young, I was determined to treat my wife’s mother, as I would my own. After my father- in- law’s death, a decade ago, it was a joy to care for my mother-in- law, in our home. Ammi was retired and lived a life of leisure. Which was a good counter balance to our own lives, which always seemed to be so hectic and rushed. I also learned from my mother -in-law, that being effective did not come from being prominent.
Ammi was also regular at Church, every Sunday, and was also an active member of a mid-week ladies Bible study, and prayer group, who were also her group of friends. They always ended their meetings, with brunch if not lunch. It was special joy that we were able to celebrate her 80th birthday with a “surprise party” at home, with her friends, about six weeks before her passing.
Ammi enjoyed the simple joys of life, and of our home, whether it was meal times, the constant chatter and boisterous behaviour of her two teenage grandsons, our weekend activities or family vacations to most of which she accompanied us. She was also an avid rugby fan, especially of Royal College rugby, since her brother had captained Royal and now her grandson was playing. In fact, she used to attend many matches and the 75th Bradby encounter last year, held in the shadow of the Easter Sunday bomb attacks, was her last, to witness her brother honoured on the field with other past captains and her grandson take the field, as a junior player.
This strange Covid-19 pandemic year, and its unprecedented lockdown ,enabled us to spend lots of time together, as family. Our lockdown daily routine, which included lots of sleep and rest, was centered on the daily family lunch, either preceded, or followed by family prayer. Ammi became the most committed and enthusiastic participant in our family mid-day gatherings. It was a great blessing, in disguise, that enabled us to spend the last few months, with noting much else to do, but enjoy each other’s company. While we miss her, we have the hope that she is with our Lord Jesus Christ. Her favourite Bible scripture in Psalm 91, states “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High abides under the shadow of the Almighty …. and with long life I will satisfy him and show him, My salvation”.
By Harim Peiris
The Benefits of Homeschooling
COVID-19 has changed our normal activities. What we were used to doing in 2019, is no longer a routine in 2020. In the midst of this pandemic the schools were closed down, and the decision to reopen schools by the Sri Lankan government and the trade unions speaking against it, made me ponder on an alternative.
Education in developing countries have often been a sensitive topic, Parents would leave no stone unturned to put their child to a ‘Big School’. How many of the classrooms in ‘Big Schools’ are capable of making seating arrangements by keeping a distance of one meter in accordance with the COVID-19 regulations?
Online Teaching has been introduced as an alternative, but isn’t there something better than that?
This would be the best time to introduce Homeschooling.
Homeschooling is where parents and guardians teach and groom their children. There are many parents capable of handling children and providing a comfortable atmosphere at home for a child to grow up and learn; there are parents who are skilled in particular trades and crafts, and teaching these to their children at a younger age gives the child an opportunity to be a skilled individual.
Several decades back the role of a Governess played an important role in upbringing children in Sri Lankan households. Many would have read about Helen Keller, a deaf and blind student who went on to be a graduate; she was groomed and taught by her governess Anne Sullivan, who taught her at home, this is a successful example of Homeschooling.
It is an arrogant attitude to scoff that parents groom their children into good citizens without sending them to school. Inferior Schooling and Teaching Methods have been a bane to a child’s psychology and mentally handicapping the confidence of a child. The truth is, schools no longer groom students, they have become Examination Centres, that judge the performance of their students through results.
It will be interesting to look into some of the criticisms made by sceptics on homeschooling. One is the subject knowledge of the parents; let’s be honest, how many of us use Titration in Chemistry in our daily lives, do we even want to try it? How many of us want to know the Chronology of the Kings that ruled the Country, has it ever disturbed us?
On the other hand, Homeschooling does not mean that teachers would no longer be needed, the teacher can play a broader role as a governess or a trainer to fill in the subject gaps that the parents are unable to provide for their child.
Another criticism is that children will not learn to socialise without schools. Isn’t Covid-19 regulations discouraging socialising by asking us to avoid public gatherings and maintaining a distance of 1 meter, isn’t socialising with a bad friend as disastrous as a deadly disease?
It will be interesting to see how the trade unions are going to respond to this if homeschooling becomes successful, as they will be the worst affected. But they could always become good Governesses or Subject Experts and play a guiding role in the homeschooling venture. This country now needs more Florence Nightingales to treat the sick and more Anne Sullivans to groom the kids.
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