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Sons and daughters of Edward Said and Hanan Ashrawi

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BY Kusum Wijetillake

Benjamin Netanyahu is on the brink; a centrist party and Yamina (right-wing coalition) are reported to have agreed to a strange alliance. A former journalist, Yair Lapid and Netanyahu’s (former) protégé, ex-Defence Minister Naftali Bennet lead the coalition partners; the latter is likely to be PM. Of course, never count ‘Bibi’ out.

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, a public intellectual, political scientist and former Sri Lankan Ambassador has observed the conflict closely for decades and played a key role in the successful battle for the admission of Palestine to UNESCO. He shares some thoughts on where the impasse might be heading.

KW – Israeli politics is in flux. Netanyahu is unable to form a coalition. Naftali Bennet is to the right of ‘BiBi’.

DJ

– “It is my hope and indeed my bet that Israeli society will not wish to be out of sync with mounting Western opinion. Netanyahu may hope that his friend Trump or someone with his views may make a comeback, but there’s been a seismic shift in consciousness which will never snap back. Jewish values are no longer preponderantly represented by Bibi Netanyahu and Benny Naftali. Three American figures of Jewish origin have contributed to this new, justice-centered consciousness: Noam Chomsky, Bernie Sanders and Richard Falk”.

KW – A number of resolutions and agreements on the two state solution do exist. How do the various resolutions, Oslo for example, affect the current status of the peace process?

DJ –

“On the face of it, the Israeli-Palestinian question is structurally intractable and irretrievably deadlocked. Note that I say ‘on the face of it’. As a formula the two-state solution is the best there is… builds on the logic of the original UN resolution of 1948, of two states, Israel and Palestine. It is the most reasonable solution. However, it was called into question from the beginning.”

“The Arab armies opened hostilities and the Israelis having beaten them soundly, did not stop at the borders traced by the UN resolution, which, with certain modifications due to strategic imperatives, would have been the most just and rational action. Instead, there was not only annexation but also eviction of Palestinian Arabs after the war had been won”.

“The Arabs erred by refusing to accept the UN resolution (which even Stalin’s Russia was an enthusiastic proponent of) and the legitimacy of the creation of the state of Israel – which was morally and historically irresistible after the Holocaust”.

KW – The two-state solution is under attack. Even during the Oslo Accords there was skepticism towards an acceptable two state solution.

DJ –

“The two-state solution has been rolled-back by cynical, systematic building of illegal Israeli settlements in the land that should belong to a future Palestinian state. In order to make the two-state solution viable again, those settlements would have to go, or there should be compensatory land-swaps. However, with each passing day, the Israelis leave less land to swap. It is difficult to envisage that the US will be able to mount enough pressure on Israel to roll-back the settlements”.

This leaves the one state solution. That has an interesting history. In recent years, the whistle was blown on the unviability of the two-state solution and a clarion call was sounded for a one state solution, firstly by Prof Richard Falk (Princeton University) the former UN Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine. He is Jewish. I am proud to have him as a friend”.

KW – Writing as recently as 2019, Prof. Falk stated: “the zombie maneuvers of the past 20 or more years with continued advocacy of long-moribund two statenegotiations must end: the only question is what kind of state will emerge – secular or apartheid”.

DJ –

“The one-state solution was initially the slogan of the Palestinian Marxist Left, notably Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, though it was termed a ‘bi-national” state of Israelis and Palestinians possessing/exercising equal rights”.

“Given the apparent unviability of a two-state solution, the one-state solution is the only available default option. But that too is problematic. As President Barack Obama pointed out to the Israelis, who weren’t really listening, time is not on their side, because of demographics. Unless a surgical separation is effected by means of a two-state solution, Israel will be unable to exist as a democratic Jewish state. If it is to continue to claim to be the sole democratic state in the region and therefore the natural ally of the USA, it has to give citizenship, voting rights and equal rights in general, to all those who live within its borders. This would mean enfranchising all the Palestinians in the annexed territories. This in turn would change the demographic ratio, bringing into view the possibility that Israel would be democratic but no longer Jewish. Conversely Israel would remain Jewish by maintaining the status-quo but would be increasingly disqualified as democratic”.

KW – Oslo 1 was criticized for making unnecessary concessions without concrete proposals for a structure of a Palestinian State. The Status of Jerusalem, control of land and population registries, all postponed for later. The PLO legitimized itself as the representative of the Palestinians.

DJ –

“Edward Said, who had campaigned for and supported the recognition in the PLO Charter of the right of the state of Israel to exist also opposed the Oslo Accords but for a reason different from most critics on both sides. He opposed the calling off of the First Intifada (which unlike the second, was not an armed Intifada) by the PLO so as to arrive at the Accords. History has proved him right and today the Palestinians are back on the agenda precisely because of the recent uprising… Hanan Ashrawi was also a critic of the Oslo track as distinct from the Washington track in which she was the key PLO spokesperson. The Said-influenced discourse of Ashrawi, helped the PLO make headway in Washington, but the PLO hierarchy preferred the Oslo track and pretty much abandoned the Washington track”.

KW – There are some 500,000 settlers in the Palestinian Territories; illegal settlements per international law. Much of the Israeli political right supports expansion of these settlements.

DJ –

The Israelis sought to square the circle by accelerating settler-colonization and evictions, while remaining a western-style democracy within its core. That model was called out firstly and most audibly by former president Jimmy Carter, who defined Israel as increasingly an apartheid state—symbolized by its infamous walls and tight controls of every aspect of Palestinian life.

 

With Israel in no mood to dismantle its settlements or agree to land swaps (if those were possible anymore) so as to make for a two-state solution, or to extend democracy and equal rights to all the Palestinians within its self-proclaimed borders, the deadlock appears absolute.

KW – Could you comment on the ultra-religious, reactionary elements? Likud, while overtly secular, is linked to Herut who propose a ‘Land of Israel’, including present-day Jordan. The Shas Party, third largest in Israel, is ultra-religious and opposes a settlement freeze.

Hamas grew out of the Cairo based Muslim Brotherhood, is cloaked in Islamist ideology and explicitly calls for Israel’s destruction and the replacing of Palestine with an Islamic state.

DJ – “The Israelis erred by never accepting in their actions, the UN resolution and by succumbing at first covertly (under Labor Governments) and later overtly (under Likud) to an Old Testament notion of its borders”.

“Thus, secular, strategic and security imperatives, which were justifiable given the traumas of the holocaust, were overlaid by a Biblical mandate as it were, which made for expansionism and annexation. This zero-sum thinking on the part of both sides in 1948 was the Original Sin. It continues today, with the non-zero-sum political leaderships being marginalized on both sides. As for the Palestinians and the danger of a theocracy, Hamas will also have to evolve to retain the support of the new generation (which includes kids rapping in the rubble, in English!) and to win elections in the more sophisticated West Bank”.

KW – The mainstream media (MSM) is criticized for alleged one-sided cover age of the conflict. Palestinian activists say Israeli acts of aggression; evictions, settlement expansions, go unreported or that the Palestinian struggle is conflated with Hamas rocket fire.

Prof. Chomsky in a 2001 essay: “As in the rule of properly sanitized history, Palestinians carry out terrorism, Israelis then retaliate, perhaps too harshly. In the real world, the truth is often rather different” pointing out that Israeli terrorism is barely criticized in US media.

DJ – “The last time Israel fought a war against Gaza it went on for over 50 days. This time it stopped in 1/5th the duration. It was the first time ever that the mood on the Arab street coincided with the moral outrage on the American streets and in the US Congress, putting pressure on the US Government. From Gaza to New York and Chicago, from Jerusalem to Sydney, Palestinian flags are ubiquitous. One could not distinguish the coverage on CNN and the BBC from Al Jazeera. Israel lost the war of public opinion in the West, most significantly in the USA, and still more significantly, among the young American Jews. Another factor at work is the easy identification of Trump and Netanyahu in the minds of young Americans and young people in general the world over. The discourse and behavior of the Israeli rightwing mobs and the US Far Right which stormed the capitol on January 6th, are on a continuum. The ideology of the US Confederacy, revived by the US Far Right, and that of the Israeli religious Right, is easily recognizable as belonging to the same family”.

KW –In 2018, journalist Marc Lamont Hill was removed as a political commentator on CNN for a speech that was deemed anti-Semitic. Journalist Abby Martin’s event at a US University was cancelled because she refused to sign an anti-BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanction) pledge. She is currently suing the State of Georgia. Emily Wilder, a journalist at the Associated Press was terminated last month due to complaints from alumni at Stanford University regarding her ‘past activism on Palestine’.

DJ – “The international media is no longer ‘manufacturing consent’ for Israel. That is the biggest change that I have seen in the recent Gaza conflict. There has been a major shift in the consciousness of Western journalists and anchors, as a result of struggle against Trump and Trumpism, and the coverage of the George Floyd murder, Police shootings and the Black Lives Matter protests. While Western journalists have shifted, so also have the TV channels because their own audiences (apart from FOX) have shifted left. The Israeli-Palestinian question is therefore covered in a far more balanced way. Today, the headway made in positively impacting the international media and world opinion is because of the sons and daughters of Edward Said and Hanan Ashrawi, in terms of their discourse: they know how to address young Western audiences”.

KW – The US and UK share a ‘special relationship’. Given the military aid, diplomatic cover, intelligence sharing, perhaps it the US and Israel that have the really special relationship. Israel has certainly utilised US foreign policy to further its own objectives in the region. The Trump Administration shifted the US Embassy to Jerusalem, suspended aid to Palestine, unilaterally disengaged from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and assassinated General Qasem Solemani. The US also recognized of Israeli sovereignty over the water-rich Golan Heights while President Trump directly supported the re-election campaign of Mr. Netanyahu.

The Trump peace plan was criticized as one-sided. Obama did not make any headway and arguably further entrenched the US in the region. The new President has a history of support for Israeli objectives and has maintained the Trump position on the JCPOA. He is also under pressure from the progressive caucus of Senator Bernie Sanders.

DJ – “I remain an optimist… What we have seen around this Gaza war is something that would not and did not come as a surprise to Prof Richard Falk, who had long argued that Palestine can win a ‘legitimacy war’ while Israel can lose it– and therefore that Palestinians should wage such a legitimacy war on the battlefield of justice. That is what happened this time around. Two factors coincided. Firstly, the emergence of Generation Z Palestinians fluent in English and social media-savvy. Secondly, and most importantly, the change in the global zeitgeist, starting in the USA, with the fight against Trump and Trumpism, morphing into the massive mobilization led by Black Lives Matter, around the George Floyd murder. As Noam Chomsky noted, this was the biggest movement ever in American history and drew in as many young whites as it did blacks”.

“If Obama had the same favorable social consciousness on Israel-Palestine that exists now, he could have made more headway, but he didn’t. Though Secretary Kerry was progressive, Obama had to deal with the strong pro-Israeli lobby which included Hillary Clinton. So, all in all, I wouldn’t blame him too much”.

As for the Biden administration, it cannot but be sensitive to shifts in the Democrat base. But far more significantly, it cannot step up its competition with China while leaving itself open to criticism, even from its own ranks, for double standards on human rights, democracy and racial justice as exemplified by its stand on Israel/Palestine. This time, in the Security Council, China clearly stole a march on the US”.

“The impact of the George Floyd protest and Black Lives Matter on the Biden administration is best evidenced by the fact that US Secretary of State Blinken instructed US Embassies to fly the Black Lives Matter flag on the first anniversary of the George Floyd murder”.

KW – So, a possibly new coalition in Israel with Mr. Naftali as PM versus a

new US President out of step with his own party on the issue. Will the US actually utilize its considerable leverage over Israel? Will the media dynamics force the hand of Mr. Biden?

DJ – “The issue will finally be decided not by an abstract discussion over ‘two states vs one’, but by the real dynamics of history. Would Israel even have thought, that after the Abraham accords and the self-assurance, that the Palestinian issue had been peripheralized?… After exercising its military might, and despite the old propaganda magic wand of ‘terrorist rockets from Gaza’: the words Palestine and Palestinian are back in the consciousness of the world”.

“What is decisive is the moral-ethical factor and Israel has lost the moral high ground. I am certain that Israeli society will halt that drift someday, sooner rather than later, by evolving.

“My hope and belief is that Israeli society, culture and politics will change for the better, bringing Israel more into congruence with the West which it has contributed so much to. That, together with the emergence of an articulate younger generation in Palestine, the real vanguard of the struggle this time and the global voice of the Palestinian people, will break the deadlock”.

“In History, miracles do happen, and Israel/Palestine is the most obvious place for it”.



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Talent Networking Group doing the right thing

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The pandemic has certainly taken its toll of the showbiz scene, especially in our region.

Our entertainers are feeling the heat very badly and so are their counterparts in India, and in the Maldives, as well.

There is absolutely nothing that any of us can do to make showbiz some kind of a happening scene.

All we can do now is…yes, just watch and wait!

In the meanwhile, there are still opportunities for artistes to showcase their talents, so that music lovers would know that their favourites are still very much active, and haven’t disappeared from the music scene…altogether.

What is gaining popularity now are social media platforms where artistes are given the opportunity to entertain music lovers.

The Talent Networking Group is one such setup that has impressed me, and has featured quite a few very talented artistes, especially from India – the Anglo-Indian sector.

I’ve also seen some of our artistes doing their thing, on this platform, via TNGlive.

What makes this TNG group extra special is that the people involved are innovative and are coming up with new ideas, on a regular basis.

Yes, they are expanding in order to give other talented folks the opportunity to come on the scene and display their culinary skills, dancing, etc., in addition to singing.

This is the new weekly setup, as indicated, on social media, by those responsible for the Talent Networking Group.

Says Derek J. Wheeler, one of TNG’s liverwires…

“It’s been an eventful year for all of us and, boy, what a ride it has been at TNG! But, time to shake things up a little and inject some new life, as we look at another long lockdown ahead.

“We are spicing up the weekends at TNG – throwing it open to the whole family to rock the joint, with your singing, your instrumental gigs, cooking, baking – whatever rocks your weekends at home. Time to share it with the rest of the family!

“And, this is the new scene:

“TNG Throwback Thursday

– Sing us some old songs, cook us a memory or just go old school on us in whatever way you like.

“TNG FriYAY

– We are just happy it’s a Friday. TGIF and all! So just come on out and do your thing. We are there to support you.

“TNG Saturday Swag

– The spotlight closure to our hip weekends. Calling all you rock stars to close it out with a bang for us all.”

Last Thursday, the spotlight was on Vrinda and Lynette throwing it back with some golden oldies – both in Hindi and English – while on Friday it was Shania, in the limelight, with an exclusive country and western set.

And, on Saturday, the inimitable singing chef Nigel Galway took centre stage, with his extremely talented and pretty daughter Leanne. It was certainly a rocking session!

Remember, TNGlive is not confined to India only. Sri Lankans, too, can show the world that we have got it all and are only waiting for the pandemic to slow down to boom into action…live on stage.

Melantha Perera would provide you with all the details as to how you could be a part of TNGlive. And, it’s all so simple – you do it from home, singing live, of course, to pre-recorded tracks. Yes, it’s as easy as that.

All you need to do now is give a shout to Melantha on 0773958888

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Everyday violence and exclusion at university

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By Ramya Kumar

This week’s Kuppi Talk takes off from an earlier piece on ragging that drew attention to the anti-democratic culture that breeds violence within the university system. Shamala Kumar linked this violence to the lack of democracy within universities, and society more broadly.

When we talk about violence within our universities, the conversation invariably turns to ragging. Some of us also talk about other forms of violence, such as the arbitrary sacking of a vice chancellor or an academic who does not toe the line. But the classed, gendered, and ethnicized forms of everyday violence we experience within the university system remain invisible. Here, I draw on discussions with students and teachers at various state universities to illustrate how gender violence pervades our everyday, and perpetuates exclusion and injustice.

Hierarchical systems

Our education system, whether primary, secondary, or tertiary, coaches students to conform and to not question authority. Non-conformers are penalized, and alternative ways of thinking discouraged within an exam-oriented system that measures performance by grades. On top of that, school curricula reinforce social hierarchies and difference by using myths or tropes like the ancient Sinhala king, the sari-clad virtuous mother, or the meat-loving Muslim.

When they enter the university, students are already saddled with various stereotypes and prejudice conveyed as authoritative knowledge through this system. Many would not have interacted with people outside their frame of thinking/knowing. Ignorance, misinformation (conveyed through the ragging apparatus) and the unfamiliar environment of the university creates conditions for further polarization. An undergraduate talked about the oppressive environment she encountered in her first week at university:

“The seniors harassed the boys [in our batch] if we did something “wrong” like dress “indecently” or behave “incorrectly.” The male seniors had discussions with our boys about how we dress and what was wrong with us….[they were told] the girls were their responsibility… “See, we have our girls in the palm of our hands, they listen to everything we say, yours also should be like that” they said. So ultimately the way we dressed, where and when we went out, and everything we did were to be dictated by a group of boys who were our age, who were strangers … we knew better, but it was very stressful and confusing.”

University authorities have not been able to address ragging because the university itself is built on systems of hierarchy. In fact, our universities are complicit in such acts of violence. For instance, a Muslim undergraduate who wears hijab talked about feeling marginalized after the Easter Sunday bombings when security personnel singled her out to check her backpack, commenting that she looked like “Zahran’s sister,” while letting others pass through.

From second class students…

Students internalize gender and other “norms” with few opportunities or forums to question them. Their activities are often divided along gender lines, albeit varying in different settings. When organizing an event, women tend to take on clerical and accounts work and tasks like serving tea. In some faculties, women attend lectures, dutifully taking notes for men, who are coerced into less mundane engagements by unions (and others) during lectures. Those who fail to conform to this “subculture” are branded as selfish, anti-social, or elitist.

At many universities, women (students) are not considered for leadership positions, such as president of a student union or association, even in faculties where women far outnumber men. “The mental picture of a leader is always male…it is the norm,” said an undergraduate. This “norm” is often justified on the grounds that women cannot travel back home/to their hostels after meetings, a strange notion for the many women who travel on their own. Most elections do not involve voting as decisions are made “unanimously” before elections. When women find themselves in leadership roles, they are often spoken over and not heard.

Women’s attire is strictly under surveillance. A Muslim undergraduate spoke of being banned from the prayer room at her faculty because her skirt did not reach her toes. A Tamil undergraduate who studied in the south described how her (Tamil) friends in another faculty had to wear Salwar, a single plait, pottu and vibhuti to maintain their “culture” in the dominant (Sinhala) environment. Similarly, women Sinhala students in the North are warned by their male counterparts not to transgress so-called Tamil norms by wearing short skirts, or tight clothes, in the name of safety and security.

Gender norms are also reinforced by university teachers and others in positions of authority. A medical undergraduate felt discouraged when a clinician advised the women in her group to think carefully before embarking on postgraduate studies: “[The doctor] said we would get late to marry, that we may not find a husband, and that our studies would interfere with our duties as a wife and mother.” Another student spoke of a clinician who referred to female students, including herself, by body shape and size, making her feel humiliated. Women encounter these forms of violence on a daily basis, making them feel little and unimportant, even as some confront the system head on, struggling to redraw boundaries and trouble the status quo.

… to second class academics

The university hierarchy places temporary and probationary lecturers at the very bottom. A professor described the ways in which younger lecturers, especially women, are silenced at meetings in her Faculty: “They are just not taken seriously … their contributions are ignored or they are simply spoken over.” A temporary lecturer talked about being harassed by a member of the support staff when she commenced work. He was known for treating women disrespectfully, but her complaints fell on deaf ears. A system that favours internal recruitment sustains hierarchy, obliging junior staff to take on additional (uncredited) work and even forego first authorship in publication, to support their seniors in the race to professorship.

As academics, women are frequently excluded from decision-making processes, which usually take place at informal meetings among an “in group” of (predominantly) men, who flock around (and bow down to) the administration. This culture of decision-making prevails at all levels of the university, and, by virtue of its character, excludes women and minorities, who cannot participate in the “machan” talk and camaraderie, for different reasons. Those who speak up or ask questions are delegitimized as fussy, irrational, or troublemakers. “Men throwing a tantrum is totally acceptable, but when a woman does that, she is being emotional,” a senior lecture pointed out. A professor spoke of feeling stifled during Senate meetings where questions and discussion were generally discouraged: “When I pointed to a breach in procedure, the VC asked me to stop raising trivial issues.”

The gender hierarchy is more visible at higher echelons of the university. The UGC and university councils are dominated by men. Although women do hold positions of authority within universities, as deans and, less frequently, vice chancellors, the gendering of academic work continues. In various committees, women tend to take on a lot of coordinating and paperwork, but their contributions remain uncredited as they rarely share the limelight. In fact, many women are faulted for their “family commitments,” and any negative traits attributed to their gender. Yet, the (widespread) mediocrity of men is never attributed to gender.

At the root of all this is pervasive sexism that objectifies and sexualizes women. It is commonplace for women academics to receive comments on their hair do or attire. A professor commented, “There is no understanding of what is appropriate here.” Even when there are serious breaches of conduct, like sexual harassment, there is nowhere to go. “Using established university procedures to address sexual harassment comes with risks that most women are not willing to take,” she continued. Overall, there seems to be very little trust in the system, and, in all likelihood, any incidents, along with their inquiry reports, may be brushed under the carpet.

Consequences

What does this situation ultimately mean for universities and society? Most immediately, it allows university administrators to function in the service of power. Second, rather than pushing the boundaries of knowledge and public discourse, central to their role, our universities reinforce social hierarchies, with accompanying exclusions and marginalisations. Third, by discouraging critical dialogue, the system sustains a disengaged university community that remains paralysed in the face of injustice, and supports producing graduates who easily comply with authority. The consequences are far-reaching, as we see in the unfolding COVID-19 mess.

Clearing up this mess must start from within our institutions. Building on the egalitarian principle of Free Education, we need to create inclusive spaces for students and teachers to come together to dialogue on the trajectory of higher education, and demand justice at this critical juncture.

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies. 

(The writer is attached to the Department of Community and Family Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Jaffna)

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Lockdowns, travel restrictions and basics for control of Covid-19 third wave

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Vehicles moving towards Colombo, along the Negombo Road, during lockdowns

 

By Dr. Pradeep Kariyawasam
Former Chief Medical Officer
Chairman, Standing Committee on Health/CMC

The 14-day ‘Lockdown’ or so called ‘Travel Restrictions’ to prevent the further spread of the Covid-19 virus which later became a 21-day event ended on Monday (21).

The inevitable happened in April this year after we were lax in taking the timely decisions. In January this year I warned through your newspaper about the possibility of the UK variant B 1.1.7. (now called Alpha) arriving in the country. Many who came over from the UK were in protective bubbles or in quarantine centres, before they were allowed out in the community and that included the English Cricket team. There could have been others infected with the virus that arrived from the UK. Considering that the PCR tests show only 70 % of infected persons as being positive for the disease, so many others could escape being detected with Covid-19 and be symptomless carriers.

It is interesting that the virus has spread to a lot of areas before it was found but details are sketchy. We don’t know whether there were unconnected cases in the community. So, maybe it was here for a few months before the existence was confirmed in April this year. What happened to our surveillance system operated by the Epidemiology Unit? The lowering of the number of PCR or antigen tests may be the reason why this was not detected earlier, and lower infection rates that were shown since February this year were not factually correct. Then, when the first notification of the possibility of the arrival of the virus was made on the 8th of April 2021, the immediate reaction should have been to order a total Lockdown at least in the Western Province. Timeliness is the most important factor in controlling epidemics. But then it was important to have the New Year festivities and here we are. We now have to take urgent informed action to control the present outbreak post Lockdown. Otherwise, it would be catastrophic for the country.

Looking at the present situation, the six strains of Covid-19 virus in the country at present are detectable now, and the areas where each is located are mapped at least by the district. When patients were found mainly Grama Niladhari Divisions were brought under lockdown to control the spread. Some were opened after a few days or weeks. This was hardly enough to stop this epidemic spreading. There seems to have been no coordinated efforts by the stakeholders. While politicians have to listen to the people’s social and economic woes, the health authorities have to impose conditions laid out in the Quarantine and Prevention of Diseases Ordinance. The Mayor or the Medical Officer of Health is the Authority to implement the conditions in this Ordinance at local level and therefore it is seen that the Municipal Councils or Town Councils have a role to play during this period, too. But this did not take place and while some politicians had a field day others got into confrontations.

 

Spreading like wildfire

While local lockdowns may have worked in the peripheral areas in the short term, such small lockdowns could have been ineffective, useless and dangerous in areas where large crowds live. These are towns and cities, where a large number of slum and shanty areas and middle-class Housing complexes are situated side-by-side allowing the disease to spread like wildfire. The solution for such areas was vaccination of all people at least over the age of 30. But it did not take place as that was not a priority, and then there was a vaccine shortage. The rich had an unfair share of the vaccines which is happening even today. I hope they will realize that by vaccinating the people in the poorer areas we could stop the spread into their areas. These people live in small poorly ventilated slums or rooms, sometimes 5-6 in a room, that create ideal situations for virus transmission unlike in richer areas. Although mutations take place all over the world creating new variants, and will continue until Covid-19 goes away, most of the vaccines seem to be holding well against them. The infected people plus vaccinated persons will create herd immunity but only vaccinations can prevent massive infections and mutations quickly so that there isn’t much of a damage to the society. The toll of this traumatic experience for many cannot be measured individually or as a society. Families have suffered socially, economically and some have already lost their beloved ones. The deaths of pregnant women and infants show how traumatic the experience could be not only to the family but also to the health staff.

Lockdowns themselves will not stop the spread among the people unless they are properly policed. This is what happened in the recent days where 60-70 thousand vehicles entered the city every day. That is nearly 100,000 entering the city! In poorer settlements life is continuing like on any other normal day with people roaming around within their area. But then they cannot engage in work! So, lockdowns seem to be for the poor and “travel restriction” are for the rich. Scientists have identified that the virus stays alive in the body only for 6-7 days, so a quarantine period or a proper lockdown of 21 days would suffice to clear an area of the virus. We need 21 days as the incubation period could be up to 10-14 days and after getting infected, the virus will be dead by 6 to 7 days. Of course, there are outliers to this range.These days the number of new patients found daily are around 2200-2400 which shows that an upward trend has been checked and that is good news.

 

Achieving good results

To achieve good results the law enforcement agents and field staff of the Health Departments should build positive relationships with their community, respect civil rights and not impose unnecessary hard and fast rules which may be counter-productive. With the threat looming due to the UK’s Alpha and other new variants, we have to prevent the disease spreading but at the same time see that socially and economically people are not that affected, as for more than a year they have undergone immense hardships. This is so, especially with the farmers and middle level traders, who are unable to trade or sell their crops due to sudden closures and lockdowns.

‘Live with the virus’ should be the slogan for the next few months. TV footages showed vendors with perishable items such as vegetables and fruits told all of a sudden to pack up and go from road side, fairs or economic centres. I understand the police have been given orders but then these people should have been handled more humanely. Perhaps they also should be allowed to sell the products while maintaining health conditions. Consumers should be told that only one person is allowed near a street vendor at a time and they should stand in queues with a two-metre social distance between them waiting for their turn. Small scale shops should be allowed to open and only one person per four square metres should be allowed inside the shops, and others should stay outside waiting for their turn so that there won’t be a rush to buy food stuff and other items. This is much better than getting vendors in mobile vehicles from other areas. The government should order that paying leasing charges or rents for vehicles, shops should be postponed or halved for this period and allow the dues to be gradually paid after the lockdown.

 

Communication breakdown

Unfortunately, the communication between the government agencies and the people at large have broken down. There is no direct communication with the poor people, the most vulnerable sections of our society, and they are not organized although civil societies exist. The people are apprehensive about the actions of the law enforcement officers and the Public Health Inspectors. Usually, in Colombo Health Educators and Instructors communicated well with the people, spreading out the health messages in an appropriate manner. We had at least 300 active Community Development Councils in the city before 2015. Today we don’t have that system anymore. The result is disorganized communities in the cities especially in the urban slums and marginalized apartment complexes. During the second wave around 100 people died in their homes in Colombo without medical help. Prevention and control of disease spread therefore has become impossible as there is no community participation. More informal health education actions should be carried out visiting the probable high-risk areas and action should be taken to look into various needs of the people in locked down areas whether it is the rice, fruits and vegetables, dry rations, curry powder, cooking oil, gas or whatever basic things they need, or simply help them to sell their wares.

 

Need for proper data

So, what should be done to rein in the virus and stop this menace? First, in future we have to take quick, strong and timely action to stop the transmission of the disease. For that we need proper data and maps before taking decisions. The government should not allow any organisation impose their will by coming out with various unproductive and social destructive proposals. Years ago, there were so many Epidemiologists who were highly trained, mainly abroad, but I just don’t see the Epidemiology Unit in the fore-front of Covid-19 control now. I think the government should bring back those who have retired and put each province under one of them. The data provided now is not worth to take informed decisions. There should be enough young medical officers with IT knowledge who can bring out great analyzed data and maps who can be put to work at the main Unit. The prevention and control should involve the following actions for outbreak response: surveillance of patients and contact tracing, laboratory testing, case management at home and hospital level, infection prevention and control, travel restrictions, lockdowns, epidemiological and outbreak analytics, dissemination of information to relevant officials and most importantly to the general public, logistics, risk communication and community engagement. Lockdowns are may be a short-term strategy but not desirable in the long-term as a strategy and what should be done is to place systems in place and building up capacities not only of the health staff but also of the general public for short and swift actions to prevent the spread of the virus.

 

How to stop transmission

With regard to travel restrictions the strategy should be based on the notion that when people stop moving the virus also stops moving and if it stops moving then it dies away. Data has shown that 8 out of 10 people should stay at home for the corona virus to be controlled. This is an important message as sometimes even the vaccinated get ill. So, what can be done? What can be suggested is that at any time or any day both the Public and the Private Sectors should have only 20% of their office staff at work at least until the end of September this year. All government departments, businesses or institutions should have their own Covid-19 prevention Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and health protocols in place catering to the specific needs of such places. This is important especially for government institutions. Inter district travel should be only for the essential staff. The manufacturing industry can have all their staff in bubbles by providing the staff with lodgings. The factories should have 50% of the staff but with longer working hours having weekly rotations. The same goes for the building industry. They can have night shifts. The staff can be allowed home once a fortnight after being checked by a physician whether they have the symptoms. They should also be given a place in the priority list for vaccinations. In any case if they have the disease the others also will get ill by that time and then the whole group could be quarantined together. Private transport for the staff is important and that goes for the government workers also. Similarly, others also can make arrangements after obtaining medical opinion by those who are involved in Covid-19 prevention. Those drivers and conductors in the transport services also should be vaccinated as a priority.

The Covid-19 Prevention Task Force should work in smaller sub-committees: Disease Control; Security; Logistics, Vaccine procurement and delivery; Hospital Management; Economics, Manufacturing, Agriculture and Trade; Ambulance Service, etc., and meet the Task Force with their own decisions which should be conveyed at the meetings with the Head of the Government. That meeting should be for only the key officials from these sub-committees or those who are invited specially to hear their opinions. Those who come with different opinions should be given a chance to voice their concerns at each level. Public Health staff should engage with local communities in the MOH areas to build trust for evidence-based actions to detect possible cases and encourage local leaders to support outbreak control response measures. Strategic decisions with regard to control measures should be taken at central level by an Expert Panel comprising of Epidemiologists, Virologists, Public Health and Hospital administrators. Keep out the ‘Wannabe Epidemiologists’ stupid ideas such as vaccinate people in ‘Virgin Areas’. They do more harm than good as too many cooks spoil the soup. A true Epidemiologist with years of experience gets a gut feeling of what should be done next. Ambulance Services should be combined and coordinated by one sub-committee. All vacancies for health staff should be filled at least temporarily especially, those in the public health workforce. Border control should be strict especially in the northern seas to prevent delta virus not entering the country. Fishermen should be told not to mix with Indian fishermen. All decisions should be based on guidelines, policies and decisions of the Task Force or Presidential directives based on worked out strategies, the analyzed information, maps, risk assessments, and the epidemiological situation. The basic messages to the general public should be to wear a mask, wash the hands, keep social distance, get vaccinated, go for self-isolation and get medical help if they suspect they have the disease, home quarantine if required etc.

 

Equitable treatment 

On the side of the authorities, they must ensure equitable treatment of all people, free equitable access to diagnostic tests, therapy, and vaccines, which should be allocated according to worked out criteria and needs. The Local NGOs and INGOs should be roped in to help whatever way without getting involved in decision making and politicians should be involved only for organizing the people for PCR testing or for vaccination programmes.

It is a must to have proper communications with people in the area and the health staff comprising of the field officers are the best to do this. Secondly, in future lockdowns must cover larger land areas than at present. For example, if patients are found in a certain Grama Sevaka (GS) Division then lock down the surrounding GS areas too as obviously people don’t contain themselves to their own areas but would have gone into other close-by areas also even before the virus was detected by PCR or antigen testing. If there is a cluster of GS divisions affected then the MOH areas or even Districts should be locked down. However, the essential health staff should be allowed to go to work and trading of essential items should be allowed. Every household should be issued with a card where only one person at a time is allowed outside to go to buy needed items. If these measures still don’t work out then curfew should be declared in such areas again for at least two weeks and see the progress. What has been mentioned above are the basics that should be attended to stop the third wave but not an exhaustive one.

 

Natural decline or vaccination

What will finally stop this epidemic is natural decline or vaccination of the population as Israel did for their citizens. The latter should be our priority. People should as early as possible get their doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, whether it is the AstraZeneca, Sputnik V, Sinopharm or Pfizer vaccine that is available in their area. If we want to stop large scale deaths as in India this should be done immediately. We don’t want this to happen especially in cities such as Colombo, Kandy or Jaffna. Vaccine mis-use, pilferage, selling, and only the privileged getting the injections should be stopped forthwith. Now that the health and armed forces staff are given the vaccines the next priority should be various field staff, staff members of private and public institutions who are in direct contact with customers, traders, shopkeepers, and people in high population density areas where the disease affected large numbers and decisions should not be based on their connections, power or money. Hope we will stick to basics of epidemiology and control this third wave, and see that all are safe in this country.

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