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The COVID-19 Pandemic in Sri Lanka: Contextualising it geographically

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By Dr. Nalani Hennayake and
Dr. Kumuduni Kumarihamy

(Continued from Friday)

The statistics and information aside, what this tells us is that the hope for immunization through a vaccine for the coronavirus could be far off than we think. Dynamics of vaccine politics exists within global politics and the capitalist economy. The Drug Controller General of India has approved the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and another by the Indian manufacturer Bharat Biotech for emergency care. During his recent visit to Sri Lanka, India’s Foreign Minister had pledged that India would prioritize Sri Lanka when supplying vaccines to other countries. In the same meeting, the Indian Foreign Minister had reiterated “India’s backing for Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process and an ‘inclusive political outlook’ that encourages ethnic harmony while the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister rejoiced in the merits of ‘Neighbourhood First Policy’.” At the same time, it was reported that Sri Lanka is making plans to sign an agreement to secure the COVID-19 vaccine through the COVAX facility, which is already approved by the Cabinet.

Various news reports indicate that Sri Lanka is discussing whether to obtain the vaccines from the United States, Britain, or Sputnik V vaccine from Russia. However, it is clear that Sri Lanka has entered into world politics of vaccines. Such vaccine politics tells us that we need to steadily continue controlling strategies such as social distancing, contact tracing, antigen, and PCR testing, significantly raising awareness at the micro-community level. The kind of resilience that local people display when a family member undergoes an infectious disease such as measles and mumps are remarkable. People must be reminded of their resilience and caring. The communities must be made aware of the importance of safeguarding against the coronavirus, given its increased politicization and uneven possibilities of immunization and care.

While it is difficult to anticipate an equitable distribution of the vaccines globally, Sri Lanka’s situation will be determined by the number of vaccines received and the pandemic’s increased politicization. The WHO recognizes four categories of vulnerable persons/groups: Persons at risk of more serious illness from COVID-19, persons or groups with social vulnerabilities, persons or groups living in closed settings, and persons or groups with a higher occupational risk of exposure to the virus. What guarantees that these groups will be considered on a priority basis and the process of immunization will not be biased towards economic and political power? The global geographies of vaccines communicate to us two important messages. First are the difficulty and the disadvantaged position of obtaining vaccines for Sri Lanka as a less-developed country, and as a result, the COVID-19 pandemic can be protracted. Until the vaccines are obtained and a sizeable population of, at least, the risk category – including the frontline health care and security personal – are immunized, we will automatically be identified as vulnerable territories in terms of bio-security. Second, this vulnerability can be manipulated politically, both globally and nationally, to negotiate other deals with powerful countries to trade with vaccines.

The possibility of uneven geographies of care is a fact that should be anticipated given that a majority of the infected are from what we call ‘low-income, low-social status’ communities. There is now a tendency to identify COVID-19 as a disease of the impoverished. The local government bodies such as Municipal councils must reevaluate their position, not how they have acted to control the pandemic, but what they have failed to do in addressing the social welfare issues of the urban low-income communities.

As we look at the possible geographies of care, it is evident that the existence of a relatively good hospital network (at national, regional, and local levels) with relatively good coverage of the entire country has been immensely helpful in treating and caring for COVID-19 patients and those suspected. In addition to the already existing hospitals, the government has converted various government institutions into treatment centres in different parts of the island. This provides breathing space for the government hospitals when dealing with COVID-19 patients and patients who need critical medical care for other illnesses. It should also not be forgotten that the Public Health Inspectors were a category of lesser-known among the hierarchy of the health workers. Their role in curtailing the COVID-19 pandemic has been indispensable: Working not under the best of circumstances and with the minimum personal protective equipment. The average labourer who was entrusted with the strenuous task of sanitizing public places must be cared for too.

The public health system operationalized through MOH areas, a total of 347 MOH areas, as per the Annual Health Statistics Report 2017, is an essential component of controlling the pandemic now or in the future. The health sector generally receives only 1.59 percent of the GNP and 5.94 percent of the National Expenditure, a measly share for an essential sector. According to the same Report, Sri Lanka records an acute shortage of health personnel. There is a significant shortage of nurses and doctors: One doctor for 1083 people, one nurse per 471 people, one Public Health Midwife for 3533 people. As we look into the possible geographies of care, the significance of Primary Health Care Units, the MOH-based public health system, in maintaining a healthy country is indisputable.

 

Micro-geographies of COVID-19

In its interim guidance issued on May 18, 2020, the directive issued by the WHO is as follows: “Physical and social distancing measures in public spaces to prevent transmission between infected individuals and those who are not infected, and shield those at risk of developing serious illnesses. These measures include physical distancing, reduction or cancellation of mass gatherings and avoiding crowded spaces in different settings (e.g., public transport, restaurants, bars, theatres), working from home, and supporting adaptations to workplaces and educational institutions. For physical distancing, WHO recommends a minimum distance of at least one meter between people to limit the risk of interpersonal transmission.” Thus, the WHO recommendation includes two components: physical distancing of one meter between people and social distancing as much as possible in the social events, gatherings, etc.

This requirement was initially communicated as social distancing (සමාජ දුරස්ථභාවය) in Sri Lanka. The exercise of ‘physical and social distancing’ during COVID-19 reminded us of the work of two Political Geographers, Robert E. Norris, and L. Lloyd Haring. They argued that “every person has [is] a portable territory that is larger than the space s/he physically needs” (1980:9). They further wrote that “This territory is called personal space. It is similar in some ways to a political territory. Both personal space and political space are bounded, occupants of each type of space interact with each other of their kin, and uninvited intruders in both types of areas cause stress and behavioural changes within the intruded area.” It is imperative to understand that the personal space or the portable territory is unique to each individual in both size and shape, and they may vary over time and space, according to their specific individual requirements. In such a situation, how can we/how do we regiment this personal space in fear of the uninvited intruder of the coronavirus pathogen, through a standard measure of one or two meters between individuals? Until the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, this space, the portable territory of ours, had been taken for granted. We operated with a sense of relative autonomy over our portable territories. Now, we are told by the state and those in charge of controlling the pandemic how to operate these portable territories, maintaining a distance of one to two meters from each other. It is also expected that every person would carry out this ‘social distancing’ uniformly.

In early years, geographers were influenced by the science of spatial distancing, proxemics, introduced by the Cultural Anthropologist Edward T. Hall, who studied proxemics to understand human spatial behaviour at a micro-scale. In his famous book, “The Hidden Dimension,” published in 1966, he introduced a typology of human spatial distancing. This typology classifies the micro-spatiality of human beings into four types of spaces: intimate space, personal space, social space, and public space. Each type of space is demarcated with a specific distance, internally divided into a near phase and a far phase. The ‘portable territory’ mentioned above includes the intimate and personal spaces in this typology. According to Hall’s generalization, these portable territories end at four feet (1.2 meters), where social space begins. In his typology, ‘social space’ (See Diagram 01) spans between four to twelve feet, which is housed between personal and the public space. Edward T. Hall elaborates that “a proxemic feature of social distance is that it can be used to insulate or screen people from each other” (1966: 123). Social distance thus demarcates the end of physical dominion of an individual or, in other words, literally the jurisdiction of the portable territory.

 

Diagram 01: Distance Typology

In the case of COVID-19, hypothesizing that every person could be a possible carrier of the pathogen, one must maintain the one-metre distance. The distance of one-meter marks the outer boundary of the personal space and the inner boundary of the social space. An effective way to control the pathogens’ spread is to ensure that one strictly remains within one’s portable territory or, control people’s proxemic behaviour. This is very challenging since human beings have been civilized as social beings with defined and undefined social spaces!

Social distancing has become our new norm, and there is an undeniable need for this restriction. However, proxemic behaviour is not entirely an individual matter of concern. People of different cultures display different proxemic patterns; in other words, proxemic patterns are culturally highly conditioned. The concepts of ‘near’ and ‘distant’ are culturally different and relative. “The specific distance chosen (between two or more individuals) depends on the transaction, the relationship of the interacting individuals, how they feel and what they are doing… (Hall, 1969: 128). Human space requirements are generally influenced by his/her environment and surroundings and cultural norms. It is essential to understand the various elements in the immediate surroundings and the larger social context that contribute to our sense of spaces, distances, and relations. Implementers of social distancing may think that all people in a queue are potential carriers of the coronavirus, and therefore, one must maintain a distance of one meter. But some people may feel uncomfortable with social distancing simply because they may have socialized into different proxemic patterns.

Our proxemic behaviour may change, given the particular circumstances. For example, the need to feed a crying child at home, ailing parents, or one’s family overrides the fear of the virus, and the social distance is often contracted, in fear the person in front may grab what you may need. How people feel about each other at a particular time in a given space is a decisive factor in maintaining distance. In his study, Edward T. Hall explains that when people are angry and frustrated, they unknowingly tend to move closer. Some people often forget or become inconsiderate about maintaining social distance simply because of the urgency that being served in a regular queue entails. On such occasions, people are often characterized and labelled as irrational, undisciplined, and even unruly, whereas in political gatherings, opening ceremonies, personalized ‘bodhi pujas,’ etc., proxemic behaviour is often overlooked.

The standard proxemics required to control the COVID-19 pandemic are not realities for people who live in congested localities such as urban low-income areas and plantation areas where COVID-19 is fast spreading. Public services and commercial activities must be streamlined to facilitate a rational proxemic behaviour to maintain the social distance (see, for example, photograph no.1), with the understanding that the proxemic behaviour is culturally conditioned. It is very self-explanatory. Our discussion on proxemics here is not an argument against the requirement of one-meter restriction or any other form of social distancing. But understanding the cultural nuances of proxemics helps us be sensitive and intelligent when handling difficult situations rather than labelling people as irrational, undisciplined, and uncultured.

 

Few conclusive thoughts

What we have tried to emphasize in the article is the need and value of contextualizing the COVID-19 pandemic geographically. There are two aspects to this. First, it is imperative that the prevalence of the COVID-19 is mapped at the GN level with the available data focusing on individual MOH divisions. With our ‘sample’ exercise of Kandy, we have shown that a better spatial picture can be derived from GN level mapping. Since the MOH division, among others, is a crucial operational spatial unit for matters of public health, it is essential to map the number of COVID-19 patients at the MOH level, preferably even randomly locating them within GN divisions. The unintended benefit of such mapping would be that the existing health record systems (IMMR/eIMMR, etc.) will be further developed as a spatial health record system. A spatial health record system helps to understand the ecological dynamics of any disease and can be used as a real-time health monitoring and surveillance tool. The existing health record systems contain patients’ identity numbers (bed-head ticket number), age, gender, postal address, etc. If locational information such as GN, DSD, and district can be added, the data can easily be extracted at any spatial unit from the database for analysis in a crisis. Moreover, the postal addresses can be converted to Geographic Coordinates, indicating the patients’ geographical locations, using geocoding techniques.

Second, it is essential to understand the socioeconomic and ecological contexts of areas where the disease spreads at high intensity. Such a task is made difficult because of the unavailability of data relating to socioeconomic contexts at the GN level. However, the existing administrative system and its resources (Divisional Secretaries, Grama NIladharis, etc.) can be utilized to gather information about local areas. The process of controlling the pandemic must be localized with the MOH as the key operational spatial unit while adhering to national health guidelines and ethical concerns. It is time for the MOH-led system to take pro-active measures (i.e., creating awareness), in collaboration with the existing administrative setup, community organizations and networks, to safeguard the areas where the disease has not yet spread. Most importantly, this process needs to be monitored at the district level. Perhaps, district task forces need to be established to assess and take stock of the district’s current situation, preferably at the GN division level, and implement management and preventive measures.

In its recommendations, the WHO has repeatedly emphasized the need to adhere to both public health and social measures and, very importantly, select and ‘calibrate based on their local context.’ The WHO writes very clearly in its ‘COVID-19 Global Risk Communication and Community Engagement Strategy,’ that “COVID-19 is more than a health crisis; it is also an information and socioeconomic crisis.” It highlights the need to be ‘informed by data that cover the community needs, issues, and perceptions’ and engage with the communities. When the pandemic becomes protracted and the vaccines are not within reach, it is crucial to engage with the communities at the lower levels to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The authorities must pay special attention to the areas that it has not yet spread and take pro-active measures to safeguard those areas, perhaps with the assistance of community organizations and institutions to create awareness among communities.

It appears that people are becoming complacent, and this can exacerbate the situation. Generally, people expect the government to control the second wave and are less inclined to take responsibility for individual behaviours and public health and social measures. On the other hand, the government seems to expect the full responsibility to be taken by the individuals. As the pandemic situation is drawn out, people tend to take risks for granted and assumes normalcy. Such complacency can be detrimental to the process of controlling the pandemic. Such complacency is also a result of poor or lack of communication about the disease, specially among vulnerable communities. Although the Ministry of Health has developed a comprehensive set of health guidelines, whether they are effectively communicated to the people is a matter of concern. Many people cannot grasp the severity of the disease and the significance of adhering to preventive health and social measures. Therefore, authorities must seriously consider sharing the responsibility of controlling the pandemic with the communities.

Finally, while we encourage mapping as a tool that can facilitate better decision making, it is important to understand that maps, and even charts and diagrams, etc., can become ‘political technologies.’ Such political technologies can instil a sense of concern, fear, and anxiety among the decision-makers and the public. We see that the pandemic is fast politicized in Sri Lanka. Mapping and geo-visualization of COVID-19 should not be ruled out either in fear of exposure or political manipulation, as it may suggest how the pandemic needs to be acted upon effectively at the local level.

 

Dr. Nalani Hennayake teaches a range of Human Geography courses) and Dr. Kumudini Kumarihamy teaches GIS and Health at the Department of Geography, University of Peradeniya.

 

(Concluded)

 



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What’s in a Suit? That which is substantive can be delivered in a Bush Shirt!

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Anura Kumara Dissanayake meeting Indian Minister of External Affairs Dr. S. Jaishankar in New Delhi. (File Photo)

by Rajan Philips

Never mind what Anura Kumara Dissanayake wore in Delhi. Never mind what Ranil Wickremesinghe wears daily. What the people want is not the word salads of sartorial politics by Sunday pundits, but the proffering of substantive politics by contenders for political office. As the pre-election dust takes its own time to settle, two figures are emerging as the primary contenders.

On the right, where he has always been, is Ranil Wickremesinghe. On the left, where he seems inspired to be, is Anura Kumara Dissanayake. If there was any chance of someone racing up the middle, that chance and the politics of that candidate are fast withering. The political house of Sajith Premadasa is a house divided according to insiders and outsiders. Mr. Premadasa will have to put his own house in order before he can be a serious contender for public office.

The impending contest between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Anura Kumara Dissanayake will be a very different one when compared to past presidential elections. First to be noted is the organizational disarray of the mainstream political parties and their electorally opportunistic alliances. The disarray is obvious and needs no elaboration.

It also explains why President Wickremesinghe, the nearly 50-year veteran of a 77 year old party, is still looking for a political launcher for his presidential candidacy. Officially, he will be a UNP candidate with the elephant symbol, but he is looking to be acclaimed as the candidate of a grand alliance. Media columnists are writing about such an alliance, but there are no signs yet of any alliance, let alone a grand one.

The support for President Wickremesinghe is mainly based on his successful stabilization of the economy from where his predecessor left and ran away. Those who are genuinely and perhaps exclusively concerned about the economy do think that Ranil Wickremesinghe should be elected as President to continue managing the economy. But this premise has at least two limitations.

A tentative candidate

One, while it is fair to give Mr. Wickremesinghe credit for what he has done, it would be a stretch to claim that what he has done is something miraculous and that he should contest and be elected President for a new term to continue performing economic miracles. The economy cannot be restored by magic or miracles, and no one should lose sight of the fact that the current stability is primarily due to the moratorium on debt payment. What happens when debt repayment is restarted?

The second limitation to the Wickremesinghe candidacy is that the support for Mr. Wickremesinghe is neither broad nor deep. Otherwise, he should be the one who is topping opinion polls and creating the buzz that Ranil is the man to beat. Mr. Wickremesinghe himself is quite coy about his candidacy. Either he is keeping everyone guessing, or he is guessing himself.

It may be that the President is looking for a broad appeal imploring him to contest the presidential election to keep saving the economy. Similar to the circumstance in which he acceded to the desperate request of Gotabaya Rajapaksa for a helping hand. But there is nothing like that happening now. No appeal by any credible alliance for Ranil to be a candidate. The whole tentativeness of the situation is a symptom of the disarray of the political establishment.

That brings me to the second unique aspect of the upcoming presidential election. That is the emergence of the JVP/NPP as real contender for winning power democratically, and whose unity of purpose and organizational discipline stand in stirring contrast to the opportunism and disarray of the mainstream parties. The JVP’s emergence as a viable contender is as much due to its own maturity as it is due to resonating objective conditions.

The aragalaya that drove Gota away may have turned the tide for the JVP. But it goes beyond that, and it shows the people’s real hunger for an alternative political leadership. And it shows that the people are not warming up to Ranil Wickremesinghe in spite of all the learned views about his capabilities as an economic manager.

AKD’s leadership

The consolidation of the JVP and the emergence of the NPP as its electoral front also owe a great deal to the seemingly collegial leadership of Anura Kumara Dissanayake. He is unique in Sri Lankan politics as the one political leader who has filtered up through the social layers among the Sinhalese without being part of a mainstream political party – the UNP, the SLFP, and later the SLPP. The devolution of political leadership in Sri Lanka – i.e., the transitioning of political leadership from the decadent upper strata of society to the emerging generations – could be a study in itself.

The fact of the matter is that such a transitioning has not been as common in Sri Lanka as it has been in India. There is a long trace of leadership transitioning in India – from the rise of K. Kamaraj as Chief Minister of Madras State (now Tamil Nadu) in 1954, to the ascent of Narendra Modi first as Chief Minister of Gujarat and now the soon to be ‘threepeat’ Prime Minister of India. There is nothing common about their politics, but they represent the shifting of leadership from the upper echelons to the lower strata of India’s hugely stratified society. The example of President Premadasa could be cited as an exception, but it was an exception that could not become a trend.

The JVP and the LTTE interventions could be seen as violent and misplaced efforts to force a transitioning of leadership. Both efforts ended in failure, but the reality now is that even the traditional leadership formations have now imploded. There was a much touted recent transitioning in Tamil political leadership, but that seems to have got mired in legal battles in district courts.

The saving grace here is in the recourse to court battles instead of gun battles. There have been shifts in leadership among the Muslims and estate Tamils, but even the new organizations representing the two communities have become mere appendages to mainstream alliances. They too are suffering from the organizational disarray of their mainstream principals.

In this scheme of unfolding disarray, it is fair to acknowledge the leadership and organizational achievements of Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the JVP and the NPP. This is not to say that they are going to win the upcoming elections and that they are going to provide a pathbreaking new government for Sri Lanka. Those proofs will come in whatever puddings they make.

For now, as a point of political observation, what AKD has done so far needs to be acknowledged. India seems to have done that, and it is irrelevant to the current argument why India may have chosen to do that. More to the point, there has been no Indian invitation yet, not even a hint of it, to the newly elected leader of the ITAK.

The gripe over AKD’s Indian visit is really a symptom of the uneasiness in political circles that are unable to come to grips with the disarray among the mainstream political parties and their alliances. Not to mention that for a host of good and bad reasons, the arrival of the JVP/NPP as a palpable parliamentary force is not palatable to many in the commentating business. It is again a symptom of the mainstream disarray that criticisms of JVP/NPP are emanating almost exclusively outside of parliament and from outside formal political organizations. Conversely, it is this vacuum that the JVP/NPP is filling up much to the irritation of its socio-genital opponents.

Their politics and ours

The task for Anura Kumara Dissanayake and the JVP/NPP is to respond to the sartorial politics of their critics with substantive politics of their own. “Their Politics and Ours,” the title of an old pamphlet that Dr. Colvin R de Silva wrote in the early 1950s, takes a different meaning in the new context in which the JVP/NPP is emerging as a real parliamentary contender.

Dr Colvin was intervening in the perennial debates within the left movement in the heady days of the Old Left. That was then. Now, Anura Kumara Dissanayake does not have to get into polemic battles with anyone on the Left. He is in fact the only one on the Left, electorally speaking. He has to differentiate his politics from that of his media critics.

There is another difference between the heady days of the Old Left and Sri Lanka’s desperate times after the Rajapaksa yugaya. The challenge today is not to advance the cause of socialism but to salvage the economy from the pits that it has fallen into. Sri Lanka’s economic irony cannot be any stalker, in that Sri Lanka and Pakistan are two economic laggards in South Asia that is now seen as the principal growth region for an unevenly sputtering world economy.

India is virtually the sole economic engine of the South Asian region, and the challenge facing Sri Lanka is to get in stride with ongoing regional growth instead of lagging behind it.

The challenge facing JVP/NPP is to generate confidence about its abilities for managing the economy the same way it is demonstrating its abilities for political mobilization. As a political organization it does not have to rely on its leaders to read economic textbooks the way Che Guvera read them after the Cuban revolution.

There are enough economists and economic thinktanks in Sri Lanka and the JVP/NPP should not feel shy about tapping them for ideas and as resources. There should be reaching out to professional resources in a very public way to enhance public confidence at the national level, the same way retired military and police officers are reportedly being enlisted at the electoral district levels.

Besides the economy, the JVP/NPP leadership will have to deal with the question of constitutional reform and clarify its position on what could still be called the island’s national question. On the question of abolishing the executive presidency, Mr. Dissanayake has provided a convincing response: there is no time to do it before the presidential election.

President Wickremesinghe has said the same thing, but the difference between the two is that while Mr. Dissanayake is committed to abolishing the presidency, Mr. Wickremesinghe is not. That is a big difference, and one on which Mr. Dissanayake could and should publicly challenge the interim President.

 

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Leading Restoration: WNPS at the Forefront of Conserving Mangrove Ecosystems

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Awareness creating among school children at a mangrove restoration site

One of Sri Lanka’s six RAMSAR wetlands, the Anawilundawa sanctuary is surrounded by a colorful coastline, enhanced by the lush mangroves that shield it, and supported by freshwater sources that are essential to life. Numerous plant and animal species can be found within the confines of this sanctuary, in addition to neighbouring communities whose survival depends on the health of this ecosystem for their survival.

The intricate root systems of mangrove forests bridge both land and sea, serving as a powerful ecosystem that supports life and growth. Mangroves are vital towards building the resilience of a nation, by safeguarding our coasts from natural disasters, while enabling livelihoods and empowering communities. Their ability to absorb and store carbon dioxide in greater quantities than other non-coastal ecosystems position them as an important source of blue carbon that is crucial to the fight against climate change.

Unfortunately, unsustainable shrimp farming and other human activities had taken a toll on the environment. This now-abandoned landscape was altered by the use of dangerous chemicals, and until 2019, about 45 hectares of what was once a lush forest were dead and bare. Restoration was the need of the hour, yet many challenges lay in store.

Firstly, no formal mechanism for mangrove restoration had been established. Accordingly, the Department of Wildlife, the Forest Department, and the Ministry of Environment partnered with the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka as its principal science partner. With more than 129 years of experience advancing conservation and research throughout the island, the WNPS was ideally positioned capitalize on the strength of teamwork, the rigor of science, and the tireless dedication of its people and partners to develop a sustainable solution.

“The WNPS has long established science as the core foundation of all of its work. The Society also served as the catalyst to bring together diverse stakeholders under the mantle of restoration by bringing in government entities, NGOs, academia, the private sector, surrounding communities and the youth to actively participate in these efforts. In doing so, they ensured that the right science is implemented in this restoration site, while demonstrating the need for multi-stakeholder collaboration to achieve lasting, viable results,” said Professor Sevvandi Jayakody, Science Lead of the Project.

A veritable force of diverse people and organizations transformed a once deserted habitat into a hive of research and activity. Under the direction of the technical team, on-site nurseries were established, experiments were carried out, and natural processes were replicated. A topographical map of the area was created with the help of the Sri Lanka Navy to construct canals that would channel water effectively into arid land. Research labs were constructed on the premises and modern equipment was procured with the collective support of the public sector, business community, and non-governmental organizations. Community members and leaders were mobilized to strengthen these efforts further.

“An intriguing feature of this project is that research is not merely being applied to regenerate these mangrove forests. The science also flows into sustainably enhancing and uplifting the neighbouring community’s livelihoods, while nurturing future youth restoration leaders, with the goal of maintaining these vulnerable environments in the long run,” stated Graham Marshall, Chair of the WNPS Marine Subcommittee

Soil core sampling below ground biomass

The WNPS was further instrumental in shifting from traditional one-time interventions towards long-term partnerships, particularly with respect to obtaining essential private sector funding.

To date, a diverse and growing team of partners have joined hands with WNPS in the journey to restore this vital ecosystem, comprising the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), the Department of Forests, the Wayamba University of Sri Lanka, the Hydrography Unit of the Sri Lanka Navy, Lanka Environment Fund, Hayleys Advantis, CEFAS (UK), CSIRO (Aus), Hemas Consumer Brands, Biodiversity Sri Lanka, Star Garments, US Forest Service, and CMA CGM Shipping. Thanks to this coalition for conservation, a previously desolate region has begun to demonstrate signs of life once more. Studies on specific species are yielding encouraging results, and habitats are being progressively restored.

The WNPS and its partners are heartened to note that its trailblazing approach towards the restoration of mangrove ecosystems have contributed towards Sri Lanka being awarded as a UN World Restoration Flagship in 2024, and look forward to advancing the future of sustainable ecosystem restoration in the years to come.

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THE BILLIONAIRE SHOE SALESMAN

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by Vijaya Chandrasoma

February is Black History month, celebrated for over a century to focus attention on the history of the origins, the cruelty, the travails, the sacrifices, and achievements of the enslaved people brought from Africa to the Land of the Free White Supremacists in the early 17th century.

However, February has brought nothing but grief to The Donald. Trump was ranked, on February 20, by 154 scholars connected to the distinguished American Political Science Association, as the “45th and rock bottom” of US presidents in history. Even more humiliating was President Biden’s ranking at no. 14, with his most important achievement listed that he “rescued the presidency from Trump”!

The month of February also saw the courts shattering Trump’s dreams of presidential immunity, that he was above the law and therefore immune from the 91 felonies committed during his presidency.

Trump has already been hit with penalties from two civil trials in New York – $83 million for the rape and defamation of E. Jean Carroll and $355 million for inflating the value of his assets and defrauding the US government. Of course he will appeal these judgments. The problem is that any such appeals have to be accompanied by full or at least a substantial percentage of the damages awarded, in cash or bond. Unfortunately, no issuer of bonds will trust Trump with any such transaction.

Many may think that Trump had hit rock bottom when he was, at a campaign rally last week, making a fevered pitch to sell “beautiful” gold painted pairs of sneakers at a “bargain” price of $399 a pop, presumably to help raise the money due as damages on the above judgments.

The price of a high-end pair of Nike sneakers runs at around $100; but, according to Trump, his brand name increases the price of any commodity exponentially. Like the many properties he has illegally overvalued, which is the reason this former president and billionaire has been reduced in status to a Footlocker shoe salesman. A comparison which will likely be resented by those salesmen.

No doubt he’ll raise the necessary funds from his Russian and Saudi Arabian buddies who will be happy to pay millions of dollars for some of the top-secret documents he still has stashed away in one of his Mar a Lago toilets.

I will never forget a statement Trump made in one of his pre-2016 campaign rallies:

“I am really rich. I will be using my own money. I won’t need any contributions from anyone for my campaign or any other reason. I built a very small loan into a company that’s worth many billions of dollars, with some of the greatest assets in the world”.

Only Trump can squeeze in so many lies into a few sentences. The “very small loan” referred to was an inheritance of over $300 million from his father in the late 1990s. His election campaigns have been funded almost entirely by donations from his supporters. After his electoral defeat in 2020, he has been milking his supporters every time he was indicted on felonies, with lies that the crooked Biden administration was persecuting him, on a perennial witch hunt. With all the evidence of his criminal, even treasonous, behavior staring them in the face, members of his cult, even so-called moderate Republicans, continue to humor and fund him.

Trump has long been threatening, if he wins re-election, that the USA will resign from NATO, the most durable and powerful military alliance since World War II. He alleges that fellow NATO members were not paying the minimum of 2% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for their common defense. In fact, last week he said that he would encourage Russia to “to do whatever the hell they want”, even invade any NATO allies who were delinquent in the payment of their dues.

Trump’s love affairs with the despots of the world, right-wing dictators like Russia’s Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orban have been an open secret, his admiration and envy of these murderers boundless.

When the tragic news of the death of Putin’s nemesis, Alexei Navalny, was announced last week by the authorities of an Arctic penal colony, the leaders of the United States and most nations of the world condemned Putin for the murder of the leader of the largest anti-Putin movement in Russia. President Biden called Putin a “crazy son of a bitch, a killer, a butcher and a war criminal”, and promised to impose stringent sanctions on Russia as a result of this murder.

In spite of demands from his family that his body be released for humane and private burial, Russian authorities refuse to do so, probably awaiting the disappearance of traces of the poison used to kill him.

And Trump? He was speechless for a week, reluctant to criticize his mentor. When he finally found his tongue, he mentioned not a word against Putin, but predictably made a statement short on grief and sympathy, and long about himself and his mythical grievances. He described himself, with not an ounce of irony, as “the Navalny of the United States”, the victim of oppression, battling the persecution of the ruthless dictatorship of Crooked Joe! Hardly surprising, this is the narcissistic maniac who had previously compared himself to Nelson Mandela, and most famously, to Jesus Christ.

Actually, the analogy couldn’t be more antithetical. Alexei Navalny was prepared to sacrifice his life for democracy. Trump, on the other hand, was prepared to sacrifice the life of his Vice-President Mike Pence to destroy democracy.

It never ceases to amaze me that a felon already convicted of rape and fraud, indicted in four jurisdictions and on conditional bail for a world record of 91 felonies, has the gall to call Joe Biden CROOKED, as he described “Crooked Joe” in a tweet after Navalny’s murder. It’s like the Milwaukee Cannibal, Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial murderer who made a delicious meal of his victims, describing a vegetarian as a monster!

February also brought a confession by Alexander Smirnov, former FBI informant, on whose information Republicans based their allegations for impeachment of President Biden and his son, Hunter. Smirnov had previously stated that the Bidens had received millions of dirty dollars from the Ukrainian company, Burisma. He has now confessed to the FBI that his story about the Bidens was a complete fabrication, an invention of Putin’s Russian intelligence. He has since been exposed by the FBI as a “Disinformation Agent” of this Russian spy machine.

Many prominent Republican Congressmen still shamelessly lie that they have complete confidence in Smirnov’s credibility, in spite of the fact that FBI Director, Christopher Wray had warned them two years ago that Smirnov’s credentials were highly suspect. Smirnov is now under indictment for lying and providing falsified documents to the FBI. His testimony has completely undercut the Republicans’ case, and their desperate attempts to impeach President Biden have finally blown up in their faces.

There is no doubt that Hunter Biden was a flawed human being, who acted unethically in accepting money from an Ukrainian company, taking advantage of his father’s position as the Vice-President. Hunter has also admitted there was a period in his life when he was guilty of substance abuse and tax evasion, crimes for which he is in the process of paying his debt to society.

There is absolutely no evidence that President Biden was involved in any way with the activities of his son, a private citizen, during his two terms as Vice-President.

Interestingly, Republicans turned a blind eye when Trump’s children were defrauding the government for billions of dollars, when his daughter, Ivanka and husband, Jared Kushner, were senior employees in the Trump administration.

This complicity of Russian intelligence with Trump’s Republican cult leads to the terrifying conclusion that the Russians are, yet again, attempting to interfere in American elections. The stakes for Putin could not be higher. The re-election of Trump, his lap-dog, to the US presidency in November will open the doors to his ultimate dream of the re-emergence of the Superpower glory of the now defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). And Trump will attain his dreams of dictatorial power, and use that power to rival Putin as the richest man in the world.

Alexei Navalny’s simple message to his supporters, as shown in the 2022 Oscar-winning documentary, was as ominous as it was inspirational.

“You are not allowed to give up. If they decide to kill me, it means that we are incredibly strong. We need to use this power”. He ended his message with a maxim often attributed to Edmund Burke, widely known as the philosophical founder of British conservatism: “All that is needed for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing”. A message that has guided Navalny’s life, and may prove to be even more powerful in his death, if it inspires the good people in Russia to continue the struggle against Putin’s evil regime and build a better future for Russia.

The good people of Germany ignored the evils of Hitler and the Nazis in the 1930s. They did nothing although they saw – and smelled – the smoke of burning human flesh billowing from the ovens of Germany’s many concentration camps. This gruesome evil was finally vanquished, though with international, including American, intervention. But not before the extermination of six million Jews.

Today, the good people of the world, even in Israel, are watching in horror but doing nothing as Israeli Prime Minister, Netanyahu and his right-wing cabinet intent on a one-state solution in Israel, are continuing to wreak vengeance on innocent Palestinian men, women and children in Gaza (29,000 killed as of date, and counting) for that one day on October 7, 2023. A day when Hamas, a terrorist organization, tortured and killed 1,200 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, kidnapping 140 hostages of various nationalities.

Revenge in the form of indiscriminate air and ground onslaughts by the Israeli Defense Force are beginning to metaphorically smell awfully like the noisome smoke that emanated from the ovens of Auschwitz. And who knows? Netanyahu might succeed in his ambition to wipe out all the Palestinians where Hitler failed in his ambition to exterminate all the Jews. A genocidal parallel, brimming with irony, that will not be lost in the history books of the future.

The tragedy is that this very same scenario exists in the greatest democracy in the world today. The good people of the United States of America are looking on in apathy, doing nothing, as Trump and the American equivalent of the Nazi Brownshirts harass, threaten and attack, not only Jews, but all brown skinned immigrants from “shithole countries”. They listen with enthusiastic anticipation to Trump listing all the Hitler-like measures he will implement to “preserve the pure white blood” of European Americans when he wins re-election.

These domestic terrorists will not surrender the white privileges they have enjoyed for centuries without using every means, domestic and Russian, politically deceptive and criminally violent, to perpetuate their illusion of white superiority.

The good people of America have eight months to wake up to what could well mean the end of their democracy and the position of their leadership of the free nations of the world. And the sad fact is that most people who read this will think I am being alarmingly fear-mongering and hyperbolic. Let me assure you, I am not. Trump’s “movement” presents the greatest danger the United States has faced since the Civil War, basically, for the same reason – preservation of the dominance of White Supremacy. This time around, however, the modern version of the soldiers of the Confederacy will be armed not with muskets but with military style killing machines. And led by an ignorant psychopath.

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