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The JVP’s Military Battle for Power

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THE APRIL 1971 REVOLT – II

By Jayantha Somasundaram

The JVP evolved in the late 1960s under Rohana Wijeweera as a radical rural youth group. It believed that a socialist change in Sri Lanka could only be effected through a sudden armed insurrection launched simultaneously across the country. Recruits to the JVP underwent a series of political classes as well as military training, while the organisation clandestinely armed itself. The United Front Government responded in March 1971 with a State of Emergency, the arrest of JVP cadre and the deploying of the Army to the provinces.

In March 1971 events rapidly escalated. The JVP believed that the government was planning to use the Army to launch an all out offensive against them. And on 2nd April nine JVP leaders, six members of the Political Bureau and three District Secretaries, met at the Vidyodaya Sangaramaya at a meeting presided over by S.V.A Piyatilake. They took the decision to launch their attack at 2330 hours on 5th April. “The decision taken was to attack on a specific date at a specific time. This decision is completely in line with the evidence that the Fifth Class of the JVP…advocated that in the circumstances of our country, the best method would be to launch simultaneous attacks everywhere,” concluded the Judgement of the Criminal Justice Commission Inquiry No 1 1976.

The date of attack was relayed by pre-arranged code in the contents of a paid radio obituary notice by an unsuspecting state-owned Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation. The JVP cadres at Wellawaya however misinterpreted the instruction and launched their attack on the Wellawaya Police Station 24 hours earlier on the night of 4th April.

The initial targets were rural police stations both in order to further arm themselves and because the JVP viewed the police as the only representative of the state in the countryside. Moreover, they believed that the police and the armed forces were low on ammunition and they discounted the government’s ability to counter attack once the JVP had gained control of the countryside. Besides, the attacks on remote police stations across much of the country’s rural south, a large group also travelled north in order to rescue Wijeweera who was held in Jaffna.

Attacking with home-made weapons in groups of 25 to 30 in order to seize better arms from the police stations, the JVP believed that controlling these rural police stations would provide them with areas of military and political control, thereby denying the government access to such areas which would provide secure rear-bases for subsequent attacks by the JVP on towns and cities. Ten out of the island’s 22 Administrative Districts were battlegrounds. “Ninety two Police Stations had been attacked, damaging fifty and causing around fifty to be abandoned,” wrote Major General Anton Muttukumaru in The Military History of Ceylon.

Piyatilake was responsible for operations in Colombo. He detailed Raja Nimal an Advanced Level student to storm the Rosmead Place residence of Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike on the night of the 5th along with 50 student cadre, to capture the Prime Minister and transport her to a place where she would be held. However the expected vehicle and Piyatilake failed to arrive at the prearranged rendezvous in Borella and the attack did not materialise. Meanwhile unaware of the impending danger, the Prime Minister’s security advisers prevailed upon her to move to her official residence at Temple Trees, where she would be more secure.

Elsewhere in the Colombo District a major attack occurred at Hanwella, where the A4 High Level and Low Level Roads converge. Early on the morning of the 6th about 100 JVP combatants using hand bombs, Molotov Cocktails and firearms attacked the Police Station compelling its personnel to abandon their positions and flee into the surrounding jungle. The JVP captured the station’s armoury of weapons, hoisted a red flag and froze transport into Colombo. They held the town until armed police from Homagama supported by troops from Panagoda overpowered them.

 

The Battle for Kegalle

Athula Nimalasiri Jayasinghe, known within the Movement as Loku Athula, was in charge of the Kegalle and Kurunegala Districts. Once the decision to attack was made he moved into the area on the 3rd, meeting Area Leaders at Weliveriya and coordinating operations with detachments in Veyangoda and Mirigama. About 600 JVP combatants were deployed across the Kegalle District concentrated at Warakapola and Rambukkana.

Under Patrick Fernando, the Pindeniya detachment attacked both the local Police Station and the Bogala Graphite Mines, capturing a lorry load of explosives from the mines. On the 8th the Warakapola Police Station was successfully attacked, its weapons including two sub machine guns seized and the building set ablaze. In addition, Police Stations at Bulathkohupitiya, Aranayaka, Mawanella, Rambukkana and Dedigama were also attacked and the station at Aranayake burned down. Only Kegalle Police Station and the area surrounding it remained under Government control.

The Army could only access the interior regions of the District on the 10th and initially had to focus on removing road blocks and repairing culverts and bridges to gain mobility. When they penetrated the countryside they were frequently ambushed as in Aranayake and both sides sustained casualties. In The JVP 1969-1989 Justice A.C. Alles concludes that “the insurgents had met with considerable success in the Kegalle District.”

On the 12th at Utuwankande the Army was ambushed by the JVP using rifles and submachine guns. But the battle was turning in favour of the Army which brought to bear superior arms to put pressure on the rebels and gradually reopen the abandoned police stations in the district.

Finally on the 29th led by Loku Athula the JVP forces began their withdrawal from the District, from Balapattawa via Alawwa and then north. As they retreated in the direction of the Wilpattu Park they came under attack from the Army and from the air by Air Force helicopters. The Army finally ambushed them near Galgamuwa, killing some and capturing Loku Athula on 7th June.

The experience of the Kegalle District was replicated by the JVP in the Galle, Matara and Hambantota Districts. With the exception of Dickwella all Police Stations in the Matara District were abandoned. While in the Ambalangoda Police Area all stations, Elpitiya, Uragaha, Pitigala and Meetiyagoda fell to the JVP.

Widespread JVP attacks were also launched across the North Central Province where only the Anuradhapura Police Station was spared. As in the Kegalle District the outlying stations had to be abandoned and personnel withdrawn to Anuradhapura. However the Kekirawa Station, though attacked several times, held out. The Army was only able to move into the outlying areas of the Anuradhapura District on the 30th. Further north the Vavuniya Police Station in the Northern Province was also attacked. Less intense activity was reported in the Kandy, Badulla and Moneragala Districts.

N.Sanmugathasan in A Marxist Looks at the History of Ceylon remarked that “The rank and file (of the JVP) seems to have been honestly revolutionary, with a sense of dedication that must be admired, and a willingness to sacrifice their lives – unheard of before in Ceylon.” The first Ceylonese Army Commander General Muttukumaru wrote “Their (JVP) courage was also evident in the display of their military skills which enabled them to control many regions in the country and give battle to the armed forces in fierce guerrilla fighting.”

The military background

In November 1947 on the eve of independence, Ceylon signed a Defence Agreement with the United Kingdom. The military’s threat perception was determined by “the Government’s concern, (which) was invasion by India. The military’s focus was to have a defence force capable of meeting any external threat until assistance arrived from Britain.” In the words of Air Vice-Marshal P.H. ‘Paddy’ Mendis, who was Air Force Commander in 1971, the objective that determined the capabilities of the armed forces therefore was to “hold up an invading force of the enemy until assistance arrived from a bigger country with which we have an alliance.” (Brian Blodgett in Sri Lanka’s Military: The Search for a Mission 1949-2004)

The only military threat perceived was external; there was no anticipation of an internal military threat. Furthermore, in the wake of the 1962 abortive coup against the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Government, and the alleged 1966 coup against the United National Party Government, both parties that had been in power were wary of the Army which in 1970 had an authorised strength of 329 officers and 6,291 other ranks, and an annual budget of Rs 52 million (US$10mn), just 1.2% of total government expenditure.

Despite these inherent structural limitations, the Government and the Army responded swiftly, appointing regional Co-ordinating Officers in the worst affected districts. They were Colonels E.T. de Z. Abeysekera in Anuradhapura, S. D. Ratwatte in Badulla, Douglas Ramanayake in Galle and Derek Nugawella in Hambantota, Lieutenant Colonels R.R Rodrigo in Jaffna, Cyril Ranatunga in Kegalle, D.J.de S Wickremasinghe in Matara, Tissa Weeratunga in Moneragala and Dennis Hapugalle in Vavuniya.

The Ceylon Volunteer Force was immediately mobilised, and the first military casualty was Staff Sergeant Jothipala of the 2nd Volunteer Battalion, Sinha Regiment [2(V)SR], who was killed at Thulhiriya in the Kurunegala District on the first day of the insurrection. While Sandhurst-trained Major Noel Weerakoon of the 4th Regiment, Ceylon Artillery was the first officer to be killed whilst leading an ammunition convoy from Vavuniya to the besieged town of Anuradhapura; he was wounded when his convoy was ambushed and later succumbed to his injuries.

The battle rages

In 1971 the Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF) consisted of three squadrons: No. 1 Flying Training Squadron with nine Chipmunk trainers based at China Bay, No. 2 Transport Sq. equipped with five Doves, 4 Herons and three Pioneer fixed wing aircraft and four helicopters and No. 3 Reconnaissance Sq. with Cessna aircraft. In the 1960s Britain had gifted five Hunting Jet Provost T51s jet trainers which had gone out of service by 1971.

Beginning at 0900 hours on 5th April the Jet Provost, which were in storage at China Bay, began operating out of this airbase. Armed with Browning machine guns and rockets, they carried out air to ground attacks using 60 lb rockets. The three Bell 206A Jet Ranger helicopters protected by Bren Guns airlifted 36,500 lb of ammunition during April to critical police stations. In addition the Doves carried out supply missions and during the course of April, 900 soldiers and 100,000 lb of equipment were transported by the RCyAF.

The JVP seized parts of the Colombo-Kandy A1 Trunk Route at Warakapola and Kegalle, cutting off the main artery between Colombo and the tea growing highlands. In response the Jet Provost had to mount aerial attacks on the key bridge at Alawwa which led to the downing of a Jet Provost and the death of her pilot.

If not for the premature attack in Wellawaya which resulted in the Police and Military around the country being placed on high alert “the situation would have been very grave for not only would several Police Stations have been captured, but the JVP would have been able to arm itself with modern weapons,” wrote Justice Alles.

Desperate for arms and ammunition in the first days of the rebellion, the Government aware that a Chinese cargo vessel bound for Tanzania with an arms shipment was currently in Colombo Harbour, unsuccessfully appealed to both Beijing and Dar-es-Salaam to make these arms available to Sri Lanka.

International support

As rural police stations fell, the government abandoned others, regrouping its limited forces and anxious to protect the towns and cities. This tactic paid off. The JVP only had equipment captured from police stations. They did not go on to overrun military camps nor capture their more sophisticated weapons. While the JVP did control parts of Kegalle, Elpitiya, Deniyaya and Kataragama uncontested, the Army replenished its meagre stocks of weapons.

Wijeweera had focussed solely on a single decisive blow against the Government. There was no provision to conduct even a short term guerrilla operation, or an attempt to lead a peasant uprising. And during the first 72 hours his strategy appeared to be working. What dramatically altered the balance of forces against the JVP was the immediate and sustained influx of military equipment that flowed in from overseas to enable the armed forces to turn the tide in their favour.

Within four days of the JVP attack, Air Ceylon’s Trident took off from Singapore carrying a consignment of small arms provided by Britain from its base there. The following day the UK agreed to supply six Bell-47G Jet Ranger helicopters armed with 7.62mm machine guns. On 12th April on board a US Air Force Lockheed C-141 Starlifter, Washington shipped out critical spare parts for the RCyAF helicopters which were flying twelve hour days. And at Colombo’s request New Delhi on the 14th sent six Indian Air Force Aérospatiale SA 315B Lama utility helicopters with crews to Katunayake Air Force Base, along with troops to guard them as well as arms, ammunition and grenades. They would remain in-country for three months.

On the 17th Air Ceylon flew in nine tons of military equipment which the Soviet Union made available from supplies in Cairo. While on the 22nd a Soviet Air Force Antonov AN-22 transporter arrived with two Kamov Ka-26 rescue helicopters and five Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 jet fighters and one MiG-17 high-subsonic fighter. The Soviet aircraft were accompanied by 200 trainers and ground crew.

China, Australia, Pakistan and Yugoslavia would also send arms and equipment. Colombo’s Non Aligned foreign policy which enabled it to source and receive military weapons and equipment from countries across the globe had succeeded. However the disparate array of equipment would pose a logistics dilemma for the military.

The sudden influx of arms and ammunition rapidly altered the balance of power against the JVP. For example the Army took Yugoslav artillery into Kegalle to flush out the rebels. And around 16,500 JVP members were captured, arrested or surrendered. The remaining combatants withdrew into jungle sanctuaries in the Kegalle, Elpitiya, Deniyaya and Kataragama areas.

Meanwhile there were reports that the JVP were endeavouring to bring weapons in by sea. But the Royal Ceylon Navy’s frigate and Thorneycroft boats could not secure the island’s territory nor prevent supplies reaching the rebels. This compelled Colombo to rely on the Indian Navy which sent three of its Hunt-class escort destroyers, INS Ganga, INS Gomathi and INS Godawari to patrol Ceylon’s maritime perimeter. In Sri Lanka Navy: Enhanced Role and New Challenges Professor Gamini Keerawella and Lieutenant Commander S. Hemachandre explain that “Sri Lanka’s dependency on the Indian Navy during the Insurgency to patrol its sea frontier in order to prevent arms supply to the Insurgents, was total.”

At Anuradhapura the JVP had established a base camp as well as six sub camps in the surrounding jungle where weapons, explosives and food had been stored. JVP operations in the Rajangana and Tambuttegama areas were controlled from this base camp. A platoon of 1CLI armed with 82mm mortars was sent to Anuradhapura in May and participated in Operation Otthappuwa, under 1CLI 2iC Major Jayawardena to take control of this area. By the end of May the insurrection was completely crushed.

Some counter insurgency operations however continued into the following year. A-Company 1CLI established a forward base in Horowapatana as late as November 1972 from where they carried out combing out operations until April 1973 while 1CLI’s D-Company closed its Kegalle operations only in December 1974.

Outcomes

The international media reported that summary executions had taken place. Writing from Colombo in the Nouvel Observateur on 23rd May, Rene Dumont said “from the Victoria Bridge on 13th April I saw corpses floating down the (Kelani) River which flows through the north of the capital watched by hundreds of motionless people. The Police who had killed them let them float downstream to terrorise the population.” The New York Times in its 15th April edition said that “many were found to have been shot in the back.”

Lieutenant Colonel Cyril Ranatunga commanding troops in Kegalle was emphatic. “We have learned too many lessons from Vietnam and Malaysia. We must destroy them completely.” While another officer was quoted alongside him in the International Herald Tribune of 20th April as saying “Once we are convinced prisoners are insurgents we take them to a cemetery and dispose of them.” And the Washington Post on 9th May quoted a major who said that “we have never had the opportunity to fight a real war in this country. All these years we have been firing at dummies, now we are being put to use.”

One of these public executions became a celebrated case, the brutal murder of Premawathi Manamperi of Kataragama. She had been crowned festival queen at the previous year’s Sinhala New Year celebration. Two soldiers, Lieutenant Wijeysooria and Sergeant Ratnayaka would be convicted, but both claimed their orders were: “Take no prisoners; bump them off, liquidate them.” (Jayasumana Obeysekara Revolutionary Movements in Ceylon in Imperialism and Revolution in South Asia edited by Kathleen Gough and Hari P. Sharma)

Janice Jiggins notes in Caste and Family in the Politics of the Sinhalese 1947-1976 that “Many in the armed services took the view that the fighting was an expression of anti-Govigama resentment and in certain areas went into low caste villages and arrested all the youth, regardless of participation.”

In the aftermath of the insurgency the armed forces expanded. The Air Force which had 1,400 personnel in 1971 grew to 3,100 by 1976. New units were raised: a Special Police Reserve Force, a Volunteer RCyAF and a new Field Security Detachment targeting subversion. The latter was placed under Lieutenant Colonel Anurudha Ratwatte 2(V) SR, the Security Liaison Officer to the Prime Minister. While a new Volunteer Army unit the National Service Regiment, targeting recruits over 35 years provided according to Fred Halliday “a damning sign that the whole of the country’s youth was in opposition to (the Government).”

The JVP uprising broke the back of the left parties which were trapped politically by the insurrection which they could only denounce at the cost of their long term influence. The SLFP too was isolated from its electorate due to the harsh measures adopted; curfew, censorship, trial without jury, postponement of elections, suspension of habeas corpus and other civil rights. Their Government suffered a devastating defeat at the next elections in 1977.

The uprising questioned the efficacy of a parliamentary system that could not accommodate a generation of educated youth, nor keep politicians aware of their needs and strengths. The decades-old mass national parties seemed to have no place for them. And the JVP charge that the leaders in parliament were of a different class and therefore they themselves of a different sub culture, seemed valid.



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The ‘Cheena Abhagya’ on the rise

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There is a big China Hurry in the government that seems much higher than any hurry about controlling the Covid pandemic.

The debate of the Colombo Port City Commission was scheduled for May 5, without even receiving the Supreme Court decision on the many petitions filed before it. This is a complete and shameless shift from the very process of parliamentary debate, the stuff of democracy.

A debate in parliament is based on the material — the facts, plans, decisions, proposals etc – placed before the members. This government with its Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour has no interest in the democratic process. They decide on a date for a debate on what is the most important piece of legislation today, with the MPs not given even an hour to know and study the decision of the Supreme Court on the subject. In fact, it is also a huge insult to the Supreme Court and the judicial process, too.

This decision and its refusal to agree to the Opposition calls for more days for this debate, showed how the government is ready, and determined, to use its two-thirds majority, post 20A, to have no respect for the democratic process.

Although this shameful move by the government failed, due to the Supreme Court decision not reaching the Speaker by that time, the mockery of democracy continues, with the next date for the debate on the Port City subject being fixed for May 18, again with no opportunity for all MPs to read and study the court decision/s on so many matters raised by the petitioners, some of whom were members of parliament too.

This is the China Hurry – Cheena Hadissiya – being displayed, just the initial moves to use the Sinopharm Covid Vaccine on the people of this country, while it has not been approved by the WHO and the responsible Health and Medical officials in this country.

This is the ‘Cheenabhagya’ doing much more than the Saubhagya Dekma of Gotabhaya Power. A rising ‘Abhagya’ or misery to the people.

This Cheenabhagya is certainly impacting others in the government, such as Minister Gamini Lokuge, who decided to arbitrarily lift the lockdown and travel restrictions in Piliyandala. There will be much more Cheena benefits and power in the coming weeks, as the country keeps reeling with the spread of the latest variant of Covid-19. 

The Cabinet move to import gyms to strengthen the muscles of the people is certainly a move to reduce the thinking power of the people. Muscle Power is the stuff of rulers who have no faith in the Brain Power of people, who would dare to question the decisions taken by rulers. The use of this Brain Power is the very substance of the Buddhist thinking that has been the core value of Sri Lanka through the centuries. This is the substance of the Buddha Dharmaya as against the Buddha-agama that has distorted Buddhist teachings. Are the plans to build a Sri Lankan temple, in the premises of the ancient and first Buddhist White Horse Temple in China, a show of the Cheena Dekma – or Chinese Vision – that holds sway among those attached to what will soon be the Cheena Rajavasala in Hambantota. Maybe, we will soon change the name of Hambantota to a Maha Cheenatota, and wipe off the arrival of Hamban people to this country.

Rishad Bathiuddin remains in the spotlight today. His moves with different governments, from the Mahinda Rajapaksa to the Yahapalana have been the cause of much criticism and court orders such as replanting torn down jungles. He is now detained as a terror suspect, and the Cheena Balaya does not want him to attend parliament. Sarath Weerasekera, Minister of Public Security, does not want him in the House, as he will violate the legal process that holds him in custody, as he would most likely reveal the secrets of terrorism inquiries supposedly now underway, and may even help other un-arrested terror suspects to flee the country. This is against the official thinking of the Attorney General, who certainly knows more about law, than a retired armed services officer.

The innocence of an unconvicted person until conviction by a court, is part of our democratic and judicial processes. Weerasekera is wholly pleased to have within the government ranks, in parliament, a person convicted by the courts for the crime of murder in the Ratnapura district, Premalal Jayasekera. Is this power prospect for future murderers, convicted by a court of law? This Cheena Havula also had in its ranks Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan – Pillayan, while he was held in custody for the murder of a former MP in a Batticaloa church, many years ago. Well, well – he has since been acquitted and released by the Batticaloa High Court

It is not our delight that Rishard Bathiuddin is the focus of a call for democracy within parliament. We are aware of how his party, and the Muslim Congress too, gave support to pass the 20A, and its huge blow to democracy. But the rights of a citizen and an elected MP, have to be protected, whatever the politics and the other stuff of a person may be. To give him the right to attend and speak in parliament is a core value of the democratic process. This cannot be torn away under the Cheena thinking, which is fast taking us to the manipulations of the Chinese Communist Party, in its governance of China.

We are in the throes of a pandemic that is certainly sweeping the country. The need is to guide and handle the fight against it, and save the people of the horror we see just across the Palk Strait. Narendra Modi, who was honoured by his BJP for the so-called success in defeating Covid-19, is now facing humiliating defeats, electorally, socially and globally too. Our fight against this pandemic must be through the values of the democratic process. The values we have seen till 1977, after independence, which have been distorted and destroyed by JRJ and down to the Cheenabhagya of Gotabhaya.

The fight against Covid-19 must be a fight to restore Democracy too, in every form of the people’s rights and freedoms.

Let’s move to Janatha Bhagya, away from the rising Cheena Abhagya of today!

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From Cylinder to Liquid Oxygen Plant

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Story of Oxygen supply at National Hospital –

The National Hospital of Sri Lanka (NHSL) is the largest and best equipped Teaching Hospital in the country with a bed strength of nearly 4,000. It has 26 operating theatres, 28 Intensive Care Units (ICU) and several institutes including one for Cardiology housed in a large number of buildings. It is located on a 32-acre land standing in the middle of Colombo.

NHSL is circled by a ring of busy public roads while some roads are running through the premises. Hospital premises and surrounding roads are always filled with hurriedly pacing medical staff, siren blaring ambulances, patient-carrying trolleys, distressed relatives and tired visitors. One would not miss the sight of a cylinders loaded truck crawling across in this melee and wonder why the truck. They ensure continuous and uninterrupted supply of most essential medical oxygen for the patients treated in ICUs and those undergoing surgery in operating theatres.

A few years ago, a visitor would not have missed the outside walls of these operating theatres and ICUs each of which decorated with 6-7 hanging jumbo oxygen cylinders. When I made the morning strolls down the hospital corridors my eyes always caught the sight of these cylinders. Oxygen is taken through a copper tubing system fixed to these cylinders to the respective destinations. i.e. Oxygen outlet in the bedside of patients treated in ICUs and in operating theatres. Hospital had a sufficient number of cylinders filled with oxygen. Employees efficiently replaced empty cylinders with new ones.

Every day employees collected empty cylinders, loaded them on a truck and transported to the Oxygen Company in Mattakkuliya for refilling. On certain days when the oxygen consumption was high, this operation has to be doubled. Hospital had its own truck and a group of specially trained skilled employees assigned for the task. Loading and unloading of these jumbo cylinders was a specialised job.

I noticed this operation during my afternoon inspection tour. In fact, the noise made in loading unloading as well as dismounting and mounting cylinders on the walls and the sight itself, to say the least, was a nuisance. Once the truck returned, the refilled cylinders were immediately distributed among the theatres and ICUs. Needless to say this was a hectic task considering the large number, and the spread of theatres and ICUs in the hospital.

There were tensed situations when the truck did not return on time due to a break down, a traffic congestion or an accident on the way. Thought of the delay of the truck with refilled oxygen cylinders gave me many sleepless nights. I was waiting to welcome the irritating noise made when cylinders fell on one another during unloading. While others were cursing, I got a sense of relief as it was an indication that the oxygen truck has arrived. My official residence was in very close proximity to the Merchants Ward where many cylinders were unloaded. No sooner had I heard the clattering sound than I ran to the window to witness the unloading.

As the Director of the country’s largest hospital, I was responsible for the overall smooth functioning of the hospital itself and that of men, material and machinery. And among all, ensuring the continuous and uninterrupted supply of oxygen for patients who were critically ill and those undergoing surgery was foremost.

Majority staff including doctors and nurses did not know the complexity behind the smooth flow of oxygen through the outlet whenever they open the valve to administer oxygen to a patient. Only a handful of people knew the complexity of the ‘oxygen supply operation’ in the hospital. It was a nightmare for me personally and all my predecessors.

While worrying over this cumbersome complex manual operation, I was wondering how fitting this type of oxygen supply for a Teaching Hospital of the magnitude of the National Hospital. My mind was busy in exploring and weighing alternatives.

While listening to the clattering of cylinders and watching the swift movements of workers’ hands in the unloading operation in the middle of the night, with a cup of steaming coffee in my hand, a thought struck my mind. I heard my own voice shouting over the clattering sound of falling cylinders; Hey! Man, be practical, install a Liquid Oxygen Plant in the hospital premises itself.

Early next morning ignoring the supervision tour, I was busy preparing a comprehensive proposal to the Ministry of Health with a clear justification of the investment. Having submitted the proposal followed by a few telephone calls the Ministry responded by approving the proposal.

The proposal was designed to have a Liquid Oxygen Plant with the highest capacity for the hospital and another with less capacity dedicated for the Institute of Cardiology located a little away from the main hospital premises across the street.

A few moons later, a Liquid Oxygen Plant near Ward 13 and a separate smaller plant on the premises of Institute of Cardiology rose to the sky. The copper pipelines were laid connecting all the operating theatres, intensive care units and high dependency units which required continuous uninterrupted supply of oxygen. The project was completed within a matter of a few months providing a great sense of relief to me.

The company which installed the two oxygen tanks is attending to maintenance and repairs. The company regularly monitors the level of consumption and replenishes the tanks. The hospital staff need not intervene.

Needless to mention the relief it brought to me. It was in the year 2006 during which the Hospital installed the two oxygen plants. Since then we did not have to wait for the truck or bother about cylinders. There has not been any loading unloading or clattering of cylinders. I wanted to ensure that my successors would have a permanent reliable source of Oxygen supply for our patients and avoid sleepless nights unlike me and my predecessors.

After the COVID-19 pandemic Oxygen has become the mostly used word among the healthcare workers. After retirement today, I reminisce my time as the Director of NHSL and recall how the disturbed night dawned upon me the idea to install a Liquid Oxygen Plant to ensure the continuous supply of Oxygen to patients gasping for oxygen.

Our neighbouring India is losing thousands of young lives a day due to unavailability of Oxygen. I am happy about the forethought I had 15 years ago long before the term ‘COVID-19 Pandemic’ entered our vocabulary.

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Boosting immune system to fight Covid-19: Is it possible?

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By Saman Gunatilake

Emeritus Professor of Medicine

University of Sri Jayewardenepura

Immune boosting is a trending topic these days with the COVID-19 pandemic. The concept of “immune boosting” is scientifically misleading and often used to market unproven products and therapies. There is no current evidence that any product or practice will contribute to enhanced “immune boosting” protection against COVID-19. This lack of evidence has not stopped wellness gurus with vested interests, and commercial entities from propagating notions of boosting immunity. Internet and popular press are flooded with messages of this nature resulting in an abundance of misinformation circulating online. The public is increasingly going online for health information and questions persist around the kinds of inaccurate information the public is absorbing and the impacts it may be having on health-related decisions and actions.

 

What are Immunity Boosters?

Immunity boosters are products which claim to be able to support your immune system so you aren’t as likely to get sick. Additionally, if you do get sick, taking the supplements will make your illness pass faster. There is no scientific and clinical evidence in humans to support claims of ‘immunity boosting’ foods and other products which supposedly enhance immunity. The body has its own immune system which fights against viral and bacterial invaders. With a normal immune system, we are capable of protecting ourselves against most infections but with certain situations the infection manages to overcome our immune system and cause serious disease and even death. The current Covid 19 pandemic is such a situation. We are in the grip of a spike in infection with over 1000 cases per day seen during the last few days. Total deaths from the pandemic in our country is nearing 700 and the total cases up to now amounts to around 111,800.

With no scientifically established cure for Covid-19 yet and the available recommended treatments limited to severe cases and being not so effective, recovery in most cases has largely been reliant on the human body’s natural defence, the immune system. Fighting the infection by boosting our immune systems had been the buzzword since the beginning of the pandemic. This has led to many misconceptions, misinforming and misleading the public. Improving the diet, taking vitamins and herbal products, lifestyle changes are proposed as ways of doing this. As a result, the market has been flooded with an array of products that claim to boost one’s immunity.

One of the common misconceptions is that high doses vitamin supplements and other minerals and nutrients boost one’s immunity. Ayurvedic concoctions, fruit juices, vitamin pills, zinc tablets have flooded the market with an array of products that claim to boost one’s immunity. Promoters of these products indicate that the body’s natural defences can be strengthened or enhanced by the consumption of certain foods, herbal products or the use of specific products.

Is there robust scientific evidence to support these claims for immune system boosting? The answer is no. Immunology experts believe that there is no way for healthy adults to improve their immunity through foods or other products. The immune system is very complex and these claims about boosting immunity are irrational and unscientific.

 

The Immune System

The immune system is activated by things that enter the body that the body doesn’t recognise as its own such as bacteria, viruses or even particles that cause allergy, like food, drugs and pollen. Most pathogens have a surface protein on them that the immune system recognizes as foreign. These are called antigens. Then the immune system sets in motion a complex process that fights the invader – this is the immune response.

There are two kinds of immune responses in the human body. The innate immune response is the first to kick in and is common among all animals. It is non-specific and immune cells mount an immediate attack on antigens. The response is subsequently replaced by the adaptive immune response, which tailors defences based on the kind of pathogen that is being encountered. The innate immune response consists of white blood cells like neutrophils, macrophages, and monocytes, while the adaptive response involves Lymphocytes -T cells and B cells, as well as antibodies produced by these cells as a specific response to the invader’s antigens. Stimulated immune systems release chemical proteins known as pro-inflammatory cytokines in large numbers, which can cause soreness and pain. So boosting immunity may lead to unwanted inflammations causing swelling, redness and pain locally and fever and other organ damage.

The Internet searchers will find that the myth of “boosting immunity” is extremely pervasive. Of the approaches that claimed to boost immunity, the top ones were diet, fruit, vitamins, antioxidants, probiotics, minerals. Interestingly, vaccines, the only proven method that enhances our immune response to an infection is ranked very low. One of the biggest misconceptions is that consuming more vitamins than required helps the immune system. It has been proven, time and again, that mega-doses of Vitamin C or of any kind of vitamin are not effective on the body at all. Another misconception is that zinc tablets can play a role in mitigating Covid-19. However, this isn’t backed by evidence either.

Zinc is not an immunity booster. It is an essential mineral for the body which is a ‘cofactor’ for a large number of proteins and enzymes. A cofactor is a non-protein chemical compound or metallic ion that is required for an enzyme’s activity as a catalyst. Like zinc, vitamin C is also a cofactor, and is important for the body to function. So, if you have a deficiency of these essential micronutrients, you will face a problem. But, if a person does not have any such deficiency, an excess amount of these taken does not improve one’s chances of fighting off a virus. Vitamin C and Zinc deficiencies are very rare unless someone is starving or following an extreme diet depleted of nutrients. Iron and Iodine deficiencies are seen in communities and more than immune deficiency they cause other problems.

An extremely active immune system, can also be problematic. In severe Covid-19 cases, the body launches an aggressive immune response resulting in the release of a large amount of pro-inflammatory proteins. This is known as a cytokine storm and is one of the common causes of death in Covid-19 patients. A cytokine storm occurs when the body’s immune system goes into an overdrive, killing healthy cells and causing organ failures. Several research studies suggest that the cytokine storm causes lung injury and multi-organ failure. So, if this is the case boosting the immune system in a Covid patient is not a wise thing to do.

 

Market interests add to the myth

The truth is natural immunity in normal people cannot be improved. There are immunocompromised individuals with a poor immunity who are susceptible to infections due to certain illnesses, and how can they stay safe from this highly infectious virus that spreads rapidly? The most effective way is by keeping our communities safe.

 We can do this by attending to the public hygiene of the population exposed to the infection. Providing safe drinking water, providing clean air, providing adequate nutrition — are ways of keeping the people healthy and strong to fight any infections. There are parts of our country fortunately not as bad in India, without access to these basic health requirements. Achieving social distancing in these communities that live in overcrowded households is impossible.

This background, and a new infection with no treatment, led to various interested parties with good and bad intentions in promoting the myth of immune boosting. They have become self-proclaimed experts exploiting this crisis, putting forth all kinds of miraculous non allopathic substitutions. As allopathic medications to be approved, a rigorous procedure has to be observed, they resorted to the easier approach of promoting quick remedies in traditional and herbal products. Unproven ‘natural’ remedies came to the fore in our country in this background where people felt helpless. The vaccine, the only proven way of boosting the immunity of an individual and the population against a specific disease was not available around this time.

There are added dangers in such situations. There may be a lot of drug-drug interactions. If people are consuming allopathic medicines, and then also start consuming these medicinal herbs, the components of the herb will interact with the drug resulting in unknown complications. These unapproved medications can have toxic effects on your kidney, liver and other organs.

Even during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 companies jumped in on the opportunity to hail themselves as immunity boosting drug producers. However, no products were ever proven to be effective in improving immune responses.

Maintaining a normal immune system

A poor immune system is seen in people with certain ailments. Some are born with defects in their immune system and they are known as immunodeficiencies. People with chronic illnesses like diabetes and auto immune disorders are also vulnerable to catch illnesses easily as their immune systems are weak. People on immunosuppressant medications like steroids and cancer drugs also have a weakened immune system and easily catch infections and develop serious complications easily.

Lifestyle is key for keeping your immune system normal and ready to act with an adequate response when necessary. For now, there are no scientifically proven direct links between lifestyle, exercise and enhanced immune function. Researchers are exploring the effects of diet, exercise and stress on the immune response. There are indeed processes that do affect our immune cells and improve their responses. The best one of them, perhaps, is exercise. Many studies have shown that moderate exercise of less than 60 minutes can improve the circulation of anti-inflammatory cytokines, neutrophils, natural killer cells, T cells and B cells. This can work effectively — not for combating diseases at a specific point in time, but to combat stress hormones in general, which can suppress immune cell function. Extremely high intensity exercise leads to a short duration of compromised immunity, increasing risk for disease in this time period. This is one of the reasons marathon runners or professional sports persons tend to catch a fever or cold in the days following a sporting event. Regular exercise is known to improve cardiovascular health, lowers blood pressure, helps control body weight. Therefore, adopting general healthy-living strategies make sense since they are likely to have other proven health benefits. But whether they help to boost the immune system is a controversial issue with no proven answers.

The immune system can also be compromised by many lifestyle habits such as smoking, which is known to affect T and B cells, among a host of other parameters. Diseases like diabetes by themselves result in compromised immune systems. This is why diabetic patients are particularly susceptible to infections. Obesity is another condition with a weak immune system as it predisposes to the development of other illnesses like diabetes and hypertension. There appears to be a connection between poor nutrition and immunity and this is a problem especially in the elderly. Poor nutrition can lead to micronutrient malnutrition, in which a person becomes deficient in some essential vitamins and trace minerals. Deficiency of these can result in a poor immune response to infections. Older people tend to eat less and often have less variety in their food. In them dietary supplements may have some beneficial effects and they should discuss this with their doctors. Taking mega doses of vitamins do not help and can even be harmful.

Every part of your body, including your immune system that fights against infections function better when protected from unwanted damage and bolstered by healthy-living styles. These are – not smoking, taking a diet high in fruit and fibre, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding alcohol or consuming in moderation, getting adequate sleep, washing hands regularly, developing good food habits, minimizing stress.

However, there currently exists no evidence of any consumable foods or products being able to induce an improvement in immune function. Although some preparations have been found to alter some components of the immune system, so far there is no evidence that they actually boost your immunity to the point where you are protected against infection. The only scientifically proven way to boost immunity, the immune system, and an immune response is through vaccinations. Vaccines prime your immune system to fight off infections before they take hold in your body.

So, where do we stand today? Vaccines to boost our immunity against Covid, prevention of spread and catching infection by proper wearing of masks, washing hands and maintaining social distance. These are the scientifically proven methods and others appear to be market-driven myths.

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