By Rathindra Kuruwita
A nexus between senior Health Ministry officials and powerful businessmen is the main reason for many issues plaguing the health sector, President of the College of Medical Laboratory Science (CMLS), Ravi Kumudesh, says in an interview with The Island. These sinister elements are fleecing the public by preventing the state sector labs from carrying out COVID -19 testing, and was behind the deletion of the NMRA database, he says.
Q: The elimination of data from the National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA) website has been in the news for several weeks. Recently, a committee was appointed to add data back into the database. However, given that this committee is acting in great secrecy, can you be satisfied?
A: A so-called expert committee has been appointed. However, this committee was appointed by the Secretary of the State Ministry of Production, Supply and Regulation of Pharmaceuticals. The Secretary is an experienced official. However, the State Ministry is one of the parties accused of entertaining the drug mafia. The drug mafia is behind the deletion of data. As you can understand it is hard to trust that this committee wants to do the right thing because of the obvious conflict of interest. The Committee should have been appointed by an independent body, at least by the President or the Minister of Health. That would have indicated that the government wants to get to the bottom of this.
Given that one of the accused parties has appointed this committee to oversee the insertion of data back into the database; we feel that they might do what the drug mafia wants done.
You may remember that the State Ministry of Production, Supply and Regulation of Pharmaceuticals initially insisted that nothing fraudulent has happened. However, the CID found that something malicious has taken place and that someone has deleted the data over a period of five hours. As the CID was taking the investigation forward, the State Ministry announced that they have recovered the data and that they are appointing a committee of experts to feed the data back into the database. This is suspicious and we don’t even know who is on the committee.
So, we insist that a committee must be appointed by a party that is not involved in the case and we must also know who is on this committee of experts. There can be representatives of the (Information and Communication Technology Agency) ICTA, Epic Lanka Technologies, or even associates of other guilty parties. Therefore, it is highly likely that this is a committee appointed to cover up the data theft.
Another problematic development is that the data is being restored by Epic Lanka Technologies. It is obvious that this is a distraction tactic of State Ministry officials. It is not serious about getting to the bottom of the problem or ensuring that something of this nature does not repeat.
Q: Isn’t it also possible that only the data that the State Ministry wants will be restored in the database? How will we know whether all the lost data will be restored?
A: Yes, they can feed the data they want. They can also decide to enter the data at times that are convenient to them, they can also remove data and insert new data. Only the Expert Committee knows what data has been recovered and they also decide what data will be entered. They can easily input the data of companies that they are partial to and erase the data of companies that they do not like. This will give the drug mafia a chance to accomplish its goals legally.
Q: Has this happened before?
A: We have never seen something like this. However, we all know that there are many irregularities at the Ministry of Health. Digitisation was introduced to minimise these irregularities and there has been a lot of resistance to digitisation in the Health Ministry. The digitisation of the database commenced in 2018, however it was only in 2020 that the project was completed. Since the system came online, a lot of officials, as well as the drug mafia, have been greatly inconvenienced and the deletion of data was their way of getting back.
They are using this instance to prevent further digitisation. This is another dangerous development. We don’t think that this is a digitisation issue, but a last ditch attempt of people who have been inconvenienced by it.
Q: There are some people who say that a database can be manipulated and that despite many drawbacks, one should ideally have access to a physical file. Your comment?
A: A robust digital system is hard to tamper with. And when someone does try to tamper with the system, it’s easy to detect. In institutions like NMRA, a lot of irregularities take place by inserting various documents into the files. Digitisation leads to less corruption, evidence from the rest of the world proves this. But Sri Lanka seems bent on trying to show the world that corruption can continue unabated, despite digitisation.
Q: What can we do to ensure that such things do not happen in the future?
A: I think that government agencies must develop internal capacity to digitise. We now depend on various private entities. If the ICTA was in control of the process, this would not have happened. Right now, ICTA takes responsibility, but the actual work is done by a private entity. The role played by these third parties is problematic. If the ICTA digitised the NMRA database, it would have been much easier to find the person responsible, what exactly happened and punish the guilty parties. Consequently, in our opinion this sub-contracting has to stop, the ICTA must develop its capacities.
This happens in Lankan Government Cloud and ICTA controls it, but by bringing in third parties into the Cloud, the ICTA jeopardises its operation.
Q: This is just like private labs conducting COVID-19 tests. Are these companies solicited because powerful officials get a cut?
A: Undoubtedly, these contracts are awarded to companies that are connected to senior officials. There are a number of such companies, and they end up getting most of the tenders. This is a big problem in the health sector. When we investigate companies that win tenders, we find that they have affiliations with decision-makers. Some of these tenders are tailor made for these companies. Such contracting must not happen.
Q: Although it has been around 18 months since COVID-19 was first detected here, we still have many issues with regard to testing. What is the reason for this?
A: Again this is a problem of conflict of interest. Several officials who have a say in how testing is done, work part time at private labs. Consequently, they benefit if private labs are allowed more testing. We have been telling the government throughout this year that we can easily increase PCR testing by 300 percent overnight, around 75,000 a day. We insisted that there was no immediate requirement for more PCR machines, and the ones already available could be used to conduct more tests if the Health Ministry so desired. However, Health Ministry officials insisted that state-run labs do not have the capacity.
This is a blatant lie, none of the state-run medical labs are operating at full capacity. The facilities can operate 24 hours a day and there are facilities and personnel to carry out the task. All our members are willing to work longer hours given the pandemic situation and paying people extra would not have cost that much.
Q: There was another issue with rapid PCR testing?
A: This is another example for the nexus between Health Ministry officials, private labs and quarantine hotels. Initially, when the pandemic broke out, PCR testing was time-consuming and it was lab-based. However, things have changed a lot in the last 18 months and rapid PCR technology has become popular given that international travel is picking up again. The major difference between the standard lab-based RT-PCR test and the Rapid RT-PCR test is the turnaround time. If you get the Rapid RT-PCR test done, you’ll be able to get the results on-site within 30 minutes, whereas it’ll take up to 72 hours to get the results of a standard RT-PCR test.
Moreover, rapid PCR tests don’t require setting up of costly facilities. Sixteen Sri Lankan hospitals already conduct rapid PCRs. All 16 machines were donations and Health Ministry officials had continuously undermined President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had instructed the Ministry to buy 30 rapid PCR machines. The President issued the order after we wrote to him on eight separate occasions.
However, Health Ministry officials reduced this number by half and although tenders were called in June, nothing came of it. We wrote to philanthropists and they responded. For example, the rapid PCR machine at the Embilipitiya Hospital was donated by Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thera, the machine at Lady Ridgeway Hospital was donated by Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardane.
Moreover, Tata has offered us five mobile PCR units. These units could be taken anywhere. However, the Health Ministry refused to use them over some bogus claims. We could have used these units during the lockdown to better understand the spread of the pandemic.
Q: Why are health officials delaying the tender process?
A: Apparently a businessman affiliated with the government wants to bid on this tender. However, the rapid PCR machine that the President wants imported isn’t registered with NMRA yet. So the officials are stalling until the businessman gets things sorted out at his end. Our inquiries have also revealed that the businessman is lying about the costs. The big wigs at the Health Ministry are aware that the businessman is lying but are covering up for him.
Their behaviour is an embarrassment to senior government officials. A few months ago, the Chinese Embassy in Colombo claimed that several Sri Lankas who were issued negative PCR and antibody test reports by the Nawaloka Hospital had been diagnosed with COVID-19 after their arrival in China. The Embassy said that China will not accept PCR and IgM antibody test reports issued by the hospital from July 13, 2021 in order to ensure the health and safety of all passengers to China.
This is a great embarrassment to the country. We usually accuse other countries of issuing false test reports, but here we have one of the most powerful nations in the world and a key ally of Sri Lanka officially claiming that some of our test reports are false.
The government should have immediately suspended the state officials in charge of laboratory services and regulating private laboratories following China’s decision. But nothing happened. The officials are shameless and the government does nothing to punish people who mess up. So, why change your behaviour, if you are a corrupt official?
Q: On the subject of the PCR lab at the BIA, you have been agitating for the establishment of a state-of-the-art PCR lab at the airport since April or May 2020. However, 18 months later the private sector still tests inbound passengers and some hospitals still mint money by quarantining them. A newly established lab, at the cost of hundreds of millions of rupees, is left idle after operating only for two days. What’s going on?
A: From the beginning, some senior Health Ministry officials prevented the government laboratory service from testing inbound passengers. This group of Health Ministry specialists make considerable money from private laboratories and quarantine centres. These officials have publicly stated that the health sector was not equipped to test all those who arrived from overseas. These are false claims.
In mid-2020, we established a PCR lab at the BIA. At this time, even the most advanced nations had just started establishing such facilities at airports.
There was a lot of resistance from certain officials of the Health Ministry and doctors who worked at private labs and received money from quarantine centres. Private labs were entrusted with the task of conducting PCR tests on all tourists arriving in Sri Lanka. The state-run lab did not receive a single sample. This is unfortunate because we can test 4,500 people a day and issue reports within 90 minutes. Each test costs about USD 30 to 40, and the government could have minted money which it could have used on anti-COVID-19 activities.
However, due to the resistance from the Health Ministry, this lab was hardly used to test passengers. After a year of us agitating, the Airport and Aviation Authority established a state-of-the-art lab at the BIA premises in collaboration with the airport and a private company. We fully supported this move. Initially, the Health Ministry did not authorise the lab to commence operations. Then in late September they were compelled to do so but after two days the lab ceased operations and now this state-of-the-art establishment lies idle. Private labs continue to conduct tests and quarantine hotels keep making money. Such is the power of the nexus between government officials and the private sector.
Lives of journalists increasingly on the firing line
Since the year 2000 some 45 journalists have been killed in the conflict-ridden regions of Palestine and senior Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was the latest such victim. She was killed recently in a hail of bullets during an Israeli military raid in the contested West Bank. She was killed in cold blood even as she donned her jacket with the word ‘PRESS’ emblazoned on it.
While claims and counter-claims are being made on the Akleh killing among some of the main parties to the Middle East conflict, the Israeli police did not do their state any good by brutally assaulting scores of funeral mourners who were carrying the body of Akleh from the hospital where she was being treated to the location where her last rites were to be conducted in East Jerusalem.
The impartial observer could agree with the assessment that ‘disproportionate force’ was used on the mourning civilians. If the Israeli government’s position is that strong-arm tactics are not usually favoured by it in the resolution conflictual situations, the attack on the mourners tended to strongly belie such claims. TV footage of the incident made it plain that brazen, unprovoked force was used on the mourners. Such use of force is decried by the impartial commentator.
As for the killing of Akleh, the position taken by the UN Security Council could be accepted that “an immediate, thorough, transparent and impartial investigation” must be conducted on it. Hopefully, an international body acceptable to the Palestinian side and other relevant stakeholders would be entrusted this responsibility and the wrong-doers swiftly brought to justice.
Among other things, the relevant institution, may be the International Criminal Court, should aim at taking urgent steps to end the culture of impunity that has grown around the unleashing of state terror over the years. Journalists around the world are chief among those who have been killed in cold blood by state terrorists and other criminal elements who fear the truth.
The more a journalist is committed to revealing the truth on matters of crucial importance to publics, the more is she or he feared by those sections that have a vested interest in concealing such vital disclosures. This accounts for the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, for instance.
Such killings are of course not unfamiliar to us in Sri Lanka. Over the decades quite a few local journalists have been killed or been caused to disappear by criminal elements usually acting in league with governments. The whole truth behind these killings is yet to be brought to light while the killers have been allowed to go scot-free and roam at large. These killings are further proof that Sri Lanka is at best a façade democracy.
It is doubtful whether the true value of a committed journalist has been fully realized by states and publics the world over. It cannot be stressed enough that the journalist on the spot, and she alone, writes ‘the first draft of history’. Commentaries that follow from other quarters on a crisis situation, for example, are usually elaborations that build on the foundational factual information revealed by the journalist. Minus the principal facts reported by the journalist no formal history-writing is ever possible.
Over the decades the journalists’ death toll has been increasingly staggering. Over the last 30 years, 2150 journalists and media workers have been killed in the world’s conflict and war zones. International media reports indicate that this figure includes the killing of 23 journalists in Ukraine, since the Russian invasion began, and the slaying of 11 journalists, reporting on the doings of drug cartels in Mexico.
Unfortunately, there has been no notable international public outcry against these killings of journalists. It is little realized that the world is the poorer for the killing of these truth-seekers who are putting their lives on the firing line for the greater good of peoples everywhere. It is inadequately realized that the public-spirited journalist too helps in saving lives; inasmuch as a duty-conscious physician does.
For example, when a journalist blows the lid off corrupt deals in public institutions, she contributes immeasurably towards the general good by helping to rid the public sector of irregularities, since the latter sector, when effectively operational, has a huge bearing on the wellbeing of the people. Accordingly, a public would be disempowering itself by turning a blind eye on the killing of journalists. Essentially, journalists everywhere need to be increasingly empowered and the world community is conscience-bound to consider ways of achieving this. Bringing offending states to justice is a pressing need that could no longer be neglected.
The Akleh killing cannot be focused on in isolation from the wasting Middle East conflict. The latter has grown in brutality and inhumanity over the years and the cold-blooded slaying of the journalist needs to be seen as a disquieting by-product of this larger conflict. The need to turn Spears into Ploughshares in the Middle East is long overdue and unless and until ways are worked out by the principal antagonists to the conflict and the international community to better manage the conflict, the bloodletting in the region is unlikely to abate any time soon.
The perspective to be placed on the conflict is to view the principal parties to the problem, the Palestinians and the Israelis, as both having been wronged in the course of history. The Palestinians are a dispossessed and displaced community and so are the Israelis. The need is considerable to fine-hone the two-state solution. There is need for a new round of serious negotiations and the UN is duty-bound to initiate this process.
Meanwhile, Israel is doing well to normalize relations with some states of the Arab world and this is the way to go. Ostracization of Israel by Arab states and their backers has clearly failed to produce any positive results on the ground and the players concerned will be helping to ease the conflict by placing their relations on a pragmatic footing.
The US is duty-bound to enter into a closer rapport with Israel on the need for the latter to act with greater restraint in its treatment of the Palestinian community. A tough law and order approach by Israel, for instance, to issues in the Palestinian territories is clearly proving counter-productive. The central problem in the Middle East is political in nature and it calls for a negotiated political solution. This, Israel and the US would need to bear in mind.
Doing it differently, as a dancer
Dancing is an art, they say, and this could be developed further, only by an artist with a real artistic mind-set. He must be of an innovative mind – find new ways of doing things, and doing it differently
According to Stephanie Kothalawala – an extremely talented dancer herself – Haski Iddagoda, who has won the hearts of dance enthusiasts, could be introduced as a dancer right on top of this field.
had a chat with Haski, last week, and sent us the following interview:
* How did you start your dancing career?
Believe me, it was a girl, working with me, at office, who persuaded me to take to dancing, in a big way, and got me involved in events, connected with dancing. At the beginning, I never had an idea of what dancing, on stage, is all about. I was a bit shy, but I decided to take up the challenge, and I made my debut at an event, held at Bishop’s College.
* Did you attend dancing classes in order to fine-tune your movements?
Yes, of course, and the start was in 2010 – at dancing classes held at the Colombo Aesthetic Resort.
* What made you chose dancing as a career?
It all came to mind when I checked out the dancing programmes, on TV. After my first dancing programme, on a TV reality show, dancing became my passion. It gave me happiness, and freedom. Also, I got to know so many important people, around the country, via dancing.
* How is your dancing schedule progressing these days?
Due to the current situation, in the country, everything has been curtailed. However, we do a few programmes, and when the scene is back to normal, I’m sure there will be lots of dance happenings.
* What are your achievements, in the dancing scene, so far?
I have won a Sarasavi Award. I believe my top achievement is the repertoire of movements I have as a dancer. To be a top class dancer is not easy…it’s hard work. Let’s say my best achievement is that I’ve have made a name, for myself, as a dancer.
* What is your opinion about reality programmes?
Well, reality programmes give you the opportunity to showcase your talents – as a dancer, singer, etc. It’s an opportunity for you to hit the big time, but you’ve got to be talented, to be recognised. I danced with actress Chatu Rajapaksa at the Hiru Mega Star Season 3, on TV.
* Do you have your own dancing team?
Not yet, but I have performed with many dance troupes.
* What is your favourite dancing style?
I like the style of my first trainer, Sanjeewa Sampath, who was seen in Derana City of Dance. His style is called lyrical hip-hop. You need body flexibility for that type of dance.
* Why do you like this type of dancing?
I like to present a nice dancing act, something different, after studying it.
* How would you describe dancing?
To me, dancing is a valuable exercise for the body, and for giving happiness to your mind. I’m not referring to the kind of dance one does at a wedding, or party, but if you properly learn the art of dancing, it will certainly bring you lots of fun and excitement, and happiness, as well. I love dancing.
* Have you taught your dancing skills to others?
Yes, I have given my expertise to others and they have benefited a great deal. However, some of them seem to have forgotten my contribution towards their success.
* As a dancer, what has been your biggest weakness?
Let’s say, trusting people too much. In the end, I’m faced with obstacles and I cannot fulfill the end product.
* Are you a professional dancer?
Yes, I work as a professional dancer, but due to the current situation in the country, I want to now concentrate on my own fashion design and costume business.
* If you had not taken to dancing, what would have been your career now?
I followed a hotel management course, so, probably, I would have been involved in the hotel trade.
* What are your future plans where dancing is concerned?
To be Sri Lanka’s No.1 dancer, and to share my experience with the young generation.
Responding to our energy addiction
by Ranil Senanayake
Sri Lanka today is in the throes of addiction withdrawal. Reliant on fossil fuels to maintain the economy and basic living comforts, the sudden withdrawal of oil, coal and gas deliveries has exposed the weakness and the danger of this path of ‘development’ driven by fossil energy. This was a result of some poorly educated aspirants to political power who became dazzled by the advancement of western industrial technology and equated it with ‘Development’. They continue with this blind faith even today.
Thus, on December 20th 1979, an official communiqué was issued by the Government and displayed in the nation’s newspapers stating, “No oil means no development, and less oil, less development. It is oil that keeps the wheels of development moving”. This defined with clarity what was to be considered development by the policy-makers of that time. This fateful decision cast a deadly policy framework for the nation. The energy source that was to drive the national economy would be fossil-based. Even today, that same policy framework and its adherents continue. Everything, from electricity to cooking fuel, was based on fossil energy.
The economics of development, allows externalizing all the negative effects of ‘development’ into the environment, this being justified because, “industrialisation alleviates poverty”. The argument, is that economies need to industrialise in order to reduce poverty; but industrialisation leads to ‘unavoidable emissions. Statements like, ‘reduction in poverty leads to an increase in emissions’ is often trotted out as dogma. Tragically, these views preclude a vision of development based on high tech, non-fossil fuel driven, low consumptive lifestyles. Indeed, one indicator of current ‘development’ is the per capita consumption of power, without addressing the source of that power.
A nation dependent on fossil fuel is very much like an addict dependent on drugs. The demand is small, at first, but grows swiftly, until all available resources are given. In the end, when there is nothing else left to pawn, even the future of their children will be pawned and finally the children themselves! Today, with power cuts and fuel shortages, the pain of addiction begins to manifest.
The creation of desire
This perspective of ‘development’, the extension of so-called ‘civilised living’ is not new to us in Sri Lanka, Farrer, writing in 1920, had this to say when visiting Colombo:
“Modern, indeed, is all this, civilised and refined to a notable degree. All the resources of modern culture are thick about you, and you feel that the world was only born yesterday, so far as right-thinking people are concerned.
And, up and down in the shade of glare, runs furiously the unresting tide of life. The main street is walled in by high, barrack like structures, fiercely western in the heart of the holy East, and the big hotels upon its frontage extend their uncompromising European facades. Within them there is a perpetual twilight, and meek puss-faced Sinhalese take perpetually the drink orders of prosperous planters and white-whiskered old fat gentlemen in sun hats lined with green. At night these places are visible realisation of earthly pleasure to the poor toiling souls from the farthest lonely heights of the mountains and the jungle.” The process goes on still …
Develop we must, but cautiously – with the full awareness of the long-term consequences of each process. Development must be determined by empowering the fundamental rights of the people and of the future generations. Clean air, clean water, access to food and freedom from intoxication, are some of these fundamental rights. Any process that claims to be part of a development process must address these, among other social and legal fundamental rights.
One problem has been that, the movement of a country with traditional non-consumptive values, into a consumerist society based on fossil energy tends to erode these values rapidly. Often, we are told that this is a necessary prerequisite to become a ‘developed country’, but this need not be so. We need to address that fundamental flaw stated in 1979. We need to wean ourselves away from the hydrocarbon-based economy to a carbohydrate-based economy. Which means moving from a fossil fuel-based economy to a renewable energy-based economy.
Fossil Fuels or fossil hydrocarbons are the repository of excess carbon dioxide that is constantly being injected into the atmosphere by volcanic action for over the last 200 million years. Hydrocarbons are substances that were created to lock up that excess Carbon Dioxide, sustaining the stable, Oxygen rich atmosphere we enjoy today. Burning this fossil stock of hydrocarbons is the principal driver of modern society as well as climate change. It is now very clear that the stability of planetary climate cycles is in jeopardy and a very large contributory factor to this crisis are the profligate activities of modern human society.
As a response to the growing public concern that fossil fuels are destroying our future, the fossil industry developed a ‘placating’ strategy. Plant a tree, they say, the tree will absorb the carbon we emit and take it out of the atmosphere, through this action we become Carbon neutral. When one considers that the Carbon which lay dormant for 200 million years was put into the atmosphere today, can never be locked up for an equal amount of time by planting a tree. A tree can hold the Carbon for 500 years at best and when it dies its Carbon will be released into the atmosphere again as Carbon Dioxide.
Carbon Dioxide is extracted from the atmosphere by plants and converted into a solid form through the action of photosynthesis. Photosynthetic biomass performs the act of primary production, the initial step in the manifestation of life. This material has the ability to increase in mass by the absorption of solar or other electromagnetic radiation, while releasing oxygen and water vapor into the atmosphere. It is only photosynthetic biomass that powers carbon sequestration, carbohydrate production, oxygen generation and water transformation, i.e., all actions essential for the sustainability of the life support system of the planet.
Yet currently, it is only one product of this photosynthetic biomass, sequestered carbon, usually represented by wood/timber, that is recognized as having commercial value in the market for mitigating climate change. The ephemeral part, the leaves, are generally ignored, yet the photosynthetic biomass in terrestrial ecosystems are largely composed of leaves, this component needs a value placed on it for its critical ‘environmental services’
With growth in photosynthetic biomass, we will see more Oxygen, Carbon sequestering and water cleansing, throughout the planet. As much of the biomass to be gained is in degraded ecosystems around the planet and as these areas are also home to the world’s rural poor, these degraded ecosystems have great growth potential for generating photosynthetic biomass of high value. If the restoration of these degraded ecosystems to achieve optimal photosynthetic biomass cover becomes a global goal, the amazing magic of photosynthesis could indeed help change our current dire course, create a new paradigm of growth and make the planet more benign for our children.
Instead of flogging the dead horse of fossil energy-based growth as ‘Economic Development’, instead of getting the population addicted to fossil energy, will we have the commonsense to appreciate the value of photosynthetic biomass and encourage businesses that obtain value for the nations Primary Ecosystem Services (PES)? The realization of which, will enrich not only our rural population but rural people the world over!
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