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Urgent action needed to combat deadly COVID-19 surge across South Asia- AU

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Governments across South Asia must immediately address healthcare shortages and urgently strengthen their healthcare systems to respond to the rapid surge of COVID-19 cases in the region, sats Amnesty International.

With India and Nepal’s healthcare systems reaching breaking point, the human rights organisation has expressed its concern over the lack of preparedness of other countries in the region for the virus’s latest and most deadly wave. Extremely low vaccination rates across South Asia have also left the region highly vulnerable, with pressing action needed at the global level to ensure more equitable access to vaccines.

“The human catastrophe that is unfolding in India and Nepal should be a warning to other countries in the region to invest heavily in surge capacity for an emergency response. The virus is spreading and transcending borders at a frightening speed and will continue to hit the region’s most marginalized populations hardest of all,” said Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director.

“We are at a critical point. Fewer than one in ten of the region’s population has been vaccinated. The decisions taken by governments in South Asia and across the world in the coming days and weeks will be crucial in mitigating the human cost of this latest surge.”

South Asia, home to a quarter of the world’s population, is fast becoming the new global epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic. On 6 May, India reported more than 400,000 new cases in one day, taking its total tally of confirmed cases to 21.5 million, though this is likely to be a significant underestimate. As the disease ravages India, several south Asian nations are also facing a resurgence of cases.

Nepal, which shares a porous border with India, has already started to experience a massive spike in infections. According to WHO figures, daily cases increased 30-fold from 303 to 9,317, or an increase of 2,975%, between 12 April and 12 May. On Tuesday, Nepal recorded another 9,317 cases, bringing its total to 413,111.

With India stopping exports of oxygen, Nepal is struggling to find alternative supplies. To make matters worse, Nepal is also in the midst of political upheaval, with its Prime Minister having lost a vote of confidence and parties failing to form a government.

“We have seen how shortages of oxygen, hospital beds, human resources and essential medicines pushed the already under-resourced healthcare response of India over the edge. Now a similar worrying trend is emerging in Nepal,” said Yamini Mishra.

“This is not the time for Nepal’s politicians to indulge in political wrangling and infighting. What the country needs right now is unity and leadership to address the growing crisis.”

After experiencing a second wave last year, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka are also witnessing a surge with infections picking up sharply. The new Indian variant of coronavirus has been detected in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, prompting authorities to close borders and ban travellers from India.

Bangladesh’s nationwide lockdown has struggled to limit public movement or contain the surge in daily infections, which rose to 7,200 in early April, its highest point in the pandemic, before beginning to reduce. The country’s health directorate has expressed concern that mass travel ahead of the upcoming Eid celebrations could lead to a resurgence of infections. Pakistan’s authorities have steadily tightened restrictions on travel in a bid to prevent a surge in COVID-19 cases during Eid. Meanwhile, the Afghan government has so far ignored the advice of its Ministry of Public Health to implement a lockdown.

According to media reports, hospital intensive care units in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal are now full or close to capacity. With high rates of poverty, fragile health infrastructures, poor socio-economic conditions, inadequate social protection systems, limited access to water and sanitation facilities and inadequate living space, the new wave puts millions of lives in the region at risk. According to the World Bank, South Asia has 0.6 hospital beds per 100,000 people, against an average of five in high-income countries.

“The disease has exacerbated an already dire healthcare situation in the region. Now, more than ever, South Asia’s governments should develop mechanisms for building surge capacity to manage patient loads, sustain essential services, and reduce the social and economic impact of pandemic,” said Yamini Mishra.

“At the same time, States need to focus on protecting the human rights of the marginalised and vulnerable groups at high risk, including daily wage earners, prisoners, refugees and the internally displaced, by ensuring equitable healthcare. They must take effective steps to ensure that health facilities are available, affordable and accessible to everyone without discrimination,” she added.

From late January onwards, countries including Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka started receiving vaccine doses through donations from India and other countries, as well as via commercial deals. Amid its current crisis, India temporarily halted exports of vaccines on 24 March to prioritise domestic requirements, leaving the region with a severe shortfall of vaccines. Vaccination rates across South Asia remain extremely low – in Pakistan, only 0.9 percent of the population have received one dose of the vaccine.

Amnesty International is calling on the international community to show solidarity and fulfil its human rights obligations to provide cooperation and assistance, by providing lifesaving medical tools and removing legal uncertainties and barriers that may impede the production and supply of vaccines as the disease continues to ravage the region.

“The new surge in cases poses a huge challenge to a region already struggling to vaccinate its population. In this time of crisis, the international community must come together and extend support to South Asian countries by ensuring equitable access to vaccines and prioritizing resource and technology transfer to produce vaccines locally,” said Yamini Mishra.

 

 



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People to get fuel price shock soon

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The Cabinet sub-committee on the cost of living had decided to increase fuel prices, Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila told the media yesterday (11) in Colombo. He said that the date of the price hikes  would be revealed soon.

The Minister said that if they announced the date, it would lead to long lines at filling stations and it would have disastrous consequences during the pandemic.

“We know that things are hard for everyone, that is why we didn’t increase fuel prices for 21 months. But the government can no longer bear the losses. The oil prices in the world market have been increasing. By the end of 2020, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) had accumulated a loss of RS. 331 billion. Each year we spend three billion dollars to import oil,” he said.

Gammanpila said that the main sources of income for the country had been affected due to the pandemic and foreign investments and tourism had stopped and a large number of Lankans working abroad had returned, decreasing remittances.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Office on May 20 said that a ministerial subcommittee discussed the sharp increase in crude oil prices compared to 2019 and 2020.

The PM chaired the meeting in the Committee Room 8 in Parliament. The Cabinet subcommittee discussed ways and means of addressing the problems caused by the crude price hike.

The PM’s Office said that ministers had discussed how to sustain public relief in the wake of further increase in expenditure. The subcommittee discussed the financial problems of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), among other things. The PM’s Office said that ministers had discussed how to sustain public relief in the wake of further increase in expenditure. The subcommittee discussed the financial problems of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), among other things. (RK)

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HRC asks IGP to explain how he intended to stop deaths of suspects in police custody

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Report called by June 13

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Human Rights Commission has sought an explanation from IGP C.D. Wickremaratne as regards continuing deaths in police custody.

In a letter dated June 8, 2021, HRC Chairman Dr. Jagath Balasuriya has raised the recent deaths in police custody with the focus on two incidents involving Panadura and Batticaloa police.

HRC Acting Director Research and Monitoring Nihal Chandrasiri told The Island that the June 8 dated letter was the latest missive addressed to the IGP regarding this particular issue since the formation of the new HRC following the last general election in August 2020.

Chandrasiri made available to The Island, a copy of Dr. Balasuriya’s letter addressed to IGP Wickremaratne.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in late Dec 2020 named former lawmaker Balasuriya as the Chairman of the HRC comprising· Dr. M.H. Nimal Karunasiri, Dr. Vijitha Nanayakkara, Ms. Anusuya Shanmuganathan and H.K. Navaratne Weraduwa.

Chandrasiri said that the HRC first took up deaths in police custody in the wake of the killing of Dinithi Melan alias Uru Juwa, who had been arrested by the Nawagamuwa police, and Dharmakeerthi Tharaka Perera Wijesekara alias Kosgoda Tharaka in the second week of May 2021.

Civil society activist attorney-at-law Senaka Perera told The Island that continuing deaths in police custody should be examined against the backdrop of a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka delivered that the extra-judicial killing of a suspect in police custody violated the right to life, in spite of the absence of an explicit right to life clause  in the Constitution of Sri Lanka.

According to Dr. Balasuriya’s letter, reportage of the deaths of Chandana Vidushan and Ali Khan in the custody of the Batticaloa police and Panadura (North) police, respectively, prompted the HRC to take up the matter with the IGP. Declaring that the HRC has initiated an inquiry in terms of Section 14 of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka Act, No.21 of 1996, Dr. Balasuriya said that inquiries revealed both victims suffered cruel and inhuman treatment in the hands of the police, leading to their deaths?.

Expressing serious concern over what he called the absence of safety and security of those in police custody, Dr. Balasuriya has pointed out to the IGP relevant sections of the Constitution, in addition to Supreme Court rulings in respect of such matters and two letters dated Oct 21, 2020 and  March 17, 2021 that dealt with the issue at hand.

Asserting that continuing deaths in police custody resulted in deterioration of public confidence in law and order, such incidents underscored the threat to what he called public freedom. Having reminded the IGP that the HRC intervened in terms of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka Act, No.21 of 1996, Dr. Balasuriya has requested the IGP to submit a report to him of measures he intended to introduce to prevent deaths in police custody by or before June 13.

In the wake of several killings in police custody, Romesh de Silva, PC, recently moved the Court of Appeal on behalf of convicted heroin dealer Gampola Vidanalage Samantha Kumara alias Wele Suda held at maximum security Boossa prison. President’s Counsel successfully argued against the police taking Wele Suda into their custody.  

President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) President’s Counsel Saliya Pieris has appeared in the Court of Appeal on behalf of Janith Madushankar alias Podi Lassi. Having brought to the notice of justices, Sobitha Rajakaruna and Dhammika Ranepola, the most recent killings in police custody of ‘Uru Juwa’ and ‘Kosgoda Tharaka,’ Peiris sought the court’s intervention to ensure his client’s safety and security.

The lawyer has requested that the court direct the IGP to transfer his client from the custody of the CID to another unit.

 

 

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Health trade union alliance claims their strike a success

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

Senior health officials including doctors benefited from the current health crisis, Health Services Trade Union Alliance (HSTUA) President Saman Rathnapriya said yesterday commenting on the trade union action resorted to by a number of health sector unions, excluding the GMOA.

Rathnapriya maintained that the strike was a success and non-health sector unions  too had supported them because what he called unfair increases in allowances received by doctors affected the entire state sector. The allowance given to doctors had been increased by 78%, from Rs. 41,220 to Rs. 78,120, however other categories had not received any increase in their allowances, he said.

“Our union action was a success, but we are not happy we had to do this. Nurses and other staffers have not received any increase in their allowances although they too are contributing greatly in the fight against COVID-19. The Health Ministry is unnecessarily creating issues by giving a colossal allowance increase to the doctors,” Rathnapriya said.

College of Medical Laboratory Science (CMLS) President Ravi Kumudesh said that the doctors held top positions in the Health Ministry and for many years they had been ignoring the salaries and allowances of other employees.

“They not only mistreat us but create new issues, testing our patience. Throughout this pandemic you can see this. They get all the perks and have even their family members vaccinated. They are taking advantage of the fact that we are exercising patience in view of the pandemic,” Kumudesh said.

Kumudesh added that the union action had not affected the anti-COVID-19 programme, cancer, maternity and paediatric hospitals, etc.

“We are not doing this to inconvenience the people. We are trying to ensure that the Health Ministry does not create additional problems,” he said

President of All Ceylon Management Service Officer’s Union, Udeni Dissanayake said that they too supported the trade union action because the actions of the GMOA would have an adverse impact on the entire state sector.

Doctors had received certain perks in recent years, and they had contributed to salary anomalies and inequality of remuneration across the board, he said.

“Doctors were treated with great respect in our culture, and this is being eroded by the actions of the GMOA. They have been receiving allowances increased and after a while those of similar standing in other sectors, too, ensure that they get hikes, but those in the lower grades do not see any increase. Although we are not a health sector union, we fully support this action for two reasons. One is that the cause is just and the other is that the impact of the allowance hike given solely  to the doctors will soon be felt by us,” Dissanayake said.

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