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Vaccine inequity and inconsistent public health measures spur virus mutations

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Using the tools we already have to prevent transmission and save lives from Delta will also prevent transmission and save lives from Omicron for which enhanced surveillance, testing, sequencing and reporting is essential’- Dr. Palitha Abeykoon

Collaboration between nations to fight the pandemic is ‘inconsistent and not sustained’ – WHO

World Health Assembly gives the nod to draft a convention to strengthen pandemic prevention, preparedness and response

BY RANDIMA ATTYGALLE

With the reporting of the variant B.1.1.529, named ‘Omicron’, the earliest cases of which were detected from South Africa on November 9, several countries are now witnessing a fifth wave of the COVID pandemic. Designated by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a ‘variant of concern’ (VOC) given its large number of mutations, Omicron, as the preliminary evidence suggests potentially also has an increased transmissibility and an increased risk of reinfection compared to the other VOCs. However, there is as yet no direct evidence for increased transmissibility. The new variant has ‘caused a detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology,’ observes the WHO.

The new variant which was reported at a ‘remarkable speed’, appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa and is also found in several countries including Botswana, Hong Kong, Switzerland, England, Germany and Canada, most being travel related. The list, as the WHO update points out is expected to expand as countries increase surveillance and reporting. “Researchers are working to understand more about the mutations and what they potentially mean for how transmissible or virulent this variant is, and how they may impact diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. It will take a few weeks for us to understand the full impact of this variant,” Dr. Palitha Abeykoon, WHO Director-General’s Special Envoy for South East Asia, told the Sunday Island. “But we should not be surprised about the new variant. This is what viruses do when the most vulnerable people, in this instance in Africa, are going without vaccines. And as we have said many times, the longer we allow the pandemic to drag on – by failing to address vaccine inequity or to implement public health and social measures in a tailored and consistent way, the more opportunity we give this virus to mutate in ways we cannot predict or prevent.”

Dr. Abeykoon also noted that the well proven COVID-19 safety measures by the public should be strictly followed at this juncture of uncertainty. “The most important thing people can do is to reduce their risk of exposure to the virus,” said the consultant reiterating on the importance of wearing a mask, keeping physical distance, avoiding crowded spaces, keeping hands clean etc. “Collective public responsibility at this point cannot be understated nor undermined,” he noted.

The world has to commend the scientists and the political leadership of South Africa and Botswana for detecting the Omicron variant and for reporting it to the WHO immediately, observed Dr. Abeykoon who went on to note that it is the ethical behaviour expected from all nations in the event of a pandemic. WHO advices the use of a risk-based approach to adjust international travel measures in a timely manner, and report to WHO the application of time-limited measures affecting international travel and trade. “The world should not penalize Southern Africa for its prompt application of International Health Regulations and reporting the mutation. Sri Lanka thus far appears to have adopted the correct admixture of surveillance and international travel restrictions and must continue to be vigilant.”

The severity of the disease caused by Omicron too remains vague right now. However, preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa. But this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with Omicron, according to the WHO. There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants.

Although researchers are looking into the potential impact vaccines have on the new variant, WHO urges people to be vaccinated against the widely circulating variants. “We still have more questions than answers about the effect of Omicron on transmission, severity of disease, and the effectiveness of tests, therapeutics and vaccines,” pointed out Dr. Abeykoon.

With the attention being shifted to the new variant, we should not forget that we are already dealing with a highly transmissible, dangerous Delta variant, which accounts for almost all cases globally, the WHO representative avers. “We will need another two weeks at least to generate adequate data on the Omicron variant to confirm its possibility of escaping the current vaccines and also infecting those with serious disease who have been already vaccinated.”

There is early evidence that reinfection with Omicron is taking place in some of the countries, even where people have been fully vaccinated. However, the vaccines seem to prevent serious disease and mortality. Dr. Abeykoon explains further: “we need to use the tools we already have to prevent transmission and save lives from Delta. And if we do that, we will also prevent transmission and save lives from Omicron – so enhancing surveillance, testing, sequencing and reporting is essential.” Although it is natural for countries to be concerned of the safety of their citizens against a variant that is not yet fully understood, “blunt, blanket measures that are not evidence-based or effective on their own” which are introduced by certain countries could only worsen inequities, Dr. Abeykoon observed.

The recent communiqué issued by the WHO Director-General’s Special Envoys notes that while several countries are witnessing a fifth wave of high transmission, others are recording their highest daily cases since the pandemic began. Low and middle-income countries where vaccination rates are often very low are seeing substantial numbers of deaths it says.

The trends are seen both in nations with adequate doses of vaccine, as well as in those with very tight supplies. Many of the latter are in Africa, where more than 97% of the population still haven’t been immunized. ‘These countries cannot get the vaccine they need because supply commitments from manufacturers are not coming through as planned. They can somehow get vaccines to their people but simply do not have enough doses to meet the need,’ the communiqué notes. ‘Insufficient preparation, insufficient investment, insufficient collaboration and insufficient learning’ are attributed for this by the WHO.

Although donations are offered to poor countries by the high-income nations, the commitments are generally ‘too haphazard to offer consistent and predictable support for countries in need’ WHO notes. It also observes that collaboration between nations in also ‘inconsistent and not sustained’. The communiqué further maintains that ‘as the fires of the pandemic flare up, the quality and predictability of response are hampered by suspicion and competition.’

Relative to most countries, including many in the developed world, Sri Lanka has handled the vaccination drive against COVID very successfully, Dr. Abeykoon said. “In the South East Asian region, Bhutan, the Maldives and Sri Lanka are at the top in terms of the percentage of vaccinations, particularly those over the age of 60 who are most vulnerable. We also need to gradually increase the numbers of children and adolescents who are vaccinated. While they will not fall seriously ill they could serve as the reservoirs of infection. Further, since schools have restarted there is a higher possibility for wider transmission of the virus among the school children.”

While many countries are giving vaccines to children, mostly over 12, China, Hong Kong, Japan and a few more are vaccinating children over five. “We have been vaccinating children over six (with Pfizer) with co-morbidities such as congenital heart diseases, thalassemia, cerebral palsies, genetic disorders, immune deficiencies, cancers etc. However, there is still no clear decision regarding the vaccination of young children between five and 16 without co- morbidities and the National Advisory Committee will mostly likely make a call soon.”

There is also a growing chorus of support among countries and leaders that a legally-binding agreement is essential for preparing better responses to disease outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics. WHO Special Envoys for COVID-19, urge leaders to act together ‘spurred on by the suffering provoked by this pandemic, to prevent a sequel before political attention lapses.’

A consensus decision aimed at protecting the world from future infectious diseases crises was agreed by the World Health Assembly a few days ago. The Assembly agreed to kick-start a global process to draft and negotiate a convention, agreement or other international instrument under the Constitution of the WHO to strengthen pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.

A universally-binding agreement that articulates a firmly agreed upon approach to equitable use and distribution of resources is not only morally correct, it is also the right thing to do from a public health point of view affirms the WHO. The Special Envoys call on national leaders and the WHO to make the agreement happen and to do it effectively, rapidly and on a sound, durable financial footing and perceive it as ‘a once-in-a-generation opportunity to insulate the world from the next inferno of infectious disease and build forward with better mechanisms that protect all future generations.’



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Is it impossible to have hope?

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So, a woman has lost again to a man. I refer here to Matale District SJB MP Rohini Kaviratne having to concede her bid for Deputy Speaker of Parliament to some bod of the Pohottu Party, who, sad to say makes only a negative impression on Cass. Conversely, Kaviratne looks competent, capable, trustworthy, able to communicate and command, and most importantly speaks and conducts herself well balanced. So different from most of the MPs, particularly of the government side, who lack education, and in appearance and behaviour – decency. Please, take my word for the fact that I am not a party person. What I want in our representatives is education and decorum. And they should at least once in a while use their own heads and make decisions that are good for the country and not follow the leader through sheep like, sycophantic obedience. Of course, even more than this is self interest that prompts the way they act and decisions are taken, especially at voting times.

Rohini Kaviratne made a bold statement when, as Wednesday’s The Island noted, she told Parliament “the government was neither run by the President nor the Prime Minister but by a ‘crow.’” Utterly damning statement but totally believable. Deviousness as well as self-preservation is what motives action among most at the cost of even the entire country. And, of course, we know who the crow is – kaputu kak kak. Cass lacks words to express the contempt she feels for the black human kaputa, now apparently leading the family of kaputas. Why oh why does he not depart to his luxury nest in the US of A? No, he and his kith are the manifestation of Kuveni’s curse on the island. Strong condemnation, but justified.

You know Cass had a bold kaputa – the avian kind – coming to her balcony in front of her bedroom and cawing away this morning. Normally, she takes no notice, having developed sympathetic companionship towards these black birds as fellow creatures, after reading Elmo Jayawardena’s Kakiyan. She felt sorry for the crow who cawed to her because his name has been taken to epithet a politico who landed the entire country in such a mess. And he is bold enough to attend Parliament. Bravado in the face of detestation by the majority of Sri Lankans! Cass did not watch afternoon TV news but was told father and son, and probably elder brother and his son attended Parliamentary sessions today – Wednesday May 18. May their tribe decrease is the common prayer; may curses rain on them. Cass recognises the gravity of what she says, but reiterates it all.

I am sure Nihal Seneviratne, who recently and in 2019, shared with us readers his experiences in Parliament, moaned the fact that our legislature always lacked enough women representation. Now, he must be extra disappointed that political allegiance to a party deprived Sri Lanka of the chance of bringing to the forefront a capable woman. Women usually do better than men, judging by instances worldwide that show they are more honest and committed to country and society. The two examples of Heads of Government in our country were far from totally dedicated and commitment to country. But the first head did show allegiance to Ceylon/Sri Lanka in fair measure.

As my neighbour moaned recently: “They won’t allow an old person like me, after serving the country selflessly for long, to die in peace.” Heard of another woman in her late 80s needing medical treatment, mentally affected as she was with utter consternation at the state of the country. One wonders how long we can be resilient, beset on every side by dire problems. But our new Prime Minister was honest enough to voice his fears that we will have to go through much more hardship before life for all Sri Lankans improves.

Thus, my choice of pessimistic prediction as my title. Will we be able to hope for better times? Time will be taken but is it possible to have even a slight glimmer of hope for improvement?

There is much debate about the appointment of Ranil W as PM. We admire him for his knowledge and presence. But the greatest fear is he will defend wrong doers in the R family. Let him be wise, fair and put country before saving others’ skins. He has to be praised for taking on the responsibility of leading the country to solvency. He said he will see that every Sri Lankan has three meals a day. May all the devas help him! The SJB, though it refuses to serve under a R Prez, has offered itself to assist in rebuilding the nation. Eran, Harsha, and so many others must be given the chance to help turn poor wonderful Sri Lanka around. And the dedicated protestors, more so those in Gotagogama, still continue asking for changes in government. Bless them is all Cass can say at this moment.

Goodbye for another week. hoping things will turn less gloomy, if brightness is impossible as of now.

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Lives of journalists increasingly on the firing line

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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.

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Doing it differently, as a dancer

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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.

Stephanie

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.

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