By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
I am stuck in the UK, badly missing trips back home, but I have been closely following the developments in Sri Lanka, especially with regard to the Covid-19 epidemic and the engulfing political drama. It was no great effort either, as plenty of time was available, being almost totally housebound, dreading to go out as the virus was killing thousands and thousands in the UK. What was remarkable, initially, was how badly the UK controlled the pandemic and how well Sri Lanka did. Total number of deaths in Sri Lanka remained very low for months whilst the Brits were dying in large numbers. It is the other way around, now; deaths due to Covid-19 in Sri Lanka are exceeding that of the UK now. What went wrong?
Whilst Sri Lanka is grappling with a resurgence, caused by the excesses indulged during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year festivities, the British government recently announced significant relaxation of pandemic preventive measure. It expects the country to be ‘near-normal’ by mid-June, if the present trends continue. One may argue that normalcy cannot be guaranteed until the virus is controlled, globally, as well stated in the editorial “All hat and no cattle” (The Island, 10th May). The editor argued that “the only way out is to follow the motto—unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno (‘one for all, all for one’).”
Although both are island nations, admittedly, the UK and Sri Lanka are poles apart, on many counts, most significant being the availability of resources. The UK is rich enough to buffer the resultant economic downturn, whereas Sri Lanka was struggling, economically, even before the epidemic. Therefore, attempts by the Sri Lankan government, to keep the economy afloat, are mandated by sheer necessity, although the Opposition accuses it of endangering lives. The big question is how to strike the right balance. At the time of Independence, our economy was in better shape than that of the Brits, but where are we, now? That, however, is another story.
At the start of the pandemic, the UK was slow to close its borders. Again, it was a tough call because Heathrow is one of the busiest airports in the world. The UK paid heavily, in terms of lives lost, because of this. UK politicians took the advice of expert committees, and whether the initial failures were due to wrong advice by scientists or not, we will not know until the findings of the committee, to be appointed by the British government, is available. However, the UK government took serious notice of the advice by scientists, regarding the need for mass vaccination, and placed orders for vaccines, even before trials for their effectiveness were concluded. That strategy paid off. Already, two-thirds of the adult population in the UK has received one dose and one-third of has received the second dose, as well. It was interesting to follow the progress: as the vaccination drive proceeded, the number of cases, the numbers in intensive care, and the number of deaths, progressively plummeted.
If there are any vaccine doubters, they need to look at what happened in the UK. I am personally aware of many ‘so-called educated’ vaccine-doubters. The responses in a WhatsApp group, started by a friend of mine, are very illuminating. There is a nutritionist who argues against vaccination, suggesting that boosting immunity, by nutrition, is the way forward. Professor Emeritus Saman Gunatilake has addressed this issue, academically, in his illuminating piece “Boosting immune system to fight Covid-19: Is it possible?” (The Island, 7 May). There is a media lawyer who supports the nutritionist and sends contrasting messages. Three hours, after forwarding a message which states that CDC data shows the survival rate, for under 69, is over 99%, he forwards another message stating that a site by the University of Washington predicts Sri Lanka will soon have 200 deaths daily. Both ‘experts’ take part in TV discussions and are very likely to be passing on wrong messages, as they are continually forwarding anti-vaccine messages, the latest being that vaccination has made the epidemic worse. Wonder why they callously disregard the success of the UK. Covid-19 has given rise to a plethora of experts who give widely differing opinions about many things, including the UK variant, but the UK is successfully controlling the epidemic, with vaccination, which is estimated to have saved at least 10,000 lives so far.
It is a pity these vaccine-doubters overlook the fact that some diseases are eradicated, thanks to vaccines. The most successful vaccine ever is the smallpox vaccine, which enabled the eradication of the dreaded disease that existed for millennia, killing more than 300 million, in the 20th century, and around 500 million, during the last 100 years of its existence, including six monarchs. Initially, before Edward Jenner introduced vaccination, with the cowpox virus, in 1796, direct inoculations, with smallpox virus, were used, which had a mortality rate of 3% but this was acceptable as the mortality rate of smallpox was around 30%-40%.
Some exaggerate the risks of vaccination. There is no drug, without side-effects, and vaccines are no exception. Concern about the Oxford AZ vaccine causing Superficial Cerebral Vein Thrombosis was made use of by the German Chancellor to promote the Pfizer vaccine, which was developed by a German bio-tech company. Medicine and Healthcare Regulatory Agency of the UK made a detailed study and recommended, when possible, those under 40 should be offered an alternative vaccine but emphasized the safety of AZ vaccine. To put in perspective, the birth control pill poses a greater risk of causing venous thrombosis; so does Covid-19 itself.
What went wrong, in Sri Lanka, is putting sentiment over science. The government failed to establish an expert committee, which could have been done easily as we are not short of real experts in the relevant fields. The decisions made by that committee could have been translated to practice by the committee, headed by the Army Commander. Another failing was the lack of proper communication. In the UK, the Prime Minister, or one of the senior ministers, together with senior scientists, hold regular press conferences.
Instead, what did we do? Our Health Minister polluted rivers with pots, devised by a faith-healer, and then drank a syrup, made by a charlatan. She wasted the valuable time of Professors of Medicine, as well as resources, to investigate a piece of garbage that was found to be useless, whilst the kapuwa minded money, at the expense of the gullible. Now, a member of my profession also has joined the band-wagon of deception. A non-specialist doctor has joined hands with his brother to sell a concoction of herbs etc.! Why hasn’t the Minister taken action against this errant medic?
We have a State Minister, a Professor of Pharmacology, who sees the benefits of Ayurveda for political reasons! The mother country of Ayurveda, meanwhile, is reeling with Covid-19. If Ayurveda is effective, surely that cannot happen!
All this happens while we have a State Minister, a specialist in communicable diseases, who speaks sense but is largely ignored!
The Minister of Transport reverses the decisions of Medical officers of Health and then blames the poor government servants, stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, for carrying out his orders. The virus is having a hearty laugh and now infecting his voters!
We thought the President would act decisively once he regained full executive powers from the 20th Amendment, but he seems less powerful than before! The need of the hour is not to protect errant politicians, or unproven systems of treatment, but directing all efforts at getting adequate stocks of vaccines to overcome the epidemic.
It is high time the President considered sacking the incompetent and idiotic ministers. Otherwise, he might as well forget about a second term!
The ‘Smiling Chancellor’- educationist par excellence
The most reverend Dr Oswald Gomis, Emeritus Archbishop of Colombo and the former Chancellor of the University of Colombo, was called to his heavenly home on 03.02.23
It is with sincere gratitude that I pay this tribute to him for his invaluable service to the field of education in general to the University of Colombo and to me as an academic
It was Father Bonjean, a Catholic priest, who has been acclaimed as the greatest contributor to Catholic education at that time through his submissions to the State advocating a system of state-aided schools to be run by each religious denomination for its children. He pointed out, not only Catholics but also the adherents of other religions in the island (Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims) should be fairly treated. The Denominational or Assisted Schools System, which it was hoped would benefit all religions, thus came into being and lasted nearly a century until the takeover of schools by the state in 1960. Fr. Bonjean came to be known as ‘the Father of the Denominational School System’
Father Bojean was considered ‘the Father of the Denominational School System’, and most Rev. Dr. Oswald Gomis can be considered the modern father of Assisted schools. Being a product of St Bendict’s college, he wanted to provide similar education through equality and religious harmony for the students. At an interview he said that when he was appointed Archbishop of Colombo, he had a special objective – that is to provide a good education for the people. To achieve this, he wanted to expand the catholic education. Hence, he made a valiant effort within the existing legal framework to establish branch schools of the popular catholic private schools. St. Peter’s College, Gampaha and Udugampola Branches, St. Joseph’s College, Enderamulla and Kadolkele branches and many more such branch schools. Further, a branch of St. Nicholas’ International College in Negambo and St. Thomas Catholic International College in Seeduwa were also established. School of Hope, Paiyagala and– Don Bosco Technical Institute – Nochchiyagama were also founded under his patronage.
Most Rev. Dr. Oswald Gomis as a historian and author has also contributed to education. For example, he has disproved that, i.e. Catholicism was introduced for the first time in our country by the Portuguese, in his book, “Some Christian Contributions in Sri Lanka”
The Archbishop, has pointed out that one Jordanus Catalha de Severac, a Dominican Friar, was appointed to Colombo as a bishop by Pope John XX11 on 5th April 1330 according to a document in the Vatican Archives, and he (Jordanus) has written a book called “Mirabila Descripta”(also in Vatican Archives) giving vivid description about various countries including ancient Sri Lanka and about two kings during his stay here. He also forwarded evidence according to Vatican sources that another missionary, a Papal Legate by the name of Giovani de Marignolli who was sent to East by the same Pope stayed in Colombo for eighteen months around the years 1348/1349 and taught catechism in a church dedicated to St. George and also erected a huge stone Cross here, before his departure to Europe. The Archbishop also quotes that Prof. Paranavithana, in his book , “Story of Sigiriya” has proved that Christianity was in ancient Sri Lanka with irrefutable evidence based on details found in the rock inscriptions in various parts of our country. A stone Cross in Anuradhapura he claims bears testimony to this.
Bishop Oswald Gomis’s Contribution to the University of Colombo and to me personally is invaluable. In 1994 in response to an application I sent to the University of Colombo for a Post of Probationary lecturer in Humanities Education I was called for an interview. At the interview I was amazed to find his lordship most Rev. Oswald Gomis the Archbishop of Colombo on the interview panel. I thought that my nervousness was making me see a vision! However, later I learnt that he was indeed there as a member of the University Council as an educationist. Years later as the Dean of the Faculty of Education when I met him at a convocation, I mentioned this incident to him. With his usual endearing smile, he said “I am glad we made the correct decision at that time”. In 2019 at the Post Graduate Convocation when he as the Chancellor handed me the Vice Chancellor’s award for excellence in research in the Faculty of Education in the year 2018, beaming with pride he told the Vice Chancellor “I selected her to the University”. Such was his memory!
Bishop Gomis has been on the Council of the University of Colombo from 1977-2001. Later, he was appointed the Chancellor in 2001 and continued to serve the university in this capacity till 2021. Every year I hear the graduands after the convocation commenting on the “smiling Chancellor’ who wished each and every one of them. In spite of the arduous task of sitting through three days of four sessions , and handing over the scrolls , he made it a point to make their big day memorable by that personal touch. He continued to discharge his role as Chancellor to perfection by attending all the University functions he was invited irrespective of whether it was X’mas carols or Pirith. He took pride in the achievements of both the students and staff of the University of Colombo. I have heard him saying to the students, referring to raging such unfortunate incidents do not happen in our university. Bishop Gomis held his position with dignity and pride. In turn the students and staff respected and liked him.
When Bishop Gomis was appointed the Archbishop of Colombo the Bishop’s Conference in a statement said, he brings to Colombo valuable expertise as a scholar, educationist, historian, author and above all, a revered pastor”. He has indeed used his expertise to the maximum and in his retirement continued to impart this knowledge through his writings. People of Bishop Gomis’s calibre is very rare today.
We will miss you dear father, but you will live through your good deeds.
May host of angels lead you to your eternal rest!
University of Colombo
Senerath or Sene, as he was affectionately called, passed away on January 7 plunging his near and dear and a host of his friends and associates into a pool of tears and agony. According to his wife in whose arms he breathed his last, death was instantaneous.
True, he had a few health issues which however did not warrant the kind of quick “exit” he encountered. Senerath, my son-in-law was a doughty fighter who braved his affiliations with great fortitude. The doctors who treated him were baffled by the composure he evinced when confronted with the complications he was doomed to go through. Admirable, isn’t it?
An alumnus of D.S. Senanayake College, he cultivated a strong link with the school and was an active member of the Old Boy’s Association of the school. After a brief career as a Demi Chef in a prestigious hotel in the Middle East, he showed his powers in Real Estate in later years. He was over the moon and basking in the success of his trade.
Sene was an entertainer par excellence. He ran an open house for his plethora of friends and associates. The gregarious animal he was, prompted him to hold musical evenings where singing and dancing went on till the wee hours of the morning. He sang with lilting and melodious resonance. “Baila’ was his forte good lord Bacchus was an indispensable invitee to his parties where he had free rein.
This popular personality was a compulsive humorist who left his audience roaring with uncontrollable laughter. His infectious smile is missed by many. His philanthropy extended far and wide especially to the poor and helpless people in and around where he lived. The received monetary assistance, dry rations and produce from his cultivations.
He had traveled widely and was planning to visit his son who is employed in New Zealand but it was not to be. His daughter had left to the United Kingdom just three days before her father’s passing. He was a loving husband to his wife Lalana and a fond father to Lakitha and Lasandhi. As his father-in-law I join them to invoke blessings of the Noble Triple Gem to help Sene to tread the path to Nibbana.
What has happened to the Sri Lanka Police?
The sorry depths the Sri Lanka Police has plunged into today is a disgrace to our country. Gone are the halcyon days when every policeman on the road or in the police station was looked up to with respect. Until recent times we had fewer police stations in the country and they were manned by very capable officers, be they Inspectors or Sub Inspectors. They knew their job, any offenses committed were quickly detected and the culprits apprehended without delay.
Very rarely did we hear of police officers resorting to graft, maybe except in rare cases where some officer would send a police constable to get his beef, fish, or other requirement from the market free of charge. Another important factor in yesteryear was that no officer boot licked politicians to get their promotions. There was no Police Commission, but the promotions were given to the deserving at the correct time. No junior officer was promoted over his seniors.
At that time, there was only one SP for each Province and four police Ranges, each headed by a DIG (Deputy Inspector General). Now DIGs are a dime a dozen and yet the work done cannot be compared to what was done by a few earlier. OICs of police stations are appointed today according to the whims and fancies of politicians. Any officer who fails to carry out illegal orders of the politicians is sure to be transferred to a difficult station. This change in the system is all for the worse of both the police force as well as the people.
It results in the police turning a blind eye to the illegal activities going on in their areas. These include distilling kasippu, brothels operating without hindrance and drug trafficking as most of these illegal activities are carried out by supporters of the area politicians. The politicians and the police function hand in glove as both parties are duly rewarded for their support of each other.
In recent times we have heard of the worst type of illegal actions indulged in by some police officers. Many ganja plants were detected in an SSP’s residence at a time the police were examining the bags of schoolchildren to check for narcotics being smuggled into schools. The sleuths should have searched the residences of the senior police officers first! Earlier there were three police officers in the Narcotics Bureau caught stealing drugs kept as court productions and sending stocks back into the drug market! Then there was the case of the policeman in charge of court productions who had removed the batteries from two vehicles and sold them. There were other policemen involved in treasure hunting and giving protection to persons felling valuable trees, sand mining illegally and even sexual abuse of underage children.
Now there are squabbles between gazetted officers and subordinates over matters which could be settled amicably. An instance of this nature was reported in the media between the SSP and the OIC of the Kebitigollawa police station. Earlier an SSP had filed a fundamental rights against a Senior DIG alleging he had been threatened by the latter. Such happenings were unheard of, of all places in the Police Department, in the good old days.
The police could not prevent the Easter Sunday suicide bombing which took the lives of over 250 innocents. The police have not been able to apprehend the mastermind behind this heinous crime to date. This on top of the murders of Lasantha Wickramatunge and Wasim Thajudeen. Most recently, the police have not been able to trace those who have threatened the Elections Commissioners even over half a month of the incident.
It is very rarely that we find senior police officers defying illegal orders given either by senior officers or political leaders. It was heartening indeed to hear of an SSP defying orders given to do something against his conscience. He admitted this at a meeting with the minster in charge and left the meeting saying he would not obey illegal orders. This happened long after a DIG stood up and corrected the lady President when she had said something wrong about the police. At neither meeting was the defiant stand by their colleagues endorsed by seniors present. A sad commentary on the way senior police officers behave.
It is only in Sri Lanka that about half the police force is deployed to protect the political establishment: president, prime minister, cabinet and state ministers and MPs. Add former presidents, their spouses and former speakers to this number. Whenever these lawmakers travel by road, there is a police entourage that accompany them. How big this is depends on the standing of the lawmaker escorted. In addition to the waste of manpower there is a huge drain on fuel at a time when ordinary people must make do with a modest weekly ration. The repercussions of this is there are insufficient policemen to check on errant and reckless drivers and prevent avoidable accidents. So also crime prevention by night patrolling of roads as was done earlier. With no terrorist threats today, why can’t each minister be guarded by a single personal security officer as in the past?
Hopefully, the next IGP will be one who had not stooped low to get the position but won it on his own merits. He would then be able to act impartially without carrying out illegal orders of political leaders and also will not give illegal orders to his subordinates. This would help the Sri Lanka police to return to its earlier glory and command the deserved respect of the public.
HM NISSANKA WARAKAULLE
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