What went wrong?
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!
One of best development administrators SL ever had
Mr. K. Thayaparan (KT), who retired from the government service after serving as a development administrator for more than thirty years passed away on Jan 05 at the age of 86. He was born in 1937 in Malaya, which was then under the British rule; his father had migrated there in 1916 for employment. His father was employed in the Malayan Railways, and the family was living a happy life. In the late 1940s, there erupted a terrorist movement launched by Communists of Chinese origin. To fight with the terrorists the British Government had issued a conscription order for all school leavers above the age of 17 years to join the military. Many families with male children over 17 years fled to Ceylon to avoid conscription. Since KT’s family also had a male child who had been noticed to report for military duty, his family members too other than his father left Malaya in 1951 and came to live in Ceylon. In Jaffna, KT resumed and completed his school education. In 1958 he entered the University of Ceylon at Peradeniya to undertake studies in geography, economics and history.
During the university days, KT had won university colours in badminton. He graduated in 1961, and served as a school teacher in the Matara district. In 1962, after sitting a competitive examination, KT joined the Government Divisional Revenue Officers’ service. In 1963, together with the other officers of the DROs’ service and comparable services, KT was absorbed into the Ceylon Administrative Service that had been created in place of the Ceylon Civil Service, which had simultaneously been abolished.
Till 1975 KT served in the district administration in the northern districts, first as DRO, then as Asst. Government Agent and as Addl. Government Agent. From 1976 to 1979 he worked in the Ministry of Fisheries as Deputy Director Planning, and contributed to the development of the National Fisheries Development Plan 1979 – 1983. The Fisheries Development Plan, among other activities had concentrated on exploitation of the fish resources in the Sri Lanka’s exclusive economic zone, which was proclaimed in 1977, and utilisation of irrigation reservoirs and village tanks for development of inland fisheries. The Government made a policy decision to implement an accelerated programme to develop inland fisheries and aquaculture. For this purpose, a new Division called the Inland Fisheries Division was set up in the Ministry, and KT was appointed its director.
The accelerated development programme had a number of activities to perform. Establishment of fish breeding stations in different parts of the country, recruitment and training of scientific and technical officers to serve at fish breeding centres, import of exotic fish species suitable for culture in Sri Lankan inland waterbodies, training of youth in inland fishing and aquaculture, promotion of investments in shrimp farming, etc. Funding agencies like UNDP, ADB and individual countries on bilateral basis came forward to support the accelerated inland fisheries development programme by providing funds for development of infrastructure, providing technical assistance, providing foreign training for the scientific and technical staff who were mostly young people without experience, and providing advisory services. It was heavy work for KT, but he managed the Division and its work smoothly.
KT was a firm believer in team work. He knew workers in all outstation inland fisheries or aquaculture establishments by name. He distributed foreign training slots offered by donor countries or agencies to every scientific or technical officer on an equitable basis. He listened to everybody, and was quite loved by his staff. KT was quite neutral in politics. However, in spite of his hard work to develop the inland fisheries sector, he was transferred out of the Ministry in 1985 to the SLAS Pool.
In 1979 when KT took over the responsibility of developing inland fisheries and aquaculture in the country, the total national inland fish production in Sri Lanka was 17,400 tons. During his tenure of nearly six years, the national inland fish production steadily increased and in 1985, the year he was transferred it had increased to 32,700 tons, showing an increase of nearly 90%. Also, there were 4,500 inland fishing craft operating in reservoirs, and the number employed as fishers, fish collectors, fish traders, etc. was over 10,000.
After leaving the Ministry of Fisheries he served different assignments such as Director Regional Development, National Consultant or the World Bank funded Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Project, Secretary to the North-East Provincial Council Ministry of Agriculture, Lands and Fisheries, and Secretary to the State Ministry Hindu Religious and Cultural Affairs. In 1995, he was appointed Addl. Secretary Development of the Ministry of Fisheries, but his stay in this post was brief since the then Minister replaced him with one of his political supporters. His last government assignment was as Addl. Secretary, Ministry of Plan Implementation, National Integration and Ethnic Affairs. In 1997, he retired from the government service, but continued in a few foreign funded projects as institutional development consultant. He once told that his most productive period in the government service was as Director Inland Fisheries. After retirement he authored several books, Reminiscences of Malaya 1937 – 1951, Stories of Some Brave Men and High Achievers, and Introduction to Some Known High Achievers.
Although he was quite suitable to be appointed the Secretary to a Ministry, he was never considered for such a post. In the final years of his career, he was compelled to serve under his juniors. But he carried on regardless and did the best in whatever the capacity he served.
It was not Central Bank bond scam
I was surprised and sorry to read a journalist attached to The Island writing about a central bank bond scam: surprised because, the editor of The Island, in his inimitable editorials, consistently refers to a treasury bond scam; sorry, because it is simply factually wrong. I have driven home that point several times in The Island and assumed that that canard was dead. Would you permit me to flog a not-so-dead horse?
There never was a central bank bond scam; there could not have been, because there was no market in central bank bonds. The central bank has not issued its own liabilities at least since 1967. The currency notes issued by the Central Bank are liabilities of the government (aanduva/state?) of Sri Lanka. (Should you not clear up that mess confusing ‘state’ with the ‘government’? It is one thing to have faith in the state of Sri Laska and quite another to have faith in the government of Ranil Wickremesinghe.) The Central Bank issues those bills (it does currency) on behalf of the state/government of Sri Lanka and they are not the liabilities of the Central Bank or the Monetary Board. There was a scam in government bonds in 2015 as well as in 2016.
As became clearer in the course of the Chitrasiri Commission, the then-governor of the Central Bank and a few other officers of the Central Bank were parties to that financial fraud involving government bonds. The Central Bank is simply the agent of the government/state who markets government liabilities. Those liabilities do not become the Bank’s liabilities. When you carry Sri Lanka currency, you carry liabilities, much like government bonds, of an entity whose credit is low. The Central Bank of Sri Lanka is not in the picture.
Ampitiya That I Knew
Ampitiya is a village just two miles from Kandy. The road to Talatuoya, Marassana, Galaha and turning left from Talatuoya to Tennekumbura and Hanguranketha and beyond goes through Ampitiya.My family moved there in 1949 when our paternal grandfather bequeathed the ancestral home to our father to be effective after our grandfather’s demise. Until then the eldest sister of our father’s family with her family and the two bachelor brothers lived in the house. After living in various places our father was transferred to on duty, we had come to our final abode there.
The house was situated about 100 yards before the second mile post. There were paddy fields both in front of the house and behind it with a mountain further away. These were salubrious surroundings to live in. There was no hustle and bustle as in a town and the only noise would have been the occasional tooting of horns and the call of vendors selling various household needs.
The Ampitiya village extended from near the entrance to the Seminary and the school situated a short climb away along Rajapihilla Mawatha (now Deveni Rajasinghe Mawatha) on the road from Kandy ending at the gate to the Seminary, and running up to the Diurum Bodiya temple.
Ampitiya was well known thanks to the Seminary of our Lady of Lanka located there. Newly ordained Catholic priests took theology classes here. The Seminary with its majestic building commanded a fine view of the Dumbara valley. The student priests lived in the hostel called Montefano St. Sylvester’s Monastery situated just above the sloping rice fields coming down to the Kandy-Talatuoya Road. There was a volleyball court within the Montefano premises and we used to see the young priests enjoying themselves playing a game in the evenings as the court was quite visible from our house.
We, as schoolboys of the neighbourhood, used to get together during many weekends and play cricket on the roadway to the Montefano which was just past the second milepost as there was no vehicular traffic then on that road.
Ampitiya had a school started by the Catholic Church and known as Berrewaerts College which later became the Ampitiya Maha Vidyalaya. At the time our family became residents of Ampitiya this was the only school. Later the Catholic Church established a girls’ school named Carmel Hill Convent. This school enabled most girls who had to go all the way to Kandy or Talatuoya by bus to walk to school.
People who follow sports, especially athletics, would have heard the names of Linus Dias, Sellappuliyage Lucien Benedict Rosa (best known in Sri Lanka as SLB Rosa) and Ranatunga Karunananda, all Ampitiya products who participated in the Olympics as long distance runners competing in the 10,000 metres event. Linus Dias captained the Sri Lankan contingent in the Rome Olympics in 1960.Though they were not able to emulate Duncan White they took part.
Karunananda became a hero in Sri Lanka as well as in Japan when at the Tokyo Olympics of October 1964 he completed the 10,000 metre course running the last four laps all alone. The crowd cheered him all the way to the finish appreciating his courage in not abandoning the already completed race. Later he said he was living up to the Olympic motto which said the main thing is to take part and not to win.
Rosa captained the Sri Lankan team in the 1972 Munich Olympics. He switched to long distance running while still a student thanks to the Principal of Ampitiya Maha Vidyalaya, Mr. Tissa Weerasinghe (a hall mate of mine one year senior to me at Peradeniya) who had noted his stamina and asked him to switch to long distance events. I must mention that Tissa was responsible for bringing this school to a high standard from where it was when he took over.
Coincidentally, during our Ampitiya days, all the houses from Uduwela junction for about half a mile towards Talatuoya were occupied by our relatives! They included the Warakaulles, Koswattes, Pussegodas, Sangakkaras, Godamunnes, Thalgodapitiyas and Wijekoons. Now most of these houses are occupied by others.
Ampitiya area had two Buddhist temples. One was the Dalukgolla Rajamaha Viharaya on the Ratemulla Road and the other, Ampitiya Diurum Bodiya, near the third mile post. From the latter temple a famous Buddhist monk, Ven. Ampitye Rahula Thero later joined the Vajirarama temple in Colombo and was highly recognized by Buddhists just like Ven. Narada and Ven.Piyadassi Theros.
The Uduwela temple had a water spout emerging out of a granite rock where the temple priests and neighbours used to bathe and wash their clothes. This spout never ran dry.
At present the landscape of Ampitiya has changed hugely. Most of the sloping paddy fields have been filled and dwelling houses have come up. The majestic view, except for faraway mountains, is no longer present. A five-star hotel has been built just beyond the second mile post and the area has lost its previous tranquility. A person of my vintage who once lived there visiting Ampitiya now wouldn’t be able to recognize the place given the changes.
HM NISSANKA WARAKAULLE
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