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!
An appeal to President
This is to request President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to allow burial of COVID -19 infected corpses of Muslims in the burial ground close to the residence of the diseased instead of sending them to Otamaavadi. It goes without saying that all Health protocols and regulations will have to be stringently adhered to for the burial at the existing burial grounds.
I hope that this request will be granted as the experts in Virology have confirmed that there is no ground water contamination with the burial of those dying of Covid-19.
This will reduce considerably logistic issues and cost to both the State and the family members of the deceased and at the same time expedite burial.
COVID-19 has opened up the doors for an umpteen number of “talk shows”: of various types, conveying different TV messages to our people on how to cope with the many daily problems faced by them, including the now prevailing pandemic.
At a time the public are very effectively advised by the relevant health authorities delegated with that task, and highly competent to educate the masses how to cope with this pandemic, what purpose these “shows” give our people hungry for news is left for anyone to guess.
Recently. I happened to watch two such talk shows telecast one after the other, where the same person was interviewed by two different interviewers on the same subject, as if competing with each other. More amusing was the pose shown to the camera by one of the interviewers at the end of the show, as if asking the viewers “how do you like my ‘show’?
These Talk Shows, similar to the virus, seem to be able to develop variants with time to cover other fields, too, such as economy, Port City, reforestation and lesser known local small industry entrepreneurs, diplomats and academics; and how to make Colombo a green city by a programme to plant thousands of trees to get off the ground immediately. Everyone knows that what is being planted are not trees but young plants, only a few weeks old, and no one knows when they will ever grow into a tree as imagined, if they survive the test of time and we are lucky to live till then. But repeating these shows as happening at the moment is a waste of time.
What I appreciated most in one special case was the liberal use of highly scientific jargon, even if the person to my imagination never studied science and more so the use of good English that was encouraging. But what worried me most was if someone else asked why these programmes are not conducted in Tamil?
Finally, the Telecom beats them all, where every call taken precedes a lengthy message on prevention of the Coronavirus pandemic, sometimes repeated twice. It all ends with the message only. But not the call.
Eng ANTON NANAYAKKARA
Protecting Sri Lanka’s maritime rights
Your editorial, Poaching: Grasp the nettle (The Island of 09 June), provides a good analysis of the issue concerning the poaching of fishery resources in Sri Lanka waters, particularly in the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar.
The maritime boundary between Sri Lanka and India was settled by two agreements entered into by the two countries in 1974 and 1976. Accordingly, fishing vessels and fishers of the two countries were debarred from fishing in the waters, the territorial sea and the exclusive economic zone of each other.
Subsequently, the Maritimes Zones Law, No. 22 of 1976 was enacted with provisions for the President to declare the limits of the agreed maritime boundary between the two countries, and different maritime zones of Sri Lanka, such as the historic waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone, pollution prevention zone and the continental shelf. This law prohibits unauthorised fishing in any of the maritime zones of Sri Lanka by any foreign vessel. The President did declare the maritime zones of Sri Lanka by a proclamation published in the Gazette 248/1 of 15-01-1977. Since then unauthorized fishing by Indian vessels on the Sri Lanka side of the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar became illegal.
However, part of the agreement relating to fishing has never been honoured by India, whose fishers continued to fish on the Sri Lanka side of the Palk Bay, and on the Sri Lanka side of the Gulf of Mannar, which jointly form the historic waters of Sri Lanka. According to the Presidential Proclamation, waters on the Sri Lanka side of the Palk Bay form part of the internal waters of Sri Lanka while those on the Sri Lanka side of the Gulf of Mannar form part of the territorial sea (provisions of the Law of the Sea Convention of 1982 relating to internal waters and territorial sea do not contradict such declarations provided they are made on the provisions of the customary international law). On the other hand, although prior to signing of the Maritime Boundary Agreement of 1976, Sri Lankan fishing vessels were fishing in the Wadge Bank, which fell in the EEZ of India since the Agreement came into effect, no Sri Lankan vessels has been found fishing in that area.
At present, three days a week more than 1,000 Indian trawlers fish on the Sri Lanka side of the maritime boundary in violation of the law relating to fisheries in Sri Lanka. Any Sri Lankan vessel, irrespective of the part of Sri Lanka where it is fishing, should have been registered as a fishing vessel of Sri Lanka and obtained a fishing licence. Further, no such vessel is allowed to engage in mechanised bottom trawling.
There have been many discussions between the two countries since the 1990s to stop this illegal practice by Indian trawlers. Such discussions only end up with agreed minutes, but no solution. Fisheries (Regulation of Foreign Fishing Boats) Act, No 59 of 1979 provides for a High Court Judge to impose a penalty of a fine of Rs. 1.5 million on any foreign vessels engaged in unauthorised fishing in Sri Lanka waters. However, this provision was never used against any Indian trawler caught in Sri Lanka waters with unauthorised fishing, owing to practical difficulties. Subsequently, in 2017, the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (Amendment) Act, No. 11 was enacted to impose a two-year jail term or a fine of at least Rs. 50,000 with a view to controlling this problem. Although the Sri Lanka Navy takes into custody Indian trawlers and hands them over with fishers to Fisheries authorities, the moment they get a letter from the Indian High Commission asking for their release, all are released. In this context, sinking unusable buses in the sea in this area appears to be a practical solution to the problem. For that also India has expressed objections. Sri Lanka has sovereign rights to take any decision in regard to its internal waters, and territorial sea (subject to the right of innocent passage of any foreign vessel) and historic waters (these form part of either internal waters or the territorial sea). Therefore, it is not necessary to stop this activity, just because India is objecting.
As regards the claim by India that Sri Lankan vessels also engage in unauthorised fishing in India waters, it should be noted that they are taken into custody rarely in very small numbers; that, too, mostly in the Indian EEZ, while they are returning after fishing in the Arabian sea. Any vessel has the right to navigation in the EEZ of any country. Even when innocent Sri Lankan fishers happen to be caught by the Indian authorities, they are made to suffer in Indian jails.
A few years earlier also, you expressed concern on this issue by an editorial, Saying it with fish, when Sri Lanka released all Indian fishers who were in jail in Sri Lanka pending trials, as a gesture of thanks for India’s vote at the UN in favour of Sri Lanka. Thank you for your concerns.
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