Sri Lanka's Response to Covid-19 (Status Statement - 3)

By The Alliance of Independent Professionals

(Lanka-e-News- 15.April.2020, 6.40 AM)

1. Health Response

Testing has become the main challenge for Sri Lanka. The government has consciously erected several roadblocks to minimise testing and obfuscate the spread of Covid-19 in Sri Lanka. Despite significant domestic testing capacity, a quota of no more than 212 patients a day are being tested for Covid-19, as at 11th April 2019. With the available laboratory facilities, technicians and supply chain capacity, up to 1,200 patients can be tested per day. Mass testing is widely considered an essential prerequisite to safely opening up countries under lockdown.

For example, even most medical workers who are suspected to have come into contact with Covid-19 infected patients cannot be tested under the Health Ministry’s guidelines for managing such suspected cases. Even persons taken forcibly into quarantine are only eligible for testing if they were taken “from selected high risk geographical and / or population categories”, according to Health Ministry directives. The reference to “population categories” is alarming as the government initiated an ethnicity survey of those infected and taken into quarantine in a bid to demonstrate that Covid-19 was mainly prevalent among the Muslim community. However, the results were not released when the data did not match the claim. The study found that only 6.3% of the first 191 patients were Muslim, despite Muslims being 37% of those taken into forcible quarantine and denied testing.

The government has gazetted regulations that force the immediate cremation of Covid-19 fatalities and those who are “suspected to have died” of Covid-19 without conducting any tests or post-mortem examinations. This measure is both a further assault on the Muslim community and an attempt to artificially minimise the number of “confirmed cases” of Covid-19 in Sri Lanka to maintain public support for the government.

Consequent to pressure from medical specialists, the government has decided to increase the daily quota of Covid-19 tests although the criteria to qualify for testing remains so stringent as to artificially minimise the number of known cases. Sri Lanka is carrying out fewer tests per capita than almost any other democracy with an active outbreak. The team advising the President fears large scale testing would show many thousands of cases and negatively impact his party’s prospect of holding parliamentary elections and securing a strong majority. These factors have also influenced the government’s decision to prevent antibody testing in Sri Lanka in its clinical guidelines (page 11), which would show how many people have been infected and recovered from the virus undetected by the state.

There have been several dozen deaths in Sri Lanka due to pneumonia and other respiratory symptoms in the last several weeks but no tests are done on them. There were at least 18 deaths across the country with undiagnosed respiratory deceases but Government does not attribute it to COVID-19. No post-mortems were permitted. The corpses were cremated with the same precautions afforded to Covid-19 fatalities.  In all those cases, health officials and military officers were ordered to cremate the bodies at the earliest opportunity with minimum publicity. Patients in such condition can only be tested for Covid-19 under extraordinary circumstances, such as if they have had known contact with other Covid-19 patients, or if there is no other possible explanation for their symptoms, according to the Health Ministry’s case definition criteria.

The Prime Minister, in his address to the nation on 7th April stated that there are 40 Quarantine centres but health authorities are not aware of more than 18 centres. AIP sources confirm the existence of 28 quarantine centres, most of which are located within Military Camps, including two luxury centres in Diyathalawa for VIPs, those returning from abroad and foreign citizens.

Medical facilities in Sri Lanka are operated by experienced well trained staff, supported by a network of well-established rural medical networks. For examples, Public Health Inspectors have long been in place to cover all areas in the country. Sri Lankan doctors are considered among the best in clinical medicine. They rely on science in advising and treating patients and often challenge unempirical myths. However, some of the key figures in the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA), due to their long political association of the Rajapakse family and nationalist Buddhist Monks started to promote traditional medicines in the government health systems. The leading figure of GMOA, Dr. Anurudda Padeniya (Paediatric neurologist) with no specific medical scientific research) recently came out publicly that Buddhist teachings are the answer to pandemic. In another interview, Dr Padeniya claimed that he heads a research team for the Health Ministry and called for the use of herbal smoke/vapour (දුම් ඇල්ලීම) in households to boost immunity.  He said the fumes or vapour from a pot filled with boiled water and unnamed herbs may be spread around a person (taking care to keep their eyes closed) for this purpose.

Dr. Padeniya said a committee headed by him has unanimously endorsed this practice in the fight against COVID-19. Instead of well tested medical research, he relies on an unknown study allegedly conducted by the Ministry of Science and Technology without peer review, which leads to uninformed public believing that kohthamalli (coriander) and venivelgeta (Coscinium fenestratum or tree turmeric)  are the answer to COVID-19. These assertions have strengthened mythical beliefs in Sri Lanka. Established Ayurvedha medical specialists have come forward to deny the claims of GMOA and stated that smoke is not a treatment recognised in any credible medical system in the world.

Several highly qualified specialist doctors and medical academics have challenged the GMOA and alleged that the President has been mislead by the GMOA, which has a conflict of interest as a trade union and not a policy making organisation. However, during the last week, many medical professionals have released more valuable statements, demonstrating that the President has thus far bypassed the real medical experts in the country in taking crucial decisions. The GMOA cannot be an independent voice due to its close political association with the Rajapakse government and its nationalist political ideology.

The military and intelligence services remain in charge of the government’s effort against Covid-19. State Intelligence Service Chief Brigadier Suresh Sallay was Director of Military Intelligence in the pre-2015 Rajapakse government, and is considered a loyalist of the President, who promoted him four ranks from Captain to Brigadier in under five years. However, the health authorities have expressed their disappointment in the intelligence services leaking information of the patients to media and politicians in the government. For example, the identity of a recent patient, gem businessman married to a Foreign Ministry employee, was flashed in the newspapers with a narrative suggesting that the patient was a traitor to the nation. This raises the issue of Sri Lanka not respecting the privacy of patients.

2. Media Landscape

The media plays a subservient role at present, restricting their journalism to the verbatim reproduction of government messages and communiques, avoiding any investigative journalism for fear of the military and intelligence services. All electronic media institutions except the MTV/Sirasa network are engaged in propaganda to promote the President, military and ideology of nationalism.  Due to the curfew, the public have become a captive audience of the media channels, which promote the military and government in its messaging. All programmes without exception are designed to give only the narrative of the government. There is a coordinated approach in not permitting any type of a counter narrative to the government’s perspective, and blindly parroting the commitment of the military to save the country and commitment of the people to be ready to contribute to the motherland in future by making sacrifices on behalf of the government and military.

The key messages during the last two weeks in media can be categorised as follows:

• The President has saved the country from Covid-19 and he is the only leader who can save the country from economic downfall
• Parliament would be an impediment in combating the pandemic
• It is preferable for the President to run the country without a Parliament
• People must support the President and Military at any cost
• Minorities are unhygienic and are not helping the President to counter Covid-19
• Europe and USA are failures to be mocked and derided but China has set an example to be admired

The media has given overwhelming coverage to pro-Rajapakse voices to echo the demand for an authoritarian government that can discipline the people and fight Covid-19. Among the messages is to promote the idea of having a country without a legislature, where the President can rule by diktat.

On 4th April, the Anunayake (deputy) of the Asgiriya Chapter, Vendaruwe Upali Thero, a nationalist monk closely associated with the military and Rajapakse family, stressed that parliamentary elections must be postponed for three years. This monk made waves when he attended a birthday felicitation at Gotabaya Rajapakse's home in June 2018 and called on him to become Sri Lanka's "Hitler". He said the public is seeking help to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic and spending over Rs. 7 billion for the purpose would be a waste of money. This crisis does not depend on politicians' advice, for the public does not demand a Parliament but medical advice, the Thero added. The media has selectively curated “voice cuts” of politicians loyal to the President to support this view.

The Chinese Embassy’s strong objection in relation to an article published in Daily Mirror, accusing China of Covid-19 Negligence is significant. The letter of the Spokesperson and Chief of Political Section of the Embassy underlines the attitude of China towards the Sri Lankan media. China had awarded free exposure tours to their country to over 120 Sri Lankan journalists and hundreds of officers of strategic  public institutions such as universities, the police, Attorney General’s Department, judiciary, and institutions involved in the logistic sector and Sri Lanka Administrative Service officers. The Chinese government keeps regular contact with trusted individuals in those institutions.  In that backdrop, China feels let down by the Daily Mirror article. China remains in the media spotlight due to yesterday's suspension of the Twitter account of the Chinese embassy in Colombo.

3. Ethnic Discrimination in counter-COVID-19 measures

Reports in various parts of the country signal visible discrimination and harassment targeted at ethnic minorities, particularly in the areas where they are concentrated:
 
• There is no clear established system to ensure granting of movement passes within outside and inside districts. People in Jaffna are required to obtain passes from the Military while people in other parts of the country are required to obtain the same from police, who use their discretion in granting passes. Tamils and Muslims are routinely denied curfew passes. In Jaffna and Mulaitive, the people are largely frightened of the military.

• On 7th April, in Gurunagar and a few other areas in Jaffna, people pleaded with the authorities for food but the military had beaten the people in front of their houses. Thereafter, Divisional Secretaries requested that a few NGOs supply food. Military officers in civilian clothing interrogated and chased away NGO representatives who attempted to deliver food.

• On 5th April, during curfew, a family of five Muslims in Beruwala were removed by the Military without informing any local civilian authorities or health authorities. Their current whereabouts were unknown for at least 4 days. Two similar incidents have been reported in the Akurana,  Kandy District.

• All quarantine centres are managed by the Military. Frequently, when Tamil or Muslim individuals are released from the centre a camera crew attached to an electronic media organisation loyal to the president is alerted, and they forcibly record a “voice cut” thanking the President and Military. Some gave voice cuts voluntarily but when Tamils and Muslims have declined to make such statements, they are forced to make statements, as coached by the staff, so these materials can be used by the President’s election campaign propaganda units in the future.

• Main Covid-19 clusters are ethnically classified by the government. Some of the doctors who are closely associated with the SLPP are openly critical of Muslims. For example, Director of the National Cancer Hospital Dr. Wasantha Dissanayaka has called one Muslim Covid-19 patient a “walking bomb.”

• Public opinion is being swayed to believe that the Muslims are spreading the virus, which has created anti Muslim sentiment. Hiru and Derana (two TV Channels owned by President’s close associates) are openly promoting racial hatred in their news bulletins and political discussions but no action has been taken against any one of them, or others claiming on social media that Muslims are deliberately spreading the virus. Meanwhile, Ramzie Raziq, a well-known social media activist, was arrested and jailed for posting a clip objecting to the unfair assertions made against Muslims. 

4. Conduct of Foreign Ministry and treatment of Sri Lankans held up abroad

More than half of the Embassies in Europe and key Embassies in other regions are vacant and managed by inexperienced foreign service officers, who are known for laziness, a lack of motivation and obsession with bureaucracy. Covid-19 has demonstrated the ineptitude and disorientation of the Foreign Ministry. The Secretary has not been permitted to any initiative to protect Sri Lankan staff in foreign missions even in terms of medical care. Most of the missions have been hostile to Sri Lankans seeking advice and guidance. The government has failed to take any initiative to protect citizens seeking to return to Sri Lanka. It is significant that the Foreign Ministry is not represented in any High Profile Task Forces on COVID 19.

Sixty individuals, primarily former and serving military officers, and relations or close associates of the President have been shortlisted for posts diplomatic missions. A few of those positions in Sydney, Japan, Russia, UAE, Thailand, Italy and Malaysia are earmarked for serving military intelligence officers, who were arrested or indicted with abductions and killings of journalists during the previous Rajapakse Government. The government is preparing the appointment of two serving senior military officers into newly created Deputy Head of Mission posts for the Sri Lankan missions in Geneva and New York. New appointments are expected to be made with effect from 31st May.

Over 140 students are held up in Malaysia/Singapore  (transit from Australia and New Zealand) and Dubai (transit from UK) and a few other Airports for over two weeks but they are not permitted to enter Sri Lanka as the government had closed the borders. Desperate students and their families have repeatedly made futile requests to the foreign ministry, President, Prime Minister and businessmen close to the President. Many Sri Lankan students are held up in Bangladesh, India and the Philippines. However, moves are afoot to bring back about 35 young adults and children associated with powerful individuals in the government before the 15th April. 

5. Application of the law on Social Distancing

• Hiru (one of the two leading private electronic media channels, closely connected to the President and promoting racial feelings, has conducted a major recording of a New Year festival at Thalawathugoda, Colombo District with the participation of 130 outside participants and over 50 connected staff member and security personnel. Police confirms that no curfew passes were issued for this event nor was there any clearance obtained from the authorities, except that the President’s office had given verbal approval. The station owner’s brother, Duminda Silva, is on death row for murdering several people. He is expecting a presidential pardon prior to parliamentary elections.

• There were a series of meetings conducted by the Ministers in the guise of handing over medical equipment to medical facilities. All these meetings were attended by over 100 outsiders and media without following social distancing rules. For example, Minister Wimal Weerawansa handed over an air conditioner to Homagama Hospital on 6th April. Meanwhile, UNP parliamentarian Ranjan Ramanayake was arrested (for the third time in three months) by the government for conducting similar activities near his residence.

• During the last two weeks, the Minister of Health Pavithra Wanniarachchi has conducted a series of meetings in medical facilities, with the participation of health officials and local politicians and candidates of the SLPA. Meetings took place during the curfew and did not follow social distancing.  

• Distribution of Samurdhi (social welfare payment of Rs.5,000) to the recipients are taking place throughout the country with the participation of Grama Niladharai officers and the SLPP organisational structure. Distribution of money is taking place in groups, without heed to social distancing guidelines. Those who have not received the payments (mostly the Estate Tamils and families of known opposition supporters) have held several protests, ignoring social distancing requirements.

7. President vs. Election Commission

By the time the President decided to dissolve Parliament on 2nd March, local health authorities had been warning for over one month that Sri Lanka needed to brace itself to combat Covid-19, and after the WHO declared Covid-19 to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. The President dismissed the warnings of his own health officials, eager to face a parliamentary election with opposition parties deeply fractured. The decision by the Elections Commission to exercise its powers angered the government. The President spurned a request from the Commission that the Supreme Court be consulted to determine a constitutionally appropriate solution to the impasse. Instead, the President demanded that the Commission holds Parliamentary elections as ordered by the President irrespective of the health situation in the country.

This impasse is one of the key reasons that the government is drastically limiting Covid-19 virus and antibody testing in Sri Lanka, in order to first declare the disease eradicated in Sri Lanka, and to then hold elections to secure a two-thirds majority in Parliament, which would allow the President to radically amend the Constitution and strengthen his powers. However, the Elections Commission cannot be forced to hold elections, and one of its three members responded to the President emphasising that it would be impractical for the Commission to hold elections and calling on the President to rescind his decision to dissolve Parliament.

Meanwhile, the government is using the state and private media to generate public support for holding a snap general election within the next eight weeks, timed to coincide with a public announcement that they have become the first country to eradicate Covid-19.The Army Commander has declared on the President’s behalf that the eradication will be complete by 24th April, and universities and schools have been ordered to reopen their campuses and classrooms by 15th May in order to exert additional pressure on the Elections Commission to hold an election as soon as possible.

By The Alliance of Independent Professionals

(The authors and members of the organisation remains anonymous due to possible reprisal by the present government and military. The Alliance of Independent Professionals consists of 22 Sri Lankan professionals and academics in both the public and private sector.)

Related news:

* Assessing Sri Lanka's response to COVID-19 (Status Statement - 1)
* Sri Lanka's Response to Covid-19 (Status Statement - 2)

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by     (2020-04-15 01:13:47)

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