A white, male American official, charged with carrying aloft his country’s Star Spangled Banner abroad burnt it down instead and reduced to ashes the valour, justice and innocence the flag’s red, blue and white represented when he burst into a boorish bout of bullish obstinacy by refusing to undergo the mandatory COVID test applicable to [...]


Ugly American burns down Star Spangled Banner on Lankan soil

Diplomatic uproar at airport: US official refuses mandatory COVID test and is allowed to walk free

A white, male American official, charged with carrying aloft his country’s Star Spangled Banner abroad burnt it down instead and reduced to ashes the valour, justice and innocence the flag’s red, blue and white represented when he burst into a boorish bout of bullish obstinacy by refusing to undergo the mandatory COVID test applicable to all on arrival at the Bandaranaike International Airport last week.

On June 1, the Lankan Government had introduced PCR testing at the airport as an extra measure to keep the island shores safe from the COVID threat; and, to prevent the coronavirus from sneaking in undetected by riding piggyback on arriving passengers, had made the test, widely used in the States and the rest of the world, compulsory for all.

The ugly American, whose country has recorded the highest number of COVID deaths in the world, with over 112,000 dead upto this week and the death toll rising daily, had arrived at the Bandaranaike International Airport at 1.45 am on board a Qatar Airways flight.

The flight had taken off from Qatar, which has approximately 25,000 active COVID cases with the death toll standing at 66.  Many Sri Lankan workers in the Middle East returning home recently on these Qatar flights have tested positive for COVID on arrival while some have developed symptoms subsequently at quarantine camps and are presently being treated.

When the American had been requested to undergo the mandatory PCR test for COVID, he had, point blank, boorishly refused to do so. He had flaunted his diplomatic status and claimed diplomatic immunity from quarantine laws and stomped out of the high security airport premises after airport officials, following instructions from ministry officials, allowed him to walk free.

THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER: How one lone rogue American despoiled what it stands for

The question is: Why was he allowed the freedom of Lanka’s streets to roam as he wished after first trampling ‘pon the health laws of the country with such brazen impunity?

Shorn of his American citizenship, stripped of his exalted diplomatic status and the privileges attending it, in stern medical eyes, having spurred the COVID test, he was potentially nothing more than an unconfirmed, uncontained, untested walking time bomb, allowed to mingle freely with the masses and, even unbeknown to him, explode and spew corona atoms amongst the Lankan community and cause the ‘COVID holocaust’, the ultimate nightmare Lanka’s COVID Czar Dr. Anil Jasinghe and his expert medical team had dreaded would occur and had laboured to avoid.

The coronavirus has shown it is no respecter of persons. Not all the queen’s horses or all the queen’s men have been able to prevent COVID from wriggling its way into the heart of Britain’s Royalty and planting a kiss on the lips of the nation’s Heir to the Throne, Prince Charles. Neither did the corona bug have the slightest bother getting past the British bobby at the door at No 10 Downing Street to land a smooch on British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ruddy cheeks in the Cabinet Room and bring him under its near fatal spell.

Neither did it give Hollywood stars the miss. Film star Tom Hanks and his actress wife Rita Wilson were left to decipher the COVID Code while they spent an enforced and extended vacation Down Under. Neither was Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau’s wife Sophie spared while flying. Luckily, they all survived to tell the tale. But for thousands the world over, close encounters with the COVID kind have not had a happy ending but have left  a trail of sorrow and tears in its tragic wake.

It has levelled the rich and poor divide among nations as it has flattened the disparity between people. While the mortality rate of the virus is comparatively low, its virulence is found in its ability to spread rapidly. Once the demand for treatment rises above what the medical capacity of a country can bear, all hell breaks loose. It has happened in many nations across the globe. The high number of deaths in America, Britain, Italy, Spain and Brazil are evidence of what happens when a country fails to place its populace in ‘lockdown’ mode at an early stage and gives COVID a free run. Once the virus is allowed to invade the public domain, unrestricted social mingling gives the booster it needs to spread its tentacles far and wide.

In this respect Lanka has been fortunate. Thanks to the Government’s policy to place an islandwide curfew in the early days when the coronavirus first made its unwelcome presence felt, together with the strict health guidelines imposed, the community at large has escaped its deadly dragnet; and this thrice blessed island has been spared of being turned into one mass funeral parlour where the silence of the air is broken only by the wails of those grieving for their dead.

The corona outbreak at Bandaranaike Mawatha in Colombo 12 and the contamination discovered at the Welisara Naval base in late April were two clusters immediately quarantined and thus safely contained without being let to infect the unidentifiable mass community of people.

On May 24, Lanka’s Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Sudath Samaraweera announced the good news that not a single Covid-19 patient had been reported in society within the last 24 days, except from the quarantine centres. He said that random testing is being conducted at high-risk areas in society, but in the three weeks of May, no new cases had been reported from society. In other words, discounting those already contained quarantine centres and the Sri Lankans arriving from the Middle East who were immediately packed off to quarantine camps, Lanka was, at least, technically coronavirus free.

After being showered with such manifold blessings which so few COVID rife countries have been fortunate to receive, what a pity the Authorities chose to dice with death when it took the gamble to set a lone rogue American, untested for COVID, free to walk out from the airport, basing the decision on his diplomatic passport as guarantor and hoping against hope that he was not even a symptomatic carrier of the deadly virus that has already infected 1.9 million people in his own country, killed 112,000 US citizens with nearly a 1000 US citizens dying of it daily?

Of course, the Government was placed in a delicate position and had to tread with care so as not to upset touchy American feelings by treading on its corns and sparking off a diplomatic incident. It had to tip toe on the tight rope lest America doubles the knee pressure on its neck.

The American Embassy’s response to the ugly incident was swift as it was terse. US Embassy Spokesperson Nancy Van Holm said US diplomatic staff adhere carefully to Sri Lankan COVID-19 guidelines, including quarantine restrictions, in close coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Relations.

“The arrival of US diplomatic staff to Sri Lanka complies with the norms and procedures outlined in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, just as it applies to arrival of Sri Lankan and other diplomatic staff to the United States.”

Vienna Convention? Surely, is such unbecoming conduct by an American official possibly with diplomatic status, who, on arrival in a host country, refuses to undergo a mandatory PCR test for COVID in a World Health Organisation declared pandemic, ‘in compliance with the norms and procedures outlined in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations’? Even when the refusal is made contrary to the quarantine laws of the host nation?

Certainly, the Vienna Convention grants all accredited diplomats immunity from criminal prosecution. Article 31 of the Convention spells it out. It states: ‘Without prejudice to their privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State.’

But does it grant blanket cover of immunity from adhering to the health regulations of the receiving nation in pandemic situations even when the errant diplomat poses a grave danger to the lives of the people and even to himself? The answer is no. The convention does not even mention immunity from compliance with any health regulation imposed by the receiving state. The only instance the Convention mentions quarantine regulations is in reference to a diplomat’s baggage where automatic immunity from inspection is not extended. Article 36 states inter alia that the personal baggage of a diplomatic agent shall not be exempt from inspection if there are serious grounds for presuming that it contains articles prohibited by the law or controlled by the quarantine regulations of the receiving State.

Finally, of course, there is the last resort remedy to deal with those who refuse to comply. Article 9 gives the receiving state the right at any time to notify the sending State that any member of the diplomatic staff of the mission is persona non grata or person unwelcome and expel the person forthwith, without having to explain its decision.

Perhaps now, the US Embassy can see that their ‘diplomat’ was wrong from the beginning. That he had no right to flaunt the Vienna Convention and claim diplomatic immunity from quarantine regulations. It was an incident not covered by the Vienna Convention. The American, of course, had the right to refuse the test. But then he would have lost the right to enter the country. To sneak in by quoting nonexistent chapter and verse in the Vienna document was unbecoming, not an act of valour, of justice or of innocence as symbolised in the American flag he bore and burnt.

The callous disregard towards the sanctity of human life, the total unconcern he may, untested as he was, be exposing thousands to the COVID threat and placing at risk their lives, were not acts upholding the values represented in the American flag hallowed by millions of Americans. On the contrary, it was the desecration of the moral creed symbolized in the Stars and Stripes, tantamount to the very burning down of the Star Spangled Banner.

The PCR test has become the accepted testing method worldwide for the coronavirus. In the US alone, more than four million tests have been done with doctors stating it is not enough that more testing must be done. Even the much disparaged American President Donald Trump who has refused to wear a face mask in public consented to undergo a PCR test. He was tested negative. What’s good for the US President can’t be all that bad for his roving minions.

The issue is not about diplomatic protocol. The issue is how best to save lives from the grim COVID scythe.

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