In the face of a new outbreak of a potentially fatal oncoming influenza from China and South East Asia, how prepared is Sri Lanka to meet the situation? Should an emergency task force be appointed? The new strain of coronavirus has earned the attention of all countries that see Chinese visitors. The Chinese President has [...]


Wuhan virus: Are we ready?


In the face of a new outbreak of a potentially fatal oncoming influenza from China and South East Asia, how prepared is Sri Lanka to meet the situation? Should an emergency task force be appointed?

The new strain of coronavirus has earned the attention of all countries that see Chinese visitors. The Chinese President has ordered the lockdown of the Wuhan province where the virus began and two other cities in a move to contain its spread.

Already, the death toll has risen to 41 and 1,287 cases have been reported not only from China, but also neighbouring South Korea, Japan, Thailand, the United States and Europe. It has brought about reminders of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) pandemic that also started in China and spread around the world in the early part of this century when 744 deaths were officially reported. The World Health Organisation (WHO), however, has not yet classed the outbreak as an “international emergency” though it says it could become one. The virus can spread from human to human and is airborne.

The anxiety has increased with millions of Chinese travelling within the country and to other countries for the Chinese New Year – the Year of the Rat which dawned yesterday (January 25).

When this newspaper ran the story of the outbreak a fortnight ago, our Hong Kong correspondent had called the Bandaranaike International Airport – and the authorities at the airport had not even heard of the outbreak of the virus. That was a major deficiency in the country’s health apparatus by not keeping up-to-date with international happenings.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa visited the airport thereafter on a spot inspection and even then, the airport authorities only issued alerts to airline staff to watch out for possibly infected passengers. When the SARS outbreak took place, thermal detectors were purchased to check on incoming passengers, but these machines seem to have gone into disuse. The airport is, therefore, open sesame for anyone entering the country carrying the virus, and it is only now that they have got their act, somewhat together.

It was only the other day that the visiting Chinese Foreign Minister said in Colombo that 170 million of his compatriots travel overseas each year and that it would be good if Sri Lanka could attract at least one million of them, i.e. one for every 22 natives. That would be a great boon for the country’s tourism market and the Exchequer, but the consequences to public health can be disastrous if the country is not ready to cope with situations such as this. The origin of this new virus has been identified as emanating from the seafood and meat markets of China’s Wuhan province. This is a commercially active geographical region of that vast country, and frequently visited by even Sri Lankan entrepreneurs.

SARS also had its origins in the poultry and bird markets of China. While meats are an essential part of the Chinese diet, the hygiene element at local markets leaves much to be desired. Despite its vast strides on the economic front, with millions of dollars spent on blue water navies and armaments, with a burgeoning middle class acquiring a degree of so-called sophistication in wine drinking and ballroom dancing, many of China’s rural areas remain backward, almost primitive. Local councils in the provinces are not equipped to handle such outbreaks and with China now doing business with the world, there is a greater duty cast upon the country to ensure health and hygiene standards are maintained.

This brings into focus Sri Lanka’s own health and hygiene standards. Some public markets — fish markets and meat markets both in the major cities and rural areas, including those run by local councils — are just plain filthy. Sanitation is well below acceptable standards. Live chicks are brought in cages, packed and sold, especially in Colombo Central area. The Borella market is a disgrace.

Laws are archaic. A poultry farmer found guilty of environmental pollution by the Central Environmental Authority no less is allowed to continue in business while he appeals. His appeal takes ages. A trader who dyes white rice to pass it off as red rice is fined Rs. 100. Basic tests of food and water quality in hotels and restaurants are not carried out, tuk tuks and belching buses pump carbon monoxide into the air and citizens do not have the culture of wearing masks. Respiratory issues among children are on the rise. The private sector does not give special sick leave for those with a communicable disease, so others in the workplace and in public transport run the risk of getting infected. There’s so much to be done.

The bond issue and the AG

 It may look like a tit-for-tat when the Speaker of Parliament ignored the Attorney General’s request not to table the long awaited forensic audit report on the Central Bank bond scam. It was only the previous week that the AG had ignored a request by the Speaker to allow a lawyer to be present when an MP was being arrested.

The two issues may not have a co-relation though. The high drama surrounding the recent arrests of three vociferous Opposition MPs – with the AG’s permission — has, no doubt, raised questions on why they have been singled out on the eve of a general election. Lawyers are complaining about the AG sanctioning the recent arrest of a sitting judge.

Insofar as the CB report is concerned, Parliament is the ultimate custodian of the nation’s purse and it is difficult to justify the argument that tabling the findings is going to interfere with ‘pending cases’. The public is aghast at the snail’s pace at which the AG’s Department has been handling some cases with kid gloves, and moving at the speed of greased lightning in others.

The discerning public is aware of the corruption that was rampant in the now disbanded FCID, and how the AG kept sending files back saying there was insufficient evidence to indict culprits.  One of the few progressive acts of the former Government was to introduce the Right to Information culture, and enact enabling laws to help citizens. In such a backdrop there was no reason for the Speaker to withhold releasing the report to either the MPs or the public. There is a new issue that some annexures have not been provided to Parliament raising issues of a potential cover up.

Many believe that politicians on both sides of the House, and their cronies are guilty of corruption in the Central Bank’s primary markets (bonds) scam. A few people became multimillionaires overnight at the expense of public money and all of them are free to roam today. Expecting any worthwhile outcome from this forensic audit report’s finding, other than a mud-slinging debate in Parliament, might just be too much to ask for.


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