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Sri Lanka's Response to Covid-19 (Wuhan Virus)

Paper No. 6568                       Dated 1- May-2020
By- A group of 22 independent professionals who wish to remain anonymous to avoid reprisals both from the Government and the Army.  While we do not vouch for its accuracy, it is being published because of its importance and relevance- Director.
1.      Health Response
 
(i) Testing and Morbidity
Despite mounting pressure from public health experts, Sri Lanka’s pace of COVID-19 testing is one of the lowest of any country with an active outbreak. From the onset of the pandemic, health officials who called for widespread testing were overruled at a political level, and the government only permitted the testing of selected people who were in Quarantine centres. Until 17th April, the maximum number of daily tests was capped at 220 and the criteria for testing a suspected patient remained a closely guarded secret marred by political objectives. Up to now, Sri Lanka has conducted 0.05 tests per 1,000 residents, compared to 0.19 in Indonesia, 0.45 in India, 6.87 in the Maldives and 11.55 in South Korea. As a result of the failure to ramp up testing, independent public health experts have deemed the month long island-wide curfew in Sri Lanka a failure, despite the massive economic damage it has caused. No other country that locked down for over four weeks has failed to flatten the curve of new infections.
 
Of the 49,800 people sent to quarantine, only 8,110 of them have been tested for COVID 19. Sri Lankan health officials were overruled by the government when they sought to publicize data about national testing as other countries have done. One reason for the secrecy is that authorities regularly test and re-test individuals who come into close contact with the President. For example, On 13th April, the health authorities tested 120 people, of whom 50 were Presidential Secretariat staff, none of whom were positive. This is how the government announced that no new cases were found on that day. On the 24th, after a spike in caseload, 245 government employees based at Temple Trees, the office of the Prime Minister, were hurriedly sent for testing. None tested positive.
 
By 20th April, due to mounting pressure from the health services, their trade unions and experts, the Government permitted authorities to test up to 440 people per day, still far below the national PCR testing capacity of up to 2,000 tests per day. Due to the sizable increase in testing capacity, the number of known cases has almost doubled since 13th April. Under intense public scrutiny, the government reluctantly agreed to increase the daily test to above 1,100 but the criteria for testing remains unclear. The first day over 700 tests were carried out, 53 patients were diagnosed, a 7.6% positive rate. Health officials worldwide concur that adequate testing will yield a 1% positive rate. Defence officials and the President’s Office, who regularly overrule health officials, have even refused to sanction the mandatory testing of all patients admitted to hospital Intensive Care Units (ICUs).
 
(ii) Morbidity
The government has stated that there have been only seven fatalities to date from Covid-19. Health officials are widely agreed that this number is a gross underestimate, as they have been forbidden from conducting Covid-19 tests on any person suspected to have died from the virus. Several persons who have died from ailments ranging from respiratory illness to heart disease have been forcibly cremated without coroners or Judicial Medical Officers being permitted to conduct Covid-19 tests on the remains.
One striking case was the death of a 35-year old navy officer on Saturday. Lieutenant Commander Sunil Dodamwala was based in the Welisara Navy Camp, where over 180 personnel have tested positive for Covid-19. Military officials announced that Dodamwala had tested negative for Covid-19, and claimed that he had died of rat fever (leptospirosis), while undergoing treatment at the Navy General Hospital.
 
However, local and international medical experts are widely agreed that rat fever is a non-fatal disease when treated in hospital. Medical professionals familiar with the case report that the officer’s Bed Head Ticket, at page one, and pages five through eight, indicated Covid-19 symptoms such as shortness in breathing and coughing. They were thus alarmed that the navy officer’s body was cremated under military supervision without following the procedure mandated by the Criminal Procedure Code for conducting a post-mortem examination in the case of a sudden death, which would have included a PCR Covid-19 test.
 
The Covid-19 test apparently used on the officer was one of the rapid testing kits gifted to the government from China. Officials in countries including the United States, United Kingdom and India have halted use of similar kits for reasons ranging from bacterial contamination to an accuracy rate of only 5%. Sri Lankan health officials have raised concerns about faulty reagents in the Chinese kits but have been instructed by Defence Ministry officials to trust the Chinese kits without quality assurance testing to avoid angering China.
 
The navy personnel who tested positive for Covid-19 were involved in cordon operations, distributing financial relief packages to people and patient treatment, without any protocols in place for their protection. However, the government has denied that they were engaged in Covid-19 relief efforts and claims that they contracted the virus while going after “a group of drug addicts.” Senior medical officers had urged the defence ministry to equip military personnel engaging with the public with personal protective equipment but were rebuffed. Instead, the soldiers were forced to engage with patients and civilians whilst armed with automatic weapons, which, through a lack of disinfecting protocols at the armoury, became a major vector for the virus. Medical officers attached to quarantines centres fear that soldiers at the centres may have also been exposed to Covid-19, especially during the last two weeks. The Task Force headed by the Army Commander has prioritised ensuring that military personnel and police officers are heavy armed, rather than provided with and trained on the use of personal protective equipment.
 
The Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA), which has long been a staunch political ally essential to Gotabaya Rajapakse’s political rise and electoral success, has been at loggerheads with the government as they found themselves sidelined. The GMOA was once notorious for leveraging the political power of doctors to wage crippling healthcare strikes in support of Rajapakse family political and foreign policy objectives, has slowly found their traditional allies turning against them. The Derana and Hiru TV stations, once safe spaces for the GMOA, have suddenly become instrumental in regularly attacking the association.  
 
When a letter leaked on social media signed by a health official seeking 1,000 body bags from the ICRC, the government first tried to denounce it as a fake, telling reporters that the signature was forged. But extremely senior leaders were furious when the signatory of the letter, an Assistant Secretary at the Health Ministry, confirmed its authenticity to journalists who broke the story. The official was instructed to complain to the police about the leak, and the CID is now investigating several health ministry officials suspected of colluding with journalists. Meanwhile, the Directorate of Military Intelligence has begun surveillance on two journalists, an editor and senior print media executive who they claim published the story to cause public panic.
 
Health officials told AIP that the request for body bags was extremely unusual, as they are usually used by the military, in mass casualty events, or in combatting diseases like Ebola where corpses themselves are highly contagious. No other country has mandated the use of body bags during the Covid-19 pandemic, nor is such a step recommended by the WHO. The move is seen as part of the government’s attempt to artificially suppress the number of deaths attributed to Covid-19 by preventing testing or post-mortem examinations of deceased persons.
 
(iii) Racial Profiling, inciting racial hatred and discrimination against the poor
The government continues to racially profile Covid-19 patients and their families using two independent systems. (i) digital files maintained by the intelligence agencies and (i) health records maintained at District level collected from multiple sources including local government officials (“grama niladharis”). The data is shared by the security agencies with selected media outlets and politicians engaged in xenophobic propaganda for the government.
 
Incitement to racial hatred is carefully architected to condemn the minorities in a subtle manner, blaming monitories for the outbreak of the virus. Some examples follow: 
 
Tamil Pastor Dr. Rev. Paul Satkunarajah (Philadelphia Church, migrated to Europe in 1982)  held a service on 15th March in Ariyalia Jaffna and after he went to Switzerland, developed COVID 19 symptoms. Health authorities traced and quarantined over 200 people associated with the service. The vernacular media continue to refer to the suspected patients as “Tamils who are aligned with foreign preachers.”
Beruwala Divisional Secretariat, in Kalutara District, is 38% Muslim and generally regarded as a Muslim dominant area. Any suspected Covid-19 patients or those who are quarantined in Kalutara District are referred to as “Beruwala people.” A health officer selected by Derana TV and the station anchor Chatura Alwis said two patients found from Beruwala have “deprived Sri Lanka of enjoying Sinhala New Year.” When another village, Pavinila, 19 km from Beruwala, was locked down, it was again reported as Beruwala. The media reports, based on military sources, states “Thus, Pannila becomes the fourth village to be isolated for 14 days quarantine after Kadayankulum in Puttalam, Atulugama in Kalutara and Kolombugahawatta in Akurana". 
The government is careful not to mention the religion or ethnicity of Sinhalese or Buddhist persons contracting the virus. Over 50 patients were detected in Colombo Central (Atluthkade / Maradana / Bandaranayakapura / Kotahena area) as a result of a Sinhala family returning to Sri Lanka from India in mid-March after a Buddhist Pilgrimage. They were not tested at Airport nor has the mother with symptoms disclosed the symptoms to any authority. Government aligned media vilified her and referred to her as a “returnee” from India, implying that these people were Tamil, without mention of the pilgrimage.
Civil society and human rights groups have not raised objections to the demeaning treatment of the poor people when they are forcibly taken into quarantine. This was observed in Pettah (Colombo 11 and Dematagoda) where impoverished males were partly undressed and forcibly sprayed down with disinfectant in full view of media personnel taking pictures and video recording. In the shanties of Bandaranayake Mawatha, the people were assaulted by military and police while being lined up at night.  
 
Apart from the direct contacts, there no rational checks and balances in forcing people into quarantine. In Akurana, Beruwala and Aluthkade, people were rounded up and sent to quarantine for two weeks despite no physical contact with any known cases. None of these persons tested positive. 141 people sent for quarantine in the second week of April from Akurana came negative. People from minority communities are taken for quarantine in a cordon operation by the military and other officials, who are accompanied by state media and journalists from Hiru and Derana.
 
One of the most bizarre initiatives taken by defence officials in response to the pandemic is the mobile telephone contact tracing program. Intelligence officials obtain the mobile telephone usage and location records of confirmed patients without obtaining a judicial order and use this information to identify “high risk” persons and areas to be sent into quarantine. As a rule, no one will use their mobile telephone to contact someone unless they are out of earshot. Several phone calls or text messages between persons would not result in the spread of Covid-19. This method has also been used to select “tower areas” associated with Muslim communities to be sent into mass quarantine.
 
On 26th April, officers of the 2nd Military Intelligence Corps (2 MIC) received instructions from the Defence Ministry to scrutinise all Right to Information Requests filed by citizens with public authorities seeking information on the Covid-19 crisis. They have been asked to investigate these persons in search of links to foreign funded NGOs and journalists perceived to be critical of the government. Some of the officers given this task were once part of the 2 MIC unit that was arrested in 2017 for their involvement in the abduction and murder of several journalists in Jaffna and Colombo from 2007 to 2009. The unit’s leader was nominated for a diplomatic posting by then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse.
 
(iv)             Social Stigma - health staff, patients and their families
Frontline healthcare workers have fallen victim to the ignorance and fearmongering around Covid-19 that is fuelled by the media. Unlike in other countries where societies have banded around healthcare workers, the stigma associated with the virus in Sri Lanka has led to over 800 cases of nurses and other medical staff being forced by landlords to vacate their boarding houses and are facing harsh living conditions without any government support or sympathy from the media. Patients and their families have found themselves shunned by society.
 
When the military and police cordoned off Bandaranayaka Mawatha, which is populated by low income people in shanties, many occupants were assaulted with sticks and were forced to strip naked.  They were subject to degrading verbal abuses by the police and military in the presence of health officials who watched helplessly. Despite health officials informing several journalists about the incident, no media organisation reported the incident, fearing reprisals due to the government’s arrest of critics. Derana and Hiru TV generally accompanied the Military and Health Authorities to photograph and film the houses of the patients and process of quarantine. It was only after the detection of over 180 Navy personnel as Covid-19 patients that the government directed the media to respect patient privacy and not to film the houses of the patients.
 
Those critical of the government response have also found themselves shut out of the mainstream press. For example, former Health Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne hosted a press conference last week in which he raised many questions about the government response to Covid-19 in contrast to the Sri Lankan practice in previous international health operations and the ongoing crisis around availability of pharmaceutical drugs in Sri Lanka. Despite being well attended by journalists, the event received almost no coverage.
 
Over 43,000 local migrant workers from other provinces and 11,500 migrant workers from India, Bangaladesh and China are trapped in Colombo district without any income or access to food. The curfew has made them more vulnerable than others. Domestic migrant workers have not received any essential items from the government nor is there any relief granted to protect them nor to provide transport back to their homes. Foreign migrant workers are looked after by their employers, whist special ration packages are given by the government.
 
2.      Continuous political meetings and strategic engagements under the guise of corona deterrence
 
The SLPP, under the leadership of the President, Prime Minister, Basil Rajapakse and Dallas Alahapperuma are continuing their strategic political meetings with the participation of  public servants and their party activists through out the country. Some of the meetings are held in government bungalows and facilities with hundreds of activists planning and managing house-to-house campaign in tandem with government funded relief distribution.
 
The government did not have any proper plans to distribute essential food items until Basil Rajapakse was appointed to head the Task Force on Economic Revival and Poverty Eradication. This committee has not drawn any strategic plans to revive the economy but is focused on the election.  Basil Rajapakse activated the UPFA (now SLPP) electoral network, with the backing of the state machinery. The organisers and candidates, who are leading the distribution process, are insisting on the Candidate Number, prior to the next round of distribution of essential items among the voters. Basil Rajapakse is an accused in two ongoing criminal trials. One involves the embezzling of Rs 3 billion in public funds. In the other, he is accused of using government funds and facilities to support the presidential election campaign of Mahinda Rajapakse in January 2015.
 
3.     Role of Clergy
Significant elements of the Buddhist clergy, including a group of over 4,000 temples that campaigned for the Gotabaya Rajapakse presidency, have called upon the public to support the “patriotic” government at any cost, even if it means their starvation given the food shortages that have arisen out of the curfew. Other than echoing the President’s objections to summoning Parliament, and helicopter drops of holy water to exorcise Covid-19 from Sri Lanka, the Buddhist clergy has not been seen deploying their substantial wealth in assisting the population with food and medicine shortages. Some of the Buddhist monks have used the pandemic to seek criminal prosecution of anyone speaking critically of the government. The same monks who spoke against the reconvening of Parliament have also asked the President to take immediate action to stop Muslims from “intentionally” spreading Covid-19. 
 
The Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, who has long been a close political ally of the Rajapakse family, has thrown his weight behind the government. Previous AIP reports covered his attempts to convince his followers that the US government was responsible for deliberately sparking the Covid-19 pandemic. These allegations are in lockstep with Chinese government propaganda. As it became certain that any blame lay at the feet of the Chinese government, his tone changed. Cardinal Ranjith’s new posture is that if indeed Covid-19 emanated from a laboratory in China, this was not a malicious act, but an unfortunate side effect of well-intentioned researchers trying to make the world a better place.
 
The Cardinal is a staunch supporter of President Rajapakse and the military, having issued several statements condemning attempts to seek justice for war crimes allegedly committed by the military, including even the abduction and murder of Christian youth. While stating publicly that he forgives the suicide bombers themselves, he has welcomed the military takeover of investigations into the 2019 Easter bombings and supported the government’s use of the probe to persecute police officers as well as Muslims who were identified as witnesses by prosecutors. Despite the church leaders in several parts of the country holding prayers for the victims of Covid-19 and health workers, he has resisted calls to deploy church resources towards relief effort. One senior catholic clergyman told AIP that Cardinal feels that such efforts would undermine the public perception that the government and military alone can handle the crisis.
 
4.      Criminal Investigations and the Arrest of Lawyer Hisbullah
The senior and experienced police officers who were conducting investigations into the Easter attack have been removed by the President and replaced with police officers who had been removed from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) on corruption charges, and those with connections to the President and military. The new CID Director, SSP Tilakaratne, is a bodyguard by training, who have never conducted or supervised a criminal investigation, but is a former security guard for the Rajapakse family.
 
Another police officer returned to the CID is ASP Lamahewa. This officer was removed from the CID in 2015 at the request of then Solicitor General (current Attorney General) Dappula de Livera, following corrupt efforts to sabotage an investigation involving thousands of firearms illegally stored in a floating armoury. One of Lamahewa’s brothers is a brigadier in the army. Another is facing charges before a trial-at-bar for the 2012 summary execution of inmates at the Welikada prison in 2012. ASP Lamahewa has been placed in charge of the Homicide Branch of the CID, whose officers will be called upon to testify against his brother on murder charges in the ongoing trial.
 
Tilakaratne, Lamahewa and other officers have transformed the CID into a hotbed of political witch hunts. Three opposition parliamentarians have so far been arrested, on charges ranging from organising a press conference and alleged involvement in a 2016 traffic accident to possession of a lawfully issued firearm. The brother of Muslim MP Rishard Bathiudeen has also been arrested on alleged suspicion of involvement in the Easter bombings, and police issued a politically charged statement bizarrely identifying his relationship to his brother.
 
Former CID Director Shani Abeysekara was interdicted in January after telephone recordings emerged of him discussing investigations with an MP. The police have launched over a dozen investigations into the officer’s conduct, seeking to charge him with everything from overusing his official vehicle and relinquishing more rounds of ammunition than he had been issued, to being a conspirator in the Easter terror attacks. Yet after three months of furious probing, Abeysekara remains interdicted despite none of the allegations against him being proven.
 
The former CID Director is also a critical prosecution witness in the trial of the conspirators in the Easter Attack. After prosecutors warned that a witch hunt against Abeysekara and Muslim witnesses would make a trial of the perpetrators impossible, the Defence Ministry instructed the police to no longer report on the probe to the Attorney General’s Department and to instead seek guidance on whom to arrest from Chief of National Intelligence, General Jagath Alwis.
 
Under instructions from General Alwis and intelligence officers, the CID proceeded to arrest several persons including those identified by the Attorney General as prosecution witnesses, alleging that these persons, including the Muslim man who sold a bus ticket to one of the bombers, were the true masterminds of the Easter attacks. A critical part of the propaganda campaign is the charge that these new “suspects” were protected by conspirators such as SSP Abeysekara and his CID officers, who in reality apprehended the real terrorists within six days of the attacks, and are being persecuted for having investigated the abductions and murders involving military officers.
 
The day after United Nations OHCHR criticized Sri Lanka’s decision to forcibly cremate Muslims who are suspected to have died from Covid-19, the CID arrested several prominent Muslims who had vocally criticized the decision to forcibly cremate victims. According to the police the arrests were sparked by the sudden discovery of evidence that they were complicit in last year’s Easter Sunday terrorist attacks. One of those arrested was lawyer and former State Counsel Hejaaz Hizbullah, whose tweets condemning forcible cremation have been deleted since his arrest.
 
In the two weeks since his arrest, Hisbullah has not been provided access to counsel, been produced before a judge, or told under what provision of what law his arrest has been made, all violations of his fundamental rights. While the move has met with widespread international condemnation including from the International Commission of Jurists, local organisations have been largely silent. When several prominent lawyers contacted Bar Association President Kalinga Indatissa on Hisbullah’s behalf, Indatissa told them the arrest had been personally authorised by President Gotabaya Rajapakse. The Bar Association wrote to the Inspector General of Police cordially requesting that the lawyer’s rights be protected, but has taken no further action on his behalf.
 
Mr. Hisbullah, a former State Counsel now in private practice is a prominent lawyer who had once appeared for two of the Easter suicide bombers in civil matters in connection to business transactions. His legal case files relating to the Easter Bomb suspect Mr. Mohomed Yusuf Mohomed Ibrahim, No. DLM 05/10 and DSP 236/09, were also seized by the CID. This is the first time a lawyer who had represented a terror suspect has been arrested in Sri Lanka, and that allegedly for appearing for terror suspects prior to their known involvement in illegal activity. At no point during the separatist war against the Tamil Tiger terrorists did authorities ever arrest any lawyer who appeared for terror suspects in courts, even in connection with the terrorist acts themselves.
 
5.      Election
The government is exerting extraordinary pressure on the independent Election Commission to hold parliamentary elections as soon as possible. The commission has also been asked by the President to expedite the assignment of candidate numbers so that these numbers can be used when distributing food and financial relief using government funds. However, the Election Commission has fixed the election for 20th June, and stated that this decision will be reviewed next week.
 
The fact that Sri Lanka will have been without a Parliament for three months on 3rd June, and may remain without a Parliament until elections can be held, has made it inevitable that a constitutional crisis will further compound the prevailing health and economic crises. The President has refused to resummon the old Parliament under any circumstances, insistent that he is entitled to govern either under a Parliament elected on his watch, or under no Parliament at all.
 
On top of the numerous constitutional and legal questions that have already been raised, such as the inability to enforce a curfew or spend money without parliamentary approval, the President’s advisors have warned him that without a comfortable parliamentary majority, the government risks being held accountable by opposition legislators, who may also undo the government’s takeover of the functions of the independent commissions such as the police commission and public service commission.
 
The government made several hasty moves to justify holding an election before 2nd June, including announcing against the advice of Health Ministry experts that schools and universities would be reopened in May, and forcibly gagging the Director-General of Health Services from recommending to the Election Commission that it is unsafe to hold an election in Sri Lanka. These moves have come to naught with the number of Covid-19 cases in Sri Lanka having almost doubled since the announcement of the 20th June election date.
 
6.      Foreign Relations and Repatriation
After substantial lobbying, the government agreed to repatriate a limited number of Sri Lankans stranded abroad including a few students. However, the state’s priority is bringing back military personnel who were undergoing training abroad. Symbolically, some Sri Lankan students from India, Nepal, Bangaladesh, Pakistan are Australia are being brought home. A large number of military personnel who were stranded in Pakistan have also been returned to Sri Lanka. Government has taken a policy decision not to repatriate migrant workers from the Gulf countries.
 
The Foreign Ministry remains sidelined and excluded from the committees and task forces on Covid 19. Ministry Secretary Ariyasinha has been stripped of influence and is regularly overruled on ministry affairs by retired Navy Commander Admiral Professor Jayanath Colombage, who is serving as the Additional Secretary on International Relations to the President. To push him out, the Secretary has been offered a diplomatic position in a prominent country where members of his family reside.
 
Meanwhile, the foreign ministry is preparing nominations for Heads of Missions under strict supervision of the President. Foreign Ministry officials have warned the government against moves to seek diplomatic postings for military officers implicated in the abduction and murder of journalists, such as Colonel Shammi Kumararatne, who is on trial for the 2010 murder of Prageeth Eknaligoda, and Major Prabath Bulathwatte, who is the prime suspect in the 2008 abduction of Keith Noyahr and 2009 murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge. Career diplomats pointed out to that such moves could lead to international backlash and diplomatic embarrassment, however they have been overruled by Admiral Colombage, who has ordered the priority appointments of several military officer and Defence Ministry personnel, as well as a reshuffling of the existing mission head positions.
 
7. Exposure of Widespread Media Bias
With the exception of the Maharaja Television Network and a handful of newspapers such as the Daily FT, the mainstream media continues to play a subservient role to the government, with many prominent outlets openly inciting ethnic and religious divisions. These divisions are further amplified by social media campaigns by officials and groups connected to the President calling for the abolition of Parliament and for military rule.
 
No media organisation has challenged the coordinated disinformation campaigns that have been initiated and propagated by the government to politically capitalise on the pandemic, while some journalists, like Derana’s Chathura Alwis and the Sunday Times’ Iqbal Athas, have found themselves embroiled in scandals involving propaganda operations. Alwis has not been censored by his employer or any media organisation for calling for Muslims to “learn a lesson” for spreading Covid-10. Athas, who was exposed for authoring a mudslinging campaign against a personal rival, has proudly donned the label of the “government’s hitman” for the purpose of defending the government from what he calls unfair criticism.
 
The news editor of the daily Island newspaper, Shavindra Ferdinandas, has also made his bias an allegiance clear with a number of opinionated and racially charged articles he has authored on nationalist websites, including a false allegation that attorney Hisbullah and Minister Bathiudeen’s brother were arrested together in Puttalam on 14th April.
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