This turn of events, which would have been the cause for much relief especially to the Muslim community, took place in no less a forum than Parliament with no less a person than Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa taking centre-stage. These events resulted from a statement by Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle, the State Minister of Primary Health Services, Pandemics and COVID Prevention, saying there was no evidence to prove that groundwater was contaminated by the burial of those who die of COVID-related ailments. If that was the case, Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) parliamentarian S.M. Marikkar asked her, why not allow the bodies of Muslims who die of such ailments to be buried. Prime Minister Rajapaksa responded by categorically assuring Mr. Marikkar that burial would be permitted for bodies of COVID victims.
Prime Minister Rajapaksa’s assurance was acclaimed locally and internationally while even Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, expected to visit Sri Lanka sometime next week, in a twitter message, welcoming the resolution of this sensitive cremation or burial dilemma. Since the virus first invaded Sri Lanka in March last year, the Muslim Community and civil rights groups have been urging the government to permit the burial instead of the cremation of the bodies of Muslims, who die of this disease.
The electronic media broadcast the Premier’s statement in their breaking news segments while the print media carried it as their page-1 lead story. But sadly though what many thought was the long-awaited solution to a burning question was more or less cremated with State Minister Fernandopulle in a contradictory statement saying the decision whether to permit the burial of bodies of COVID victims would depend on the recommendations made by the technical committee set up to study and report on this contentious issue.
It was not too long ago that Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi -- who herself had tested positive for COVID-19 and discharged from the Infectious Diseases Hospital (IDH) in Angoda on Tuesday -- told Parliament that Sri Lanka would continue to cremate the bodies of its citizens who die of the viral infection no matter what their religious persuasion might be. She said the decision was based on the recommendations made by the main technical committee headed by Pathologist Dr Channa Perera.
“When faced with such a serious pandemic situation we cannot take action based on social or political considerations of some groups, but have to be guided by science,” she said despite another technical committee, consisting of Virologists and Microbiologists headed by Colombo University’s Medical Faculty Dean Professor Jennifer Perera, recommending either burial or cremation. Furthermore, the Community Physicians of Sri Lanka (CCPSL) in a public statement said burials could be permitted because some 85,000 research papers published on COVID-19 provided no evidence to prove that the burial of those who died of the viral infection contaminated groundwater resources.
Be that as it may, Sri Lanka and China are the only two countries in the world that disallow burial of COVID victims even though the World Health Organisation (WHO) also permits either of the two options.
Meanwhile, according to media reports scientists at the Department of Immunology and Molecular Medicine of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura have detected the fast spreading B.1.1.7 (UK lineage) variant of the novel coronavirus in 92 samples obtained from different parts of the country from January to the second week of February in Colombo, Awissawella, Ingiriya, Biyagama, Wattala, Matugama, Mannar, Vavuniya and Mirigama including several quarantine centres as well.
“The B.1.1.7 is a rapidly transmissible variant currently circulating in the UK and many other countries. It is associated with a 50% higher transmissibility than the other SARS-CoV2 variants,” said Professor Neelika Malavige, of the Department of Microbiology, Faculty of Medicine University of Sri Jayewardenepura.
She said this variant does not have any mutations that affect the efficacy of the vaccine though however, further analysis was underway.
“While it is possible that the B.1.1.7 was introduced from overseas; given the widespread detection of the virus in Sri Lanka, it is possible that our circulating virus strain acquired these mutations de novo meaning a genetic alteration present for the first time in one family member as a result of a variant or mutation, as seen in many other countries, where there is intense transmission of the virus,” Prof. Malavige said.
Amid the confusion and contradictions inside and outside Parliament, with even an important statement made by the Premier being negated or contradicted and COVID with its latest variants posing new challenges, Sri Lanka’s future seems rather dismal and bleak in the absence of proper remedial measures.