Sri Lankans – mainly Sinhalese and Tamils celebrated New Year on Wednesday in a more relaxed manner this year when compared with last year, with the COVID-19 pandemic compelling the authorities to place restrictions on travelling from one Province to another, gathering in large numbers at shopping centres, temples and Kovils and the need to strictly adhere to health guidelines.
Not that these restrictions have been removed or diluted but that over a period of time people tend to take things for granted and drop their guard, come what may.
The National New Year is also deeply linked to the ancient system of astrology, on this occasion not so much to help predict good times and bad but to determine the Auspicious times or Nekath for performing the various rituals which are an important or integral part of the celebrations.
It is a time also when elders are given pride of place-paying them homage, seeking their blessings with an offering of betel leaves, presiding at the anointing of oil and the table laid out with sweetmeats such as Kavum, Musket, Kalu Dodol, Pol Toffee, Kokis, Mung Kevum, Aluva, Mung Guli, Naaran Kavum, Athirasa, Aasmi, Pani Walalu, Dodol and Thala Guli, among many other delicacies.
The astrologically significant New Year is marked by the movement of the Sun from the House of Pisces to the House of Aries coinciding with the end of the harvest season and is the time of the year for the family to give thanks for the bounties of nature.
The much-awaited cultural festival is heralded by the lilting call of the Koha or the Asian Koel, which is heard throughout April -though not so much in the recent past - is also an occasion to bring together Sri Lankans resident in many parts of the world to celebrate Sri Lanka, its culture and its unity in diversity.
The New Year is welcomed with the lighting of the hearth and the boiling of fresh milk in newly purchased clay pots while the overflowing of the milk from all sides of the pot is considered a sign of good luck to the entire family. The milk rice is prepared thereafter and the rest of the sweets are served among the family and later distributed among the neighbours -- a simple gesture that symbolizes peace and harmony among all Sri Lankans.
Meanwhile sounding a cautionary note, Chief Epidemiologist Dr Sudath Samaraweera emphasized the fact that Sri Lanka was not out of the woods even though the reported number of cases were not as much as it used to be.
He said the movement of people in large numbers from one area to another could see an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases with the possibility of new clusters emerging in the country and the risk of the virus spreading in society if health guidelines were not strictly maintained. Dr Samaraweera said as such there was no room for complacency.
If the crowds that thronged the main shopping centres of Maharagama, Pamunuwa, Nugegoda and Pettah, was anything to go by, the fears expressed by the chief epidemiologist, that Sri Lanka would be hard-pressed to avoid another COVID cluster, seemed valid.
The people, who were doing their New Year shopping, appeared to be least concerned with health guidelines while many were seen without masks or physical distancing and seemed indifferent to the harm that could be caused to those they might come in contact with should there be another outbreak due to their lackadaisical attitude. Sad, but that is human nature.
Be that as it may, the Health Ministry is considering whether to extend the period between the first and second doses of the Covishield Astrazeneca vaccine to 16 weeks in the wake of the delay in obtaining the next consignment of vaccines from the Serum Institute of India (SII), which had suspended exports due to various reasons.
Since the launch of Sri Lanka’s vaccination programme, the health authorities had inoculated more than 900,000 people, who would now have to undergo a time of uncertainty as to when, if at all, they would receive the second dose. Incidentally, State Minister Sudarshini Fernandopulle is on record saying that for an optimum effect both vaccines should be of the same brand.
What will the New Year, which dawned at 2.33 a.m. on Wednesday, have in store for us? We at the Daily Mirror hope it will be a year filled with Peace, Joy and Good Health.