Intense battle against COVID-19 continues | Daily News

Intense battle against COVID-19 continues

The battle against the Coronavirus pandemic remained the main focus of the Government last week even as the magnitude of the environmental disaster associated with the sinking of the X-Press Pearl container vessel off the coast of Sri Lanka became evident to the authorities.

The vessel sank off the coast following the damage it had sustained during its journey. Frantic efforts were made it to tow it to the deep sea to minimise its environmental impact. However, it caught fire in the meantime. This destroyed the vessel, causing it to break up and eventually sink after a few days.

The accident has been described as Sri Lanka’s worst maritime disaster. In addition to the oil spill as a result of the accident, damage to marine life is expected to be significant. Dead marine animals have already begun washing ashore, signalling the massive impact it will have on the coastal region.

The X-Press Pearl had departed the Indian Port of Hazira on May 15. The vessel carried about 1,500 containers. Its contents included 25 tonnes of nitric acid, other chemicals, cosmetics and low-density polyethylene (LDPE) pellets. It arrived in Colombo on May 19.

X-Press Pearl fire

Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
State Minister Prof. Channa Jayasumana
Dr. Prasad Colombage

The X-Press Pearl was returning from a 30-day round-trip from Port Klang, Malaysia, to Qatar and Dubai. The Chinese built vessel is registered in Singapore. Though it was reported that the vessel was denied entry to the ports of Hamad in Qatar and Hazira in India, this has been denied by its operators.

However, operators of the vessel, X-Press Feeders said the crew had discovered a container leaking nitric acid and requested the ports of Hamad in Qatar and Hazira in India to offload it. The requests were denied as there were no specialist facilities available to deal with the leaking acid, they said.

The ship reached Colombo on May 19 and was anchored in the outer harbour awaiting a berth. Unfortunately, the following day, a fire was reported on the ship. The cause of the fire, initially thought to be due to the leaking of chemicals, is now under further investigation.

On May 25, a large explosion took place inside the vessel and all 25 crew members were evacuated safely from the vessel. Two Indian crew members who sustained injuries during the explosion were admitted to the Colombo’s National Hospital of Sri Lanka for treatment.

Efforts were made to contain the fire by the Sri Lanka Air Force which was assisted by the Sri Lanka Navy and the Indian Coast Guard. The efforts were coordinated by the Sri Lanka Maritime Environmental Protection Authority (MEPA). Despite these efforts, the fire continued to destroy the vessel which then sank.

Chief Executive of X-Press Feeders Shmuel Yoskovitz apologized to the people of Sri Lanka for the incident. “I would like to express my deep regrets and apologies to the Sri Lankan people for the harm this incident has caused to livelihoods and to the environment of Sri Lanka,” he said.

Police have detained some officers of the ship, pending further investigations. It is understood the Government will pursue a compensation claim against the ship’s owners and operators. It is still being investigated whether negligence contributed in any way to this major disaster.

Ports and Shipping Minister Rohitha Abeygunawardena said claiming of compensation from the vessel was discussed with the Justice Minister and the Attorney General. The assistance of international legal experts will be sought to proceed with the compensation claim, he said.

Minister Abeygunawardena told Parliament that environment pollution, marine pollution, air pollution, lagoon pollution and damage to the fishing community have been identified as areas for which compensation would be sought. The costs of rescue efforts are also expected to be claimed.

Coronavirus Pandemic

Although the disaster aboard the X-Press Pearl momentarily grabbed headlines in the media, the focus has now again shifted to the raging third wave of the Coronavirus pandemic, which is continuing unabated despite the best efforts of the Government and health authorities.

The Government has currently imposed stringent travel restrictions that were initially effective until June 7. However, at the time of writing no easing of restriction has been announced, mostly because the pandemic continues to infect over 2,000 persons per day, leading to many fatalities.

On Tuesday, 54 deaths were attributed to the Coronavirus, the highest number of deaths in a single day in the country since the pandemic began in March 2020. This brings the total number of deaths in Sri Lanka to 1,843. The vast majority of these deaths had been recorded in May.

These statistics were worrying health experts who warned that more infections could be likely as the upward trend in the pandemic continued despite the Government enforcing strict travel restrictions throughout the country, suggesting that these were not having the desired impact.

Sri Lanka Medical Association President Dr. Padma Guneratne in comments to the media appealed to the public to adhere to travel restrictions and social distancing practices strictly. The Government can only impose those restrictions but the public has to adhere to them, Dr. Guneratne cautioned.

A similar message was conveyed by the doctors’ trade union, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA). It warned that reliance on oxygen by severely unwell Coronavirus infected patients has risen by more than four-fold in the months of April and May this year.

If this trend were to continue in the coming months, the health system will not be able to cope with the increased demand for oxygen, GMOA Executive Committee member Dr. Prasad Colombage warned. Sri Lanka is now ranked third in South Asia in terms of numbers infected, he said.

Travel restrictions

The travel restrictions that have been imposed will have little effect, if the public misuses them and does not comply with the guidelines on how to avoid casual social contacts, Dr. Colombage said. “The public must learn to behave responsibly at this time,” he advised.

A case in point was the controversy involving bridal dressing expert Chandimal Jayasinghe and model Piumi Hansamali. It is alleged that Jayasinghe hosted a birthday party in a five-star hotel in Colombo while strict travel restrictions were being enforced. The story attracted national headlines.

Initially there were attempts to portray the incident in a manner which would embarrass the Government suggesting that the law was not enforced on Jayasinghe, Hansamali and others who attended the birthday celebrations, as it was for ordinary people who violated the restrictions.

However, Jayasinghe, Hansamali and others who attended the alleged ‘party’ have now been sent to a quarantine centre in the Central Hills. The incident emphasizes the importance of members of the public co-operating with the Government and assisting it in combating the raging pandemic, health experts say.

Vaccination drive

Vaccination was the other strategy the Government was focusing on, in its attempts to deal with the pandemic. The vaccination drive has not been in full gear mostly due to a shortage in the availability of vaccines due to the high global demand and manufacturers being unable to supply stocks.

There was one notable success for the Government when the United States announced that some of its excess stocks of vaccines would be designated for Sri Lanka. This was through the Covax programme to which the United States donated excess stocks of AstraZeneca vaccines it had stored previously.

In addition, one million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine were received on Tuesday. Vaccination using the Sinopharm vaccine from China has already begun. In some areas, the public were receiving the second dose of the vaccine one month after the first dose was administered.

The initial phase of vaccination utilising the Sinopharm vaccines was centred around Colombo where the infection is at its worst, with the Ministry of Health coordinating these efforts. It will then expand to cover the next worst affected districts of Gampaha, Kalutara and Kurunegala followed by Kandy.

X-Press Pearl fire

Thereafter, they would expand to the districts of Matale, Nuwara Eliya, Kegalle, Trincomalee, Hambantota, Badulla, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Puttalam, Ampara, Batticaloa, and Moneragala districts. The distribution of the vaccine is expected to take several weeks.

The State Minister for the Production, Supply and Regulation of Pharmaceuticals Prof. Channa Jayasumana revealed that in addition to the Sinopharm vaccine imported from China, thousands of other vaccines were expected in the coming weeks from several suppliers from around the world.

These included 64,000 doses of the Sputnik vaccine from Russia and 264,000 doses of the Covishield vaccine from the World Health Organisation (WHO). Moderna and Johnson and Johnson vaccines will also be received from the United States, State Minister Prof. Jayasumana said.

There were also moves to explore the possibility of manufacturing the Russian vaccine, Sputnik V in Sri Lanka itself. Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunewardena said that he had discussed the matter with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a recent telephone conversation. Incidentally, Lavrov is a fluent Sinhala speaker from his days at the Russian Embassy in Colombo, with a first-hand knowledge of Sri Lanka.

From these developments it is clear that the Coronavirus pandemic will remain in Sri Lanka for some time to come. For the Government, the focus of attention during this period is reducing infections and minimising fatalities - for which it requires the wholehearted co-operation of the general public.

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