Dear Dr. Gunewardene –
We are writing to you to express our grave concern in regard to the ad hoc and discriminatory manner in which some aspects of the Covid vaccination programme have been carried out. We also seek clarification and explanation from you, either in a public statement or media briefing, on the specific matters that we raise as issues of public concern.
The first phase of the Covid vaccination programme of the Ministry of Health commenced in February 2021. Ad hoc decisions of the Ministry on vaccine distribution at the initial phase, created chaos and confusion in service delivery in administering the first AstraZeneca vaccine in the Colombo area identified for vaccine distribution. Subsequently the programme was extended to the suburbs of Colombo but many people who could have obtained the vaccine in these areas, did not in fact have access to it. Some people obtained the vaccine from specific areas identified by the Ministry.
Frequent media briefings by the Army Commander as Head of the Covid Task Force, your Deputies, and various politicians including the three Ministers responsible, assure the public that the Sinopharm and Sputnik vaccines are now available, and are being distributed in a systematic manner, according to a plan with identified priorities. Both the first and second jabs, are being given to citizens who want these vaccines, from the authorised areas in the country. The President stated yesterday that he appreciated that this NEW vaccination programme is proceeding well, and that he is satisfied with it. He instructed officials present to improve the NEW programme and ensure that it proceeds smoothly.
Not even a passing comment is made by the President, the Army Commander, Head of the Task Force, or you as Director General, in regard to the situation of those who got the first AstraZeneca vaccine, and cannot get the second jab, because “the government has no AstraZeneca vaccines to distribute.”
Some from the municipalities of Colombo and its close suburbs received the first AstraZeneca vaccine. They did not seek the vaccine as a privilege. It was understood that the Ministry of Health was acting according to the accepted norms on public health followed so far by the Ministry, on vaccine distribution, and offered the vaccine in an initial phase of the Governments, Covid vaccination programme. They were assured that the second vaccine would be administered within the medically recommended time frame. Some vaccination cards carried a date stamp on the date for the second jab.
Medical authorities have advised that the immunity obtained by the first AstraZeneca vaccine diminishes according to delays in obtaining the second jab. This, in a context where there has been an exponential increase in the number of daily infections and deaths in the community, due to Covid.
Information sought from the Medical Officers of Health, in these Municipalities at every level, as well as media briefings, carry the same response: “The government has no more AstraZeneca vaccines and we are not administering any vaccines. We are awaiting Ministry decisions. Please wait till you receive an intimation on this matter.” When asked “who can we as citizens contact in the Ministry of Health ,we are told that “it is the Epidemiology Unit of the Ministry of Health that is responsible for the distribution, and will facilitate the administration of the vaccine.”
All citizens, we think, are entitled to receive answers from YOU as the Director General of Health, on how over 3 lakhs of persons have already received the second AstraZeneca vaccine, if as your senior staff and politicians say, there are no more AstraZeneca vaccines for distribution.
We demand that you as Director General of the Ministry clarify for us the following matters:
1. Dr Hemantha Herath one of your senior officials made a statement on TV that the Ministry had NOT authorised the GMOA to have the second AstraZeneca vaccine administered to their members, and upto 5 people in their families, at the Government Lady Ridgeway Hospital. About this time or later, the spokesman for the GMOA, participating in panel discussion on TV 1, stated that the GMOA had “negotiated” with the Ministry in March 2021, and obtained Ministry permission to obtain the number of vaccines they wanted. The implication was that other unions could have done this, and it was their responsibility for not doing so. Thirteen thousand vaccines are said to have been given to the GMOA, by the Epidemiology Unit of your Ministry.
We call upon you to explain to the public HOW the GMOA was able to get these vaccines from your Epidemiology unit and have it administered at a government hospital.
2. Please also clarify the following:
(a) The University Grants Commission authorised Universities to join in the NEW programme of distribution of the Sinopharm vaccine. The University of Colombo has obtained the AstraZeneca vaccine from your Ministry and ensured that it was administered to all their staff who received the first vaccine. These staff (except from the Medical Faculty, who may be front line workers) work from home. Were they considered “front line workers” entitled to priority, and how were vaccines in such short supply made available to them?
(b) Lawyers who are members of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka have received the second AstraZeneca jab. How did they get the vaccine from your Ministry and the Epidemiology Unit, and at what locations were these vaccines administered to these lawyers?
(c) There are members of large and influential private corporations whose directors and senior staff have been administered the vaccine at State hospitals. On what basis did they obtain a vaccine in short supply? Did your Epidemiology unit distribute vaccines to them, as on a high priority list, and or as “front line workers”?
(d) It is alleged on social media that identified Ministers of the government were given large amounts of the AstraZeneca vaccine to distribute to their friends relatives and supporters as a second jab. Did the Epidemiology Unit distribute these vaccines to Ministers for distribution to this wide range of people in their personal and political circles? Please clarify in a public statement whether this report is true or false, since the information on this matter must be available in your Epidemiology Unit.
(e) Some organisations representing the private sector have requested that they be given priority in the vaccination programme, arguing that their staff are an important human resource for the economy. They have also asked that assistance should be sought from the agents of the vaccine manufacturers in helping with the procurement of the Covid vaccines. This is a country which in recent years has permitted the private sector to engage in the areas of education and health. Please clarify the policy of the Health Ministry in regard to vaccine management and the private sector.
As you are aware citizens have a right to information in regard to the administration of public institutions, both under the Constitution and the Right to Information Act. We must know, therefore, how the Covid vaccination programme in your Ministry is planned, managed and administered in the public interest.
The public has a right to be concerned with the manner in which the administrative units in your Ministry function in regard to Covid response planning and management. There are several Deputy Directors of Health who function as heads of administrative units. The Epidemiology Unit is just ONE of them. We expect that you coordinate their work, in a team. We have a right to think that as the head of the team, you know and are informed on how the vaccine distribution is managed. The Epidemiology Unit’s management must surely be monitored by all of you as a team, in this critically important area of Covid vaccine distribution and public health.
In conclusion we reiterate our request for a public clarification on all these matters by you in regard to the vaccination programme undertaken by your Ministry. We ask that this be done in an open and transparent manner so that the public can know whether the Ministry has formulated a policy plan, including a system of vaccine registration with clear priorities in the administration of the vaccine. This is essential to ensure that this country keeps to the practices of the past that have always ensured that citizens have equitable access to vaccination programmes. Today, over 600,000 persons, who have received the first AstraZeneca vaccine have no assurance that they will receive the second. Please inform the public without further delay whether the AstraZeneca vaccine has been ordered and will be administered to those who received the first vaccine.
- Prof. Savitri Goonesekere, Emeritus Professor of Law and Former Vice Chancellor, University of Colombo
- Dr. G. Usvatte-aratchi, Retired from UN/DESA, New York
- Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy, Former Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict
- Prof. Arjuna Aluvihare, Emeritus Professor of Surgery and former Vice Chancellor, University of Peradeniya, former Chairman, University Grants Commission
- Bishop Duleep de Chickera, retired Anglican Bishop of Colombo.
- Mr. Tissa Jayatilaka, Former Executive Director of the United States-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission
- Ms. Mano Alles, Retired Senior Deputy General Manager, Bank of Ceylon
- Mr. Chandra Jayaratne, Former Chairman, Ceylon Chamber of Commerce
- Prof. Deepika Udagama, Professor of Law, University of Peradeniya, former Chairperson, Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka
- Prof. Camena Guneratne, Professor, Open University of Sri Lanka
- Dr A. C. Visvalingam – Past President, Society of Structural Engineers, Sri Lanka
- Rev. Dr. Jayasiri Peiris, Former General Secretary of the National Christian Council, former Principal of the Theological College of Sri Lanka
- Dr. Ranjini Obeyesekere, Retired Professor, Dept. of Anthropology, Princeton University, USA.