By Sarath de Alwis –
“All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them” – Galileo Galilei
These are dark times. Seeking truth in dark times need more light and more effort. Our problem is not so much about what truth is. Our problem is more about how and by whom the truth is established.
Prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has issued a media release with a scathingly censorious headline. “Politicking in the midst of the Corona Crisis.”
In the media release issued on 4th May 2020, Premier Rajapaksa is categorical in asserting that “Parliament was dissolved at the beginning of March when there were no Coronavirus patients in the country.”
He is accurate in his statement. Accuracy is not the same as factual truth. It is possible to give an entirely accurate account of an untruth.
What may appear to be obvious may not always be true.
Charlie Chaplin once took part in a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest. The consensus was that he had come first. It turned out that he had come third. Graceful clown he was, he conceded that there could be others practicing the art in which he set the gold standard.
The general belief was that Napoleon Bonaparte was below average height. In truth, at 5ft 7, Napoleon was much taller than the average Frenchmen of his time.
Few people would believe that Donald Duck had a middle name. In fact, his creator Dick Lundy gave him the name Donald Fauntleroy Duck. Truth has many facets. How do you know? What do you mean by? The endless cascade of such questions indicates the depth of despair of a cynical society.
Truth has many facets. Truth is what you see. Opinions are what you hear. Facts are what you know. Reality is what you have experienced.
When parliament was dissolved, Sri Lanka had already had its first encounter with COVID-19.
Xinhua- the Chinese news agency reported it in a story datelined Colombo 19th February. Its caption announced to the world “Sole COVID-19 patient in Sri Lanka discharged from hospital after recovery “
The news report quoted Sri Lanka’s Minister of Health Pavithra Wanniarachchi.
“As the health minister, I am very happy that the tourist who contracted the coronavirus was successfully treated and she can return back to China, safely,” Wanniarachchi told reporters after greeting the cured patient.
“It is also commendable that no other individual has been infected with the virus in Sri Lanka and for this I am thankful to the president for the swift steps he took to prevent the virus from spreading in Sri Lanka,”
The statement by the Mister of Health in mid-February reflects the sanguine mirage that we pursued in the matter of the COVID-19 threat.
The Prime minster would have reached closer to the truth if he had said that at the time of dissolution, there were no known or suspected Coronavirus patients in the country.
The timeline of COVID 19 up to the dissolution of parliament on 2nd March 2020 unfolds in the following order.
31st Dec 2019- China informs WHO of a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, Hubei Province attributed to a novel coronavirus.
1 January 2020 – The WHO sets up the IMST (Incident Management Support Team) across the three levels of the organization: headquarters, regional headquarters and country level, putting the organization on an emergency footing for dealing with the outbreak. Our Ministry of Health must tell us if they received this notice.
4 January 2020 – WHO through the internet reported that here was a cluster of pneumonia cases – with no deaths – in the City of Wuhan in the province of Hubei in China.
5 January 2020 – The WHO published the report on the virus in its technical publication to the scientific and public health community and the global media. It contained a risk assessment and advice and reported on what China had told the organization about the status of patients and the public health response on the cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan.
10 January 2020 – WHO issued a comprehensive package of technical guidance online with advice to all countries on how to detect, test and manage potential cases, based on what was known about the virus at the time. This guidance was shared with WHO’s regional emergency directors to share with WHO representatives in countries.
12 January 2020- China publicly shared the genetic sequence of COVID-19.
13 January 2020 – Thailand reported the first COVID 19 case outside China.
22 January 2020- WHO mission to China announced that there was evidence of human-to-human transmission in Wuhan but more investigation was needed to understand the full extent of transmission.
22- 23 January 2020 – The WHO Director- General convened an Emergency Committee under the International Health Regulations to assess whether the outbreak constituted a public health emergency of international concern. The independent members from around the world could not reach a consensus based on the evidence available at the time. They asked to be reconvened within 10 days after receiving more information.
30 January 2020 – WHO declared the new coronavirus outbreak (2019-nCoV) a PHEIC. A Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
3 February 2020 – WHO released its Strategic Preparedness and Repose Plan that was specifically intended for countries with weak public health systems.
11 March 2020 – Confronted by alarming levels of spread and severity, COVID 19 was declared a pandemic.
So, what is the truth? What did we know of COVID19 when parliament was dissolved on 2nd March?
It happened two months and two days after China broke the news to the world. It happened nine days before it was declared a pandemic.
It was 31 days or one calendar month after the World Health Organization declared COVID 19 to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
It was made 12 days after our own Infectious Diseases Hospital treated and discharged the first identified COVID 19 patient in Sri Lanka.
There was some harsh maligning of a ‘selfish druggie’ from a Colombo tenement who was alleged to have endangered the lives of many. How is that the first known virus carrier who brought it to our land like no other well before the dissolution of parliament got a ‘Thoththu’ for her troubles.
We live in a post truth world. Truth is there, only if we are prepared to look for it. Truth has ceased to be plain and simple.
Confronted with the convoluted logic of Prime minster Mahinda Rajapaksa’s idea of truth and fact one must retreat to the earliest Aristotelian definition of truth. “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false; while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.”
Truth must be nurtured. Defense of truth must not be made into the defense of a specific truth of a specific kind that serves a specific purpose.
We must have shared values in discovering truth. As things stand, we are a long way from that ideal state. Perhaps scientists will discover a vaccine for the virus before we discover our shared values in understanding truth.