ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella has admitted that a government-appointed committee was “misled” by a professional on the highly controversial issue of groundwater contamination from COVID-19 burials.

Responding to questions raised by opposition MP Rauf Hakeem in parliament Friday April 28 morning, Rambukwella, who was not health minister at the time but was “involved” in then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration’s pandemic containment efforts, said one academic in particular had “put her foot down” and threatened to resign from the committee if her recommendation was not adhered to “because she was the professor in charge of that particular discipline”.

When MP Hakeem suggested that the government had handpicked experts with a racist attitude, Rambukwella said: “Sorry, I do not subscribe to that view. While respecting it, I will not want to be a party to your statement. However, I would also agree with no reservations that there was, I think, a complete misleading by the so-called professionals in that particular discipline.”

The opposition MP was questioning the incumbent health minister on the then government’s decision to bury the remains of COVID-19 victims at a designated site in Ottamavadi in the Batticoloa district of the Eastern Province at great inconvenience and causing trauma to members of Muslims living all over Sri Lanka. This decision was preceded by months of controversy over a widely condemned move by the Rajapaksa administration to cremate all victims of the virus, irrespective of their faith, a decision that critics said disproportionately affected Muslims and Christians whose faiths require the remains of their dead to be buried. The “forced cremation” controversy was defended by the then government on the claim that burials could lead to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, contaminating groundwater. Various rights groups, local and international, condemned the decision, calling it unscientific and insensitive.

According to Rambukwella, 3,634 burials were made at the government designated COVID-19 cemetery from March 2021 onwards. Of these, 2,992 were Muslims, while 287 Buddhists, 270 Hindus and 85 Catholics were also buried at the site, he said citing health ministry data.

Actions pertaining to this were taken based on a decision by the COVID-19 committee and a presidential task force appointed to contain the pandemic, he said.

MP Hakeem, who leads the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) as part of an alliance led by the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), singled out one professor attached to the Faculty of Applied Sciences at the University of Sri Jayawardenapura who he said “had been at the forefront spreading the issue pertaining to viruses spreading through groundwater.”

“That led to this issue of Muslims including non-Muslims, as you said, large numbers of them, taken to a far off place for burial, based on this unscientific, racist policy,” said Hakeem.

He asked Rambukwella if he agreed that, since it has been proven that viruses need a living human body to survive, the government was purposely misled by “a group of racist professionals who were appointed to this task force”.

“I was only a member, I was not the minister of health at the time. [As a member of the committee], I was involved in the entire affair. As you rightly pointed out, it was a set of professionals. Obviously people involved in that particular profession have to be taken seriously and given an opportunity for them to express their views. I agree that this was a case where even the professors are making mistake after mistake, even dramatic mistakes,” said Rambukwella, adding that he did not want to be associated with the decision.

The minister also claimed that the professor in question had been at the forefront of the anti-government protests that led to the ouster of President Rajapaksa in July 2022. He said the academic was among the first to display slogans promoting antiracism.

“So I think there is a controversy [there], and how you deal with that is a different thing,” he added.

“I will fail in my duty [if I don’t mention] exactly what happened. She put her foot down and she even said she will resign if this is not adhered to because she was the professor in charge of that particular discipline,” Rambukwella said, naming the professor involved.

Hakeem, who thanked the minister for naming the academic, called for acknowledgement that a large number of people were “traumatised and racially profiled” as a result of the decision to bury their relatives in a far off location, with just two family members in attendance at the burial site.

The survivors will be entitled to sue the said expert, said Hakeem.

“You’re only partly admitting the mistakes of the government. Be that as it may, what I’m saying is that, now that this matter has been accepted in parliament as a wrong decision, will the govt pay compensation to the victims for having been made to suffer?” he asked.

“You’re wrong. I only explained exactly what happened. So it is up to you to make a decision, if it is a wrong decision, as to what course of action you should pursue,” replied Rambukwella.

The minister also denied that the decision to allow only two family members at the burial site was racially motivated.

“I have to put the record straight. Not only the Muslims, not only the people who were taken to far away places, but even in Colombo, only two people were allowed in certain cases. It was not only for the Muslims,” he said. (Colombo/Apr28/2023)

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