Interference, Ad Hoc Decisions Subverting Vaccine Rollout

By Methmalie Dissanayake | Published: 2:00 AM Jun 12 2021
Focus Interference, Ad Hoc Decisions Subverting Vaccine Rollout

By Methmalie Dissanayake

The online registration programme for COVID-19 vaccine rollout in Galle Four Gravets Divisional Secretariat area, received immense praises for its effectiveness. While people in many parts of the Island, had to stay in long queues for hours to get their vaccine, people in the said area had been asked to register online to get their vaccine.

They, then received a date, time and venue via a text message, to come over to get the vaccine. In this manner, the public did not need to waste their time in queues. When they arrived at the vaccination centre their text messages were checked by army officers deployed at centres and allowed to get the vaccine.

This method, initiated by the Divisional Secretariat gained praises and there were requests to extend this method to the other parts of the country as well.

Unfortunately, the Divisional Secretariat on Thursday (3) informed the public that the online registration method will not be in effect anymore and the vaccine rollout will be carried out by Galle Urban Council and respective health officials in the area.

It was reported that the reason behind this decision was interference of provincial politicians of the area.

“We had to stop the programme because it seemed we could not carry it out anymore with transparency,” Divisional Secretary of Galle Four Gravets, Himali Ratnaweera, when contacted by Ceylon Today, said.

“On Wednesday (2), the vaccination was scheduled for Madapathala Grama Niladhari Division. We gave vaccines for more than 3,000 persons that day. When the people who live in the area received the vaccine as per the prior registration it was already evening time, when we noticed another large group of about 500 people outside the vaccination centre, demanding the vaccine be given to them too. They were not even the residents of the Grama Niladhari Division,” she said.

When the Divisional Secretary queried whether there were Madapathala residents among the crowd, a few people raised their hands and they were allowed to enter the vaccination centre’s premises. However, the other people in the group who came from elsewhere started to behave in an unruly manner, trying to break open the gates of the centre.

“Since we could not control them, I came back from there. Because of these kinds of disputes, we decided not to be involved in the programme anymore. There were some other instances where groups had disputes with my officials. Some provincial politicians also want to interfere with the programme. My officers who worked tirelessly for this are highly frustrated with this. No point in us continuing the programme if we do not have a control over it,” she said.

Ratnaweera said that she informed their decision to both Minister Dr. Ramesh Pathirana and the Galle Government Agent.

“Dr. Ramesh Pathirana was very helpful to us in this programme. He was very disappointed about this situation and requested us not to withdraw from the programme. He even ensured that there will be no such incidents in the future. The Government Agent also requested the same. Now we are having discussions about reinitiating the programme.”

The Divisional Secretariat assured that even though the online registration programme is not in the effect anymore, they will give all the possible help to the medical officials to continue the vaccination rollout in the area.

When Ceylon Today, spoke to Galle Mayor Priyantha Sahabandu, he denied that any such dispute had occurred at Madapathala vaccination centre.

“A large number of people were vaccinated on that day. After all the registered persons received their vaccination, another group of people had also requested to be vaccinated, and they remained at the centre. They had come from elsewhere. This had happened at some other centres as well. It is a normal thing. But there was no dispute. These people were given the vaccine too,” he said.

If there was any problem why hadn’t the people complained about it? If they do not have any problem with that, why are some people trying to create unnecessary problems? He queried.

The Mayor denied that he tried to interfere in the vaccination rollout in the area.

This is not the only instant where the State officials expressed their frustration over the ongoing vaccination rollout in the country.

Moratuwa Fiasco 

On 28 May Moratuwa Mayor Samanlal Fernando was arrested for obstructing the duties of State officers.

Fernando was captured on video arguing with State officials during a vaccine rollout in Moratuwa on 27 May where he demanded people in possession of tokens issued by him be given the vaccine, to which the Chief Medical Officer present at the site refused.

The Mayor was arrested in respect of obstructing the duties of State officers and violating quarantine regulations at the vaccination programme in the Moratumulla Police area.

The MOH of the area had provided a statement to Police over the incident and thus following investigations he was arrested after he surrendered to Police officers.

His bail application was rejected and Fernando was remanded until 11 June.

Confusions in Kandy

Confusion arose on Monday (31) during the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine rollout in Kandy, as receivers had to put their signatures on a vaccine consent form, which had a seal that said the receiver agrees to take just a single dose of the Sputnik V vaccine.

Consent forms were obtained from those who received both Oxford AstraZeneca COVISHIELD and Sinopharm vaccines. However, this particular seal was not placed on those forms. Although, the receiver’s statement is available in Sinhala, Tamil and English languages on the consent form, this seal was available only in the Sinhala language.

Meanwhile, the Health Ministry denied any knowledge about obtaining signatures from the people that they were agreeable to a single dose of the coronavirus jab during the Sputnik V vaccine’s rollout in Kundasale.

Deputy Director General (Disaster Management and Response) Dr. Hemantha Herath, fielding questions during a press briefing in Colombo, said the Ministry had not ‘received such a report,’ noting that if the Health Ministry was to take such a decision, it would inform the public through the mainstream media.

Dr. Herath said as of now the Health Ministry had issued no such advice to the health authorities in those areas. The second dose of the Sputnik V vaccine is slightly different. There is ongoing research and what emerges from this is information regarding the gap between the two doses and the dosage that should be administered, whether a booster dose and if a third is required etc.

He said the experts at the Health Ministry too would have to assess all this data and issue guidelines accordingly. The vaccination programme was carried out in 18 Grama Niladhari Divisions in the Ratnapura District on Sunday (30) and Monday (31) as well.

However, when journalists questioned about this controversial seal, Cabinet Spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella said that the seal was placed on the consent form following a decision taken by the Health Ministry.

Rambukwella said it was introduced with Government instructions and the approval of the Experts’ Committee regarding vaccination. Rambukwella elaborated on the composition of the Expert Committee, stating that it is chaired by Deputy Director General of Health Services, Dr. S.M. Arnold, Dr. Neelika Malavige, World Health Organisation National Programme Officer, Consultant Epidemiologists Dr. Hasitha Tissera and Dr. Dasanayake are the other members of the committee.

The Minister further said the committee had decided to inoculate everyone with at least one dose of the Sputnik V vaccine after prolonged discussions. The Government, on the other hand, is discussing and testing the idea of giving a single dose or mixing vaccinations throughout the inoculation procedure on a daily basis.

He said the form is there to sign as an acceptance receipt before taking the vaccine and the concerns about the seal are unwarranted. “The authorities in Kandy acted in accordance with the Government and Expert Committee directions. The purpose of the paperwork is to demonstrate people’s willingness to receive the vaccine.” He went on to say that many groups are attempting to misinterpret the entire procedure.

When asked why Deputy Director General, Disaster Management and Response, Dr. Hemantha Herath said he couldn’t take responsibility for the seal, Rambukwella replied Dr. Herath should be questioned about the lack of communication with the rest of the institutions.

Early chaos

When Oxford AstraZeneca COVISHIELD vaccine rollout was started the initial plan prepared was listing priority groups, but was diverted after the Parliamentarians were offered the vaccine at the Army Hospital in Narahenpita. The logic, some Parliamentarians presented here is they should be vaccinated as they frequently meet the public in various areas in the country and their number of close contacts was higher.

It was observed that several famous figures, such as former cricketer Sanath Jayasuriya, were receiving the vaccine too.

It was also reported that, in some areas, elderly people were turned away from the vaccination centres while the vaccines were given to those between 30 and 60 years. Those who received the vaccine complained that they had to wait in the queues for several hours.

Furthermore, disputes were reported in several areas as well.

Lack of AstraZeneca second dose

Currently Sri Lanka is facing a shortage of 600,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVISHIELD vaccine to complete the 2nd round of the vaccine programme.

In this backdrop, the Government is trying to find alternative ways to complete the 2nd round. It was said during a Cabinet media briefing that discussions are ongoing with other countries where there is an excess of AstraZeneca vaccines to perchance. Also, attention has been drawn towards whether it is possible to follow ‘Mix and Match’ method as well.

Big picture

When we look at the whole picture of current vaccine rollout in Sri Lanka it is very clear that lack of coordination between the officials and interference of politicians have played major roles in creating chaos in the rollout.

Sri Lanka already has a successful vaccine rollout for other vaccines which has earned a tremendous applause from the world. It is questionable as to why only the coronavirus vaccine rollout is facing such problems.

If the authorities took steps to inform the people that they might be receiving only one jab of Sputnik V vaccine beforehand there would not have been any confusions. In other countries, it is an utmost necessity to educate people regarding the vaccine they are going to receive for obtaining their consent. Informing the people that they might receive just one dose of a vaccine when they arrived at a vaccination centre is highly unethical.

Moreover, it is also very clear that many politicians, especially provincial level ones, are trying to get credit they do not deserve. It is the duty of the Government to control this irresponsible behaviour of these politicians.

The politicians are very eager to blame the Media saying they always highlight ‘minor’ errors in the vaccine rollout. However, the above listed scenarios cannot be labelled as minor incidents because such incidents can cripple the entire COVID-19 vaccine rollout and if that happens all the efforts taken so far to control the pandemic would be in vain.

By Methmalie Dissanayake | Published: 2:00 AM Jun 12 2021

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