The Plague Doctor Who Paid the Unfortunate Price of Recollection

One Thursday morning Sister Luisa, an aging nun at the Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca, was on her way to the prayer room when she noticed a tall ominous creature emerge from the convent gates. 

The sun glistened off its leathery skin, wet from the morning rain. In long strides it splashed through the mud. As it raised its head, one could see its flat circular eyes, completely black, and just below them protruded a hideously large beak. It looked around, seeming to sniff the air, and it saw Sister Luisa approaching. 

“Ah good morning, Doctor Marius,” she said to the creature, “didn’t expect to see you back so soon.”

“I need to examine the sick again,” came a muffled voice from behind the beak.

“Again? Do you think something can be done for them yet?”

“Perhaps, perhaps… I will need to see, I just need to examine them again” he said as he glided past her without stopping. 

She noticed a difference in his manner. He was not this preoccupied yesterday. 

“Should I tell Sister Agnes you are here?” she shouted at him, trying to catch up with short, rapid steps.  

The doctor pretended not to hear the question and walked hurriedly along the edge of the courtyard, past the chapel and around the main monastery. He continued towards the infirmary building, hidden behind a twisted thicket of trees, and rushed inside shutting the doors behind him. 

Marius was still a young boy when the black plague first came to town. His father, a leather tanner, was well liked by the local doctors, and they took in his son as an apprentice. Although he didn’t care much for the study of medicine, it was a lot more respectable and a little less smelly than soaking rotting animal hides in urine. So Marius imitated the work of his teachers, and found a particular gratification in the fear and reverence that people felt in his presence, especially after a lifetime of derision.

In his youth he was always ashamed as he walked in the streets, as people around him scrunched up their noses at the stink of the tannery constantly clinging onto him. Now as the people lay suffering and stinking in the streets it was he with the constantly scrunched up nose. As it should be. Their sickness, and his health, was definite proof. He had been good, done what was asked of him, listened to his father, listened to his teachers, and still the people had despised him. Those that had sinned had despised him for his smell, and now it was they that stank, their disgusting souls put out to display on their bodies. Marius would look at their pathetic corpses, blackened and rotting, and feel disgusted. He knew that they too were disgusted by themselves, and most of all, he knew that God was utterly disgusted by them, inside and out. 

The previous day he had visited the sanctuary to treat the sick gathered there. Among the dozen or so bodies in the infirmary he noticed one woman, whom he recognized from long ago. He had secretly desired her then, but now his feelings were very different, although just as strong.

Her body was thin and emaciated, her fingers and feet were black with rot, and in her gaunt bony face he saw nothing of the fresh youthful girl he knew before. What horrible things she must have done to deserve this, he thought. Behind the mask his face contorted in disgust as the most vile and repulsive acts flashed through his mind. What a sinful person she must have become. 

As Sister Luisa looked on intently, he opened his bag and produced a collection of vials filled with ointments. He then reached over to the comatose woman and put his gloved hands into her armpits, feeling for the swollen buboes which formed on the bodies of the infected. At his touch the woman shivered slightly and let out a weak whimper. None here, they must be near her groin.

Marius lifted her tunic and noticed an especially large bubo on her inner thigh, red and shiny. It rippled as he moved her leg, the thick fluid inside swishing back and forth. He opened one of the vials and applied the ointment on a rag. Leaning close he gently prodded on the bubo with the rag. It wobbled a bit and then suddenly burst, releasing a torrent of bloody pus all over the bed. Sister Luisa instantly gagged and grabbed her mouth, but the stench was too much to handle and she ran outside.

As he listened pitifully to the sound of Sister Luisa vomiting outside, Marius was suddenly struck by a faint smell which pierced through the aromatic herbs in his mask. Most of his waking life was masked by the smell of these herbs, which by now smelt like nothing, and so to him the world smelt like nothing. But this … this smell … this was something. Something that took him back, far into the past. He couldn’t place it specifically, but he knew that he knew it. One smell, amongst many, he had thought forgotten, now reawakened. But as quickly as it hit him, it faded away, and the bland, familiar scent of herb clouded the world again. What is that smell? He inhaled deeply to try and reclaim the memory, but to no avail. I know it. I know I know it. But what is it?

Glancing quickly around the room he saw the other women in their beds, groaning and convulsing, lost in the delirium of their own suffering. After a brief moment of hesitation he lifted his mask, thrust his face as close as he could to the bubo, which was still oozing blood and pus, and took a long deep breath.

Suddenly he was taken away. Transported far back to a memory which sat alone, with no connection to any other memory, no connection to the world he knew today. Except for this one absolutely putrid smell. It was a memory of pure sin, pure evil, for what else could smell this horrid?

But before he could grasp it, the stench washed over and through him. His stomach felt an incomprehensible fear. Blinded by the taste of poison, decay and death, it desperately bundled itself up in panic, heaving its warm contents up into his throat, and spewing them out all over the open wound.

The world was not the same to him after that moment. Or rather, it was the same, but it was not the whole world, not complete. He had just glimpsed underneath the veil, and that one visceral moment had shown him more than he could have ever imagined. He could still feel the vomit burning in his throat and mouth, and he could still taste it tickling his lips, now flavoured with the spicy herbs stuffed in his nose. But this simple ugliness seemed sweet compared to the horror he had sensed earlier, when the scent of decay pierced into his nose, wrapped around his body, squeezing and contorting it until all he could feel, all he could comprehend in that moment, was complete and utter disgust. 

I knew there was horror in this world, I knew these people were sinful, but not like that. Who could dream of such vileness, such repulsive evil? I never knew such a thing existed.

And then he remembered, when he first perceived the smell it had ignited that memory, that lost memory. He did know this evil. He did know such a thing existed, but what was it? And when? What had he smelt so long ago?

I have to go back

When Marius approached the bed the next day he was surprised to find the woman still alive. Her body was completely still but he noticed her short shallow breaths. I wonder what she’s thinking about? What do people think about when they are near the end? He looked at her face and saw that her eyes were half open, vacantly gazing at him. Maybe she thinks that I am an angel, or more likely a demon, here to ferry her to the next life.

The woman lay there immobile, completely numb, but with dull throbbing pains dancing around and inside her, pulsating outward and inward, spinning the world round and round. As her vision came into focus she noticed the tall dark figure brooding over her.

Oh, it’s the doctor who puked on me yesterday, she thought, I wonder what he’s going to do today.

First, Marius lifted her leg to check the bubo on her thigh, or what was left of it. The wound was still covered in his vomit, but now it also hosted a collection of wriggling maggots and a long trail of ants feeding off its lush pickings. He quickly brushed the pests off, ripped off his mask, and took another long deep breath. Again his body convulsed at the stink of the festering wound, but this time his stomach was braver, holding its own in the face of death.

He desperately searched for the memory, but only found himself recalling yesterday’s breakfast. The vomit must be tainting the smell, I should use someone else. He quickly turned to the next patient and lifted her tunic to find a bubo. Seeing one there he spread her legs, pulled out a needle and hunched over close, smiling in anticipation. This is it, now I’ll know.

With one hand he made a small prick on the bubo, and with the other he pushed down, squeezing the pus out. Closing his eyes he inhaled deeply as the pus splattered over his exposed face and into his open mouth. The rancid taste sent a shiver down his spine. This time the nausea was fainter, but so was the memory. It was clouded. Clouded by the moment yesterday, when he smelled the first bubo. He remembered how disgustingly evil it smelt, but the original memory it had evoked was fading.

In a panic he scrambled around the room, stripped every patient there, burst every bubo he could find, and inhaled its essence to try to remember and every time did not remember why he remembered it, only that he did.

As the frenzy subsided his attention came back to the moment. He looked around the room, and for the first time saw the women writhing and convulsing in agony. The sound of their wails filled the room like a morbid choir and a heavy stench of blood, pus, and sweat hung in the air, constricting and suffocating him. The world started spinning and he felt a sudden, uncontrollable urge to lie down. Slowly he lay on the floor and closed his eyes. The wailing slowly faded away and he slipped into darkness.

Marius woke up in a violent fit of coughs, his whole body aching. He wiped the thick layer of mucus off his eyes and looked around. It was dark, apart from a sliver of moonlight peeking through a nearby window.

How long had it been?

With great effort he sat up in bed, the sweat-drenched sheets still clinging to his body.

This isn’t my room. 

Where am I?

As he tried to stand up, he suddenly felt a sharp sting in his groin. He quickly sat back down and as the pain subsided, a terrible thought crept into his head. 

He slowly lifted his leg, angling it towards the window, and there he saw it. A massive bubo, the size of a large grape, smooth and shiny, glistening in the moonlight.

He ran his fingers over it and then pinched it, rolling it gently between his index finger and thumb. He started squeezing the bubo harder, now using both hands. With each press he felt a stinging jab piercing into his leg and rippling outward. His neck tightened, his face throbbed, and his eyes watered but through gritted teeth he kept squeezing harder and harder. The bubo wriggled and squirmed between his fingers like a helpless maggot, until… POP! A searing surge of pain shot through his body like a hot knife, and then it cooled in a wave of release. Warm pus spilled over his legs and hands. Instinctually, he thrust his face into his crotch and took a long, deep breath.

The smell of the infirmary flooded back into his memory and Marius was enveloped in a cloud of decay. He felt the soupy air around him, he heard the incessant buzzing of flies, he heard the cries of agony from the sick women, and most of all he smelt the putrid stench of the first bubo, a smell which had seemed so familiar at the time. As these repugnant visions danced through his mind, mocking and tormenting him, his whole body shook in fear and disgust. But his stomach in particular remembered the revulsion it had felt that day. And faced again by that primal terror it shrunk in desperation, spewing its contents all over his body.


The Faith Of A Burial

I hurried down the cold hospital corridor, pinching my face mask at the nose to avoid fogging up my glasses. A few wrong turns later, I finally found the mortuary. At a series of large silver lockers, a worker gestured to stand at a distance. He tugged at the handle and opened one with the ease of pulling open a drawer, so that I could see my grand-aunt for the first time since she had passed away.

On this Thursday morning in April 2020, a household tucked away in Wellawatte lost their matriarch, the glue of the family. The kind and strong 62-year-old had succumbed to a sudden cardiac arrest.

A few in her immediate circle, including my mother, Faheema, were allowed to see to her burial. “I wanted to spend each minute with her till she was buried, and I got to do so,” Faheema said. “As I was burying her, the lessons she used to teach us about religion, death, heaven and hell, started replaying in my mind. It was as if she was talking to me.”

At a time where social media was rife with conversations on funeral rites, even as a Muslim, I remained ambivalent. It took losing someone close to me to shift this debate onto a personal level. Her death was all the harder to bear amidst a COVID-19 lockdown — to have had her funeral rites questioned would have been an inordinate source of pain.

Muslims view death as the transition from one state of being to another. “We believe that we are made out of clay and we return back to the earth,” Faheema explained. While voluntary cremation is prohibited within the religion, it includes exceptions in special circumstances such as if a deathly disease can spread through burial.

When the COVID-19 outbreak first started in Sri Lanka, both cremation and burial (in a grave eight feet deep) were deemed safe and viable options. However, the second COVID-19 death and first Muslim to have passed away on 30 March was cremated. This was subsequently followed by a quick revision of clinical guidelines and the issuing of regulations under the Quarantine and Prevention Diseases Ordinance on 11 April — all deaths in the country as a result of the novel coronavirus must be cremated.

“I got a call [saying], ‘they are asking permission to cremate’,” Inham Mohamed, cousin of Umrid Hassan (49) said. Umrid Hassan passed away on 8 April 2020 and is recorded as the seventh COVID-19 related death in Sri Lanka.

While the family signed the consent form, it only seemed to be part of a due process with little choice in between. A cremation seemed inevitable.

In Madampitiya, another family mourns their recent loss. They take me through the corridors of small apartments piled one over the other — set in an expanse of five separate blocks, holding more than 1,000 families. The father and children sit on the assorted chairs with some making themselves comfortable on the floor.

“My youngest daughter is just like my wife, so mischievous,” the father of six and widowed husband, Shafeek said.

Fathima Rinoza passed away at the age of 44-years on 5 May and is recorded as the ninth COVID-19 death in the country. Initially admitted to the General Hospital for a continuous cough, she was then taken to the National Infectious Diseases Hospital (IDH) claiming it a case of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, early morning on 5 May the family was suddenly informed of a team coming in to disinfect, test, and transport them to a quarantine center. “We had no idea what was happening as they pulled open cupboards and clothes. The children were crying, I was crying,” Shafeek said.

On the way to the centre they learned that she had passed away.

Rinoza’s second son, Sabri, who lived separately, was allowed to see her. At the hospital, he was told that the cause of death could not be identified and was asked consent for a cremation. “They mentioned TB [tuberculosis], suspicions of COVID-19 and then pointed to the initial General Hospital form which mentioned COVID-19, until I agreed to sign,” he said.

The rest of the family, after a day in quarantine, were suddenly asked to pack up and be ready to travel back to Colombo. Even before the designated 14-day time-frame, they were going home.

The day after Rinoza’s death, PCR tests were conducted on some residents of the housing scheme. The family too, who initially underwent testing, reported negative. After returning from the quarantine centre, the family was asked to self-quarantine at home for 14-days

More than a month later, confused and coping with the loss, Shafeek conveyed that they are yet to receive the autopsy report. Trying to understand the unfamiliar death rites, he explained that, “in our religion, cremation is not accepted. Some religions allow for cremation, some allow for both, but in ours, we believe there is a blessing in burying.”

“But what’s done is done, and that’s over. What’s important is that her soul is with God and she is at peace.”

Sheikh Muiz Bukhary, a Sri Lankan Islamic scholar and CEO of the Sakeenah Institute explained that there is a sense of sanctity that Muslims hold towards the dead, a high regard placed on the body of the deceased.

However, he added that there is also a common misconception that the body will not be resurrected if not a burial. “Once a person passes away, there is little to be done on the body or soul. The soul moves on to the next realm and does not suffer. The burial is mainly a communal obligation, a duty placed on our shoulders.”

If one has no choice, Bukhary explained that cremation is accepted in the religious teachings. “In a situation where it is proven with sound research that if one were to go ahead with a burial it will cause harm to society, Islam allows to follow through with cremation.”

Two weeks after declaring a pandemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published its own guidelines. It confirmed burial as an accepted form of tending to a COVID-19 death. The guidelines read; ‘It is a common myth that persons who have died of a communicable disease should be cremated, but this is not true. Cremation is a matter of cultural choice and available resources’. It also further specified that while there is no proof of exposure to infection from persons who died, safety precautions must be taken while burying, to mitigate any possible risk.

Most countries have adopted burials with their own guidelines in place. In India, six feet graves now go deeper to reach eight feet, and in Turkey only ‘distance burials’ are allowed. The Philippines stipulates that bodies be buried within 12 hours while Singapore allows burials if strong religious reasons request it.

In Colombo, Nawsar Rafayideen spent a few confusing days trying to retrieve his father’s body from the Police Mortuary, in order to ensure a burial. Abdul Rafayideen (68) passed away suddenly on 5 May at his sister’s house, and was declared a ‘highly suspicious of COVID-19’ death. His son and two other close relatives spent the day after signing a cremation form, purchasing a coffin, hiring a vehicle, and making their way to the cemetery where they were provided a slip of paper — the cremation was to be free of charge.

However, in the days later, Rafayideen was not reported as a COVID-19 death. His son took time off his daily three-wheel hires to obtain a post-mortem report. On his third attempt, he was informed that his father tested negative for the virus.

It took three visits to the Police Mortuary for Nawsar Rafayideen to obtain his father’s autopsy report. While the Coroner’s Office conveyed that the report is negative for COVID-19, the Office refused to hand over the document, stating it would be sent to court directly.

The Health Ministry has claimed that currently there are no statistics on the number of bodies subjected to mandatory cremation. The decision to cremate a body is undertaken by the relevant officials of the hospital, who follow the country’s health guidelines. According to the Director-General of Health Dr. Anil Jasinghe, these guidelines stem from efforts to prevent the spread of the virus — with limited information still available on its behaviour.

In a strange world where leaders in global politics are struggling to keep up with the deadly virus, Sri Lanka’s health sector, its frontliners, and strict curfew laws have contributed to containing the spread and keeping the death toll under 20.

But within the larger picture, each number represents a person, a coping family. “People often don’t see the importance of forensics until it’s your loved one — your mother, brother, or child. Then, you care deeply about how a body is handled,” Stephen Fonseca, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)’s head of forensics in Africa stated in a news release.

Mrs. Sheriff*, a counselor, has been helping certain families cope with the loss of their loved ones during this time. “All of us have been affected by this pandemic in some way or the other. But the families who lost someone, they have been the most affected,” she said. According to her, some Muslim families have struggled to come to terms with the cremation. “You can’t stop people from dying. But, the way they die and the way they are criticised or reported about, can have a large impact.”

In an unprecedented pandemic, loss of a loved one is harder. There are fewer hands to hold for comfort. Longer days of silence, one must grieve in enclosed spaces while picking oneself back up — there is work to be done in this dipping economy.

As families continue to grieve, their surrounding community can play a large part in easing the pain. To condole, be compassionate, but mostly attempt to understand the faith behind certain rituals — which is often ingrained in the way loss is dealt with.

“It feels like a dream. I remember her hair, from that day. I kissed her and she was very cold. Then I remembered that I had to make the calls to my mother, aunt, and uncle, which was devastating. I had to pretend that I was strong. Even while talking to them it was very surreal. Still, I had hopes that she would wake up.” — Faheema, from the house tucked away in Wellawatte

Article Photos: Sakeena Razick

Cover Photo: Ponda Sujadi

*—Person did not wish to divulge full name

Fathima Rinoza’s family do not have the original General Hospital form which refers to COVID-19 and was essential in transferring Rinoza to the IDH. The family received a ‘declaration of death’ stating COVID-19 pneumonia as the cause of death, based on which the death certificate was provided. Shafeek received the death certificate on 03 June, which, they explained, is based on the original General Hospital form (written out prior to her death). They have not yet received an autopsy report.

Since May, Fundamental Rights (FR) petitions have been filed by several persons against the compulsory cremations.

Editor’s Note: Umrid Hassan’s age was previously reported as 45. This has been corrected to 49.


Sustaining Formal Education in Colombo During the Coronavirus Crisis

Like many teachers around the world experiencing the sudden shifts in formal education caused by school closures, I have had to readjust. This readjustment has included recalibrating teaching methods, reassessing priorities with subject material, and repositioning students’ learning outcomes.

Initially, although communicating with students via email, I was intent on maintaining the momentum of the classroom, constantly reminding myself that within a couple of years these students would be sitting for a graded exam. I was concerned by the lack of interaction involved in our email exchanges because the subject I teach–one called Global Perspectives and Research–requires students to engage with course material, in large part, through discussion and debate.

When the school’s administrators scheduled classes online, I was pleased by the prospect of having discussions in real-time but was also faced with a new challenge. Although the school is a reputed one, and considered one of high prestige, not all students come from equally privileged backgrounds. A few students expressed that it would be difficult for them to participate consistently as they either rely on their parents’ Wi-Fi hotspots to access the internet (a situation that becomes difficult when the parent is unable to lend the student their device) or because they do not possess the adequate data quotas. Although the school was quick to take these situations into consideration and make alternative arrangements, the students, parents, and teachers spoken to for this article provided a range of accounts—of successes and difficulties—in sustaining formal education during this time.

The COVID-19 crisis has caused ruptures in systems of education worldwide, revealing existent inequalities in access to services and raising questions about the effectiveness of virtual education. Online platforms have rapidly been made use of in a range of education institutions across the globe in an attempt to ensure that classes continue in as normal a fashion as they otherwise would. However, the necessity of moving education exclusively to online platforms has highlighted global, regional, national, and also more localised disparities, for not everybody is equipped with the hardware, the software, or—in some cases—the conducive environment required to effectively participate.

With issues regarding the digital divide becoming more pronounced during this crisis period, Fire Escape reached out to students, parents, and teachers from some state, private, and international education institutions across Colombo to understand the range of experiences they were having in sustaining formal education since schools closed in mid-March.

Lack of Access to Digital Technologies

18-year old Shihara*, an A-level student at a private school whose teachers have been sending her and her younger sister weekly worksheets via email, has had difficulty accessing a device through which to check her email since her school closed. Recently, Shihara’s older sister lent them her phone, which finally provided them access. Expected to complete this work in her writing book and submit it to her teachers once school reopens, Shihara expressed frustration at not having been able to access email for the past few weeks because, “now it’s stressful to try to catch up.”

In many middle/lower-middle income households, a single device may be shared by all members of the household, which can make it difficult for students to access, and consistently submit, homework via online platforms. Another issue, aside from lacking hardware, is that of limited data, which could be due to unaffordable costs or because children are “left to their own devices” and may use data for other purposes.

Photo Credit: Datareportal

A Halt to Exams & No Job Prospects in Sight

Confronting a threatening pandemic and its expected consequences, education institutions and exam boards around the world have been forced to take necessary action, rescheduling exams or introducing alternative methods of assessment.

Thilini*, a third-year student enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts program at a state university, was preparing for her final exams when the COVID-19 crisis in Sri Lanka began intensifying. The first COVID-19 positive patient was detected on March 11, and when her university closed on March 13, the count had risen to three.

Since then, she has been receiving e-books and articles—tonnes, she emphasises—as email attachments. “We were told that we would begin classes through an e-learning system but nothing has happened so far. We just function through email and [by] checking the university’s websites for updates that lecturers post there.”

Some of her classmates in the General program who were due to graduate this May appear to be struggling with the disruption that this has caused.

Senali* was due to complete her program following exams that were set for March 14. Due to the fact that she was unable to sit for her final exams, she has not received a final grade and has not been able to request a final transcript. Although not having an up-to-date transcript is worrying, “there don’t seem to be any work options at this time anyway” she commented. Senali explained that she has sent her CV to two companies that were advertising positions—she has yet to receive a response.

With 81% of the global workforce having had their workplaces partially or fully closed, and tens of millions facing job loss as the crisis escalates, the International Monetary Fund warns that this could be the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Continuing with Exams/ Alternative Methods of Assessment

Some institutions, on the other hand, are continuing with their pre-crisis exam schedule. Jason*, in his third-year of an Engineering program at a private university, described how although many of his exam modules have been postponed, his university is moving forward with a few of them. “Next week, I have an online exam. The paper will be two hours long and we will have an extra two hours to upload scans of the work done manually.”

He is also expected to submit two lab reports online via a portal. Throughout this period, he has had access to e-lectures that have been uploaded by the foreign university that will ultimately be awarding him his degree. Lecture slides and tutorials can be viewed and downloaded from the internet, and if he has questions or issues, he can request his lecturers’ help through a scheduled Zoom meeting.

Roshana*, a Grade 12 student at an international school, talked about how, with the international exam board that her school follows having cancelled exams worldwide, “it’s been pretty scary for the older students, since our futures depend a lot on these grades.” She explained how even though exams are cancelled, students will likely be assigned a final grade based on classwork. This worries her because it is work that she “didn’t think would ever impact her final grade” and so work into which she didn’t put as much effort.

“There’s also talk that we might have to re-sit the entire year” she said. “Right now, we don’t know what’ll happen.”

That some institutions are continuing with their exam schedules while others are following alternative methods of assessment highlights the difficult decisions that education institutions have had to make. Unable to follow uniform guidelines, the range of solutions indicate inconsistencies that some may believe unfair, and others may believe an expected resolution to this unprecedented situation.

Lack of Contact Between Students and Teachers

Acknowledging the growing importance of digital platforms for education in an increasingly globalised, tech-driven world, efforts have been underway in selected areas of Sri Lanka to implement Smart Classrooms. Although this and other similar initiatives are welcome efforts, budget constraints affecting Sri Lankan public schools and limited private-sector participation have been identified as significant challenges to increasing digital technology use in classrooms across the country.

Furthermore, according to the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS), in order for Smart Classrooms to be effective in the Sri Lankan context, other fundamental changes will have to be made to teaching methods and the nature and content of examinations to ensure that these techniques allow the development of desired skills (such as critical thinking and problem solving).

According to the School Census Report of 2017, out of a total 5,643 primary and secondary schools countrywide, 55℅ had computer facilities for students. The Western Province was reported as having the most facilities (with the North Western Province having the least). On the other end, household ownership of a computer or laptop as recorded in 2019 was 22.2% countrywide, with 34.7% of ownership in the Western Province. Sri Lanka’s internet penetration rate stands at 47% and primary and secondary schools with internet connections have been reported to stand at 18%, also concentrated in the Western Province.

The fact that technology-enabled education is limited to better-resourced areas and education institutions means that many students without such access have had little to no contact with their teachers thus far.


Photo Credit: India Today

Niluka*, whose 11-year old daughter and 13-year old son attend a state school, noted that school closures have been felt differently by each of her children.

Her son was given one practice paper before his school closed, and since then his teacher has uploaded some work onto YouTube and sent some work through WhatsApp. “It is not enough – he has already finished the work he was given.” Her daughter on the other hand was given a larger quantity of worksheets and questions to complete, so she has had relatively more school work to keep her occupied.

Shashi*, whose 13 and 8-year old daughters attend a Tamil-language state school, expressed similar concerns. “My daughter received homework through a WhatsApp message but she has already completed it and now has nothing to do.”

Her children are studying with the limited subject materials at their disposal, and while fearful of the wider harmful impacts of the crisis, she is anxious that her children resume their school routines.

Adverse Effects on Mental Health

The stress and anxiety experienced by parents, students, and teachers alike to ensure that students do not fall behind academically has dramatically risen during this period. This is important to consider, on top of the general anxiety and stress caused by the pandemic, when thinking about the position and role of schools, teachers, parents, and teaching strategies during this time.

Ms. M*—a teacher of English Literature—feels that it is important that the private school she teaches at attempts to incorporate meditation, special prayer times, or activities that are “more creative and fun” into schedules, instead of focusing solely on academics. “These are times of stress so these kinds of activities would be good for the children.” She also expressed that having to schedule online classes and dedicate a number of hours per week to them, while attending to ordering groceries, running the household, and taking care of family matters, has put a strain on her.

She shared a message to a group chat with her colleagues on WhatsApp, which emphasised that during this time, “it’s important not [to] reimpose the rat race on ourselves, students and parents.” Aware of the pressure that students are often put under to perform well, and acknowledging the universal stress caused by this crisis, she commented that, “lockdown has taught us to learn to enjoy slowing down, being creative, having quality time with family, and valuing nature. Learning will help students have somewhat of a routine and focus but it should be a joy not a chore.”

Photo Credit: Mymindourhumanity Campaign

Well-Prepared & Digitally Fluent

The mother of 13-year old Shehan*, who attends an international school, expressed complete satisfaction with the way in which her son’s education has continued since his school closed on March 12.

“The school was extremely well prepared, and way ahead of the curve,” she told Fire Escape. Shehan’s school held training sessions for all students about navigating Zoom and Google Classroom, and—according to his mother—students were made fully conversant with the lesson format, the work expected of them, and the schedule to be followed. Because students were functioning primarily through online platforms prior to the crisis, adjusting exclusively to an online system was not too challenging.

“The transition for me was painless,” she noted, describing how the school has even scheduled exercise time, “which my son does on his gym mat.”

Roshana described how her school also continues classes through platforms such as Zoom and Google Classroom, and that she has up to three classes a day. “The students (and many of the teachers too) expect this to be temporary, so I don’t feel like they put much effort into things like homework.” She expressed that she prefers this online method to ‘normal’ school because, “there’s less tedious note-taking and we take more advantage of resources online.” She also commented that the classes online can be quite chaotic, with teachers’ video screens often getting disrupted, participants’ background noises becoming distracting, and students often reporting that their microphones ‘suddenly stopped working’ which “probably makes it really exhausting for teachers,” she said.

A Future of Digital Education

The global trend towards technology-facilitated education indicates numerous benefits and an inevitable shift in patterns of teaching and learning. The coronavirus-induced crisis has not only highlighted the necessity of virtual platforms for education, but also the existent inequalities and inequities in access to such platforms. It has also raised questions about the methods, objectives, and priorities of education programs, especially during this time.

The experiences described above were given by students, parents, and teachers in education institutions within Colombo. That schools in the Western Province have the most access to digital technologies, and that such disparities (the extent of which were not explored in this article) exist within a single city, raises broader questions about disparities countrywide. Whereas well-equipped schools have shifted, with relative success, to technology-based methods of teaching and learning, others are lagging behind.

Countries such as Greece and South Africa have been making use of television and radio channels to broadcast educational programs to mass audiences, and although programs such as Rupavahini’s Nena Mihira already broadcast a range of educational content, this could be a feasible path for Sri Lanka to take. The Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation’s transmission covers more than 95% of the country, and includes channels in Sinhala and Tamil, which could be one avenue for further investment to ensure a more accessible pathway for children to sustain learning during this period.

What are the best steps for parents and teachers to take during this crisis period while schools remain closed, especially given the lack of indication as to how much longer they’ll remain this way? While considering the longer-term possibilities of digital education, it will be important to consider methods that could be made use of by education institutions—and all those working within and around them—to ensure that children without access to the necessary internet connections and hardware don’t continue falling behind in the way that they have been.

*Names with asterisks have been changed at the request of the interviewees.

Cover image by Zahara Dawoodbhoy


A Year Later: Forced Calm, No Closure

21 Sunday, March 2019:

Marianne David, a senior journalist and Deputy Editor at the DailyFT, one of Sri Lanka’s leading English language newspapers, was helping her domestic aid put together a feast for Easter lunch. Having started early, they were nearly done by 8:00am—when David decided to quickly scroll through Twitter once again, as was customary for her. One tweet jumped out—it mentioned ‘something’ had happened in Negombo. David switched to her work WhatsApp group, and fragments of updates started coming in: a disturbance at the Kingsbury, possibly a gas leak. More fragmented bits of news started filtering in of simultaneous explosions around the country.

It was almost exactly ten years since explosions last rocked the nation.

Last Easter, a relatively unheard of Islamist organisation, the National Thawheed Jamath (NTJ) launched a series of attacks inspired by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targeting three churches, and three hotels; killing 269 people and injuring over 400. Among the dead were at least 45 children, and 40 foreigners. The Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), appointed to look into the terrorist attacks, noted that the State Intelligence Service Chief, Nilantha Jayawardena, was primarily responsible for not taking adequate action based on intelligence he received regarding growing Islamist extremism in the country.

The report submitted by the PSC also noted that information about armed extremists in Kattankudy was made public as early as 2011, and that the Sri Lanka Thawheed Jamath (SLTJ) came under the Terrorist Investigation Department’s (TID) radar around 2013-2014.  Precisely one year since the attacks, the government is still ‘investigating’ how it occurred. 

Fresh arrests have been made, including that of prominent lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah – the latter, since then has been greatly contested due to the lack of remand order. On 15 April, Police Spokesperson Jaliya Senaratne revealed that a total of 197 suspects, including supporters of the NTJ, have been arrested. He also claimed that a second attack was planned following the Easter Sunday carnage. No further details about the arrest of Hizbullah, or of the alleged plot, have been revealed as of this update.

On a Saturday in March 2020, a few weeks short of a year since the attacks, we are in a bus, on our way to St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo. St. Sebastian’s was the first to be targeted last year, the one which sent waves of shock and panic through the nation; one which also filled you with fear for loved ones you knew who would be there. Then we heard of the explosion at St. Anthony’s in Kochikade — one of the more popular churches in Colombo, widely believed to have miraculous properties, and one that welcomed people of all faiths. 

But that was last year. This year, we are on our way to Church on a balmy Saturday morning, wondering how much would have changed in a year. We are pensive and quiet, and the three-wheeler who takes our hire from the Katuwapitiya Junction doesn’t make idle chatter or ask questions. He charges Rs. 80.

The church is uncannily quiet and calm. There are a few devotees inside, spread across the pews, far apart. 

Heads bowed in prayer, no one raises their heads as we walk in. The first indication anyone would get of something horrific even happening here is of the military checking identity cards at the church entrance. Walking across the immaculate lawn and the freshly painted building, it is almost impossible to believe that this sanctuary was terrorised. 

Middle-aged devotees, trailed by young children, hand out freshly-baked buns, kiribath and bananas to visitors. Cats lounge in the courtyard and mynahs have a tussle out at the back. However, there are reminders of last year in place: the blood-splattered, shrapnel-damaged statue of the Risen Christ in its glass casing; damaged tiling with pyrex over it, possibly where the terrorist detonated the bomb; the wooden noticeboard on the outside, with photos of the repercussions. 

In contrast, St. Anthony’s Shrine in Kotahena, an hour away, is still thrumming with activity. While the main section of the church is fully reconstructed, there is still a lot more going on outside, and around the edges. You have military presence, and you have construction workers, lorries, and a haze of dust. Just outside the entrance is a side-room of sorts – a memorial for the 55 devotees who were killed in the bombs. A plaque lists the names of those who are identified, with a bit of space left at the bottom. In between numbers 36 and 38 (M. Muthu Prabakaran and Rajendianni Raja) is a rather unexpected name — Mohomad Rizwan, a fifteen-year-old Muslim who was at Church on Easter Sunday.

Mohomad Yaseen Rizwan and his aunt, Rajendra Radha, were two of the many casualties of the Easter Sunday attack. The day of the incident, Yaseen’s parents recalled, were like any other. 

Yaseen’s father, Rizwan, is a three-wheeler driver. It was during one of his trips he received the news of the attack on Kochchikade. He didn’t believe it at first.

“…but then there were two policemen who wanted to go to Kochchikade. I asked them if the news was true, when they said it was. I quickly called my wife and we both went to the church,” he said. 

With a Muslim father and a Hindu-Christian mother, Yaseen fasted during Ramadan and went for the congretational Jummah prayers at the mosque every Friday afternoon. Together with his aunt, he would also visit the Kochikade shrine during Christian holidays, and  worship at temples and kovils in the same breath.

Growing up, Yaseen was mostly around his grandmother, Sellamma. She tells us how their entire family went to a temple in Kurunagala just the day before Easter.

“When we heard of the explosion, I was sure he was not dead. He has not harmed anyone in his life; he was innocent and he practiced his religion. I thought he survived and I thought he would come home. But he didn’t. We found his body at the hospital.”

Rizwan and his wife Manju spent the entire day searching for Yaseen and his aunt, but were unable to find them. It would be on the next day that they would see them at the hospital morgue. 

Reconstruction in the Zion Church seems to be a lot slower; almost at a halt. Most of the world seems to have moved on, except, of course, those affected directly. 

“When we sat down for breakfast that day, there was no public alert of an attack,” Dhulshini de Soyza, mother of Kieran, an eleven-year-old who lost his life in the bomb, told the BBC in Terror in Paradise, the documentary outlining the series of state negligence, and rising radicalisation, that led to the attacks. “If we had received one, we wouldn’t have gone there for breakfast. I wouldn’t be sitting here with you. Keiran would still be here.”

For Marianne David, a seasoned journalist who reported on the civil war, the Easter bombings were by far one of the worst she had experienced, purely because of how unexpected it was. 

Slipping back into old routines, David distinctly remembers getting into her deck shoes, and of flashbacks to the 2008 Dambulla bus bombing, before running out to the national hospital. 

“It’s something I had always done before because you never know what you’re going to be stepping in when there’s been an explosion.” This time around though, she was also leaving her daughter back at home, a young girl who saw what happened on TV and asked why her mother had to leave. 

“If I didn’t go, how can I ask anyone else to? It’s work. You just go out, and… you do your job.”

One year later, it still haunts her.

One year later, there is still no justice.

One year later, the Cardinal says he forgives the Easter bombers.

But there is still no justice.

And elections are around the corner.

Story by Aisha Nazim
Photos by Aisha Nazim and Zahara Dawoodbhoy