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Fight against COVID-19 : Chef Anura speaks out

April 09, 2020

Every citizen counts; from Wuhan to ‘MSC Magnifica’

By Lt. Com. Chaminda Walakuluge
 
Anura Bandara Herath, 31, got much media attention and was among the news early this week, following a video he had uploaded to social media requesting the government for permission to disembark at the port of Colombo.

Anura is currently undergoing his mandatory period of 21days quarantine at the Sri Lanka Naval quarantine facility at Boosa.

Defence.lk had the opportunity for an exclusive interview via mobile with Anura Bandara.

“All this transpired within a day or two and so many things happened within a brief time span that I’m still unable to grasp much of it” said Anura.

He looks overwhelmed by the positive response received for his request which reverberated across communities in the island.  

It’s no exaggeration if one presumes that every household yearned Anura to be back home, no amount the enormity of red tapes, bureaucracies, diplomatic channels and conventional wisdom that had to be withered along the way.  

The youngest among seven siblings, Anura hailed from Daulagala a locality in the hill capital city of Kandy. Following his initial years, training as an apprentice chef at leading hotel chains in Sri Lanka, he tried his fortune in Dubai, to much success.
 
“It’s about six years in this profession and I’m enjoying the journey so far” says Anura, who before getting onboard ‘MSC Mangifica’ had served with two more cruise liners. Anura recalls it has been almost a year serving onboard ‘MSC Magnifica’.

“The spread of the virus raised alarms when we just left New Zealand making our way to Hobart Australia. There were about 2,300 passengers onboard and as the virus outbreak hit states in Australia causing infected numbers to soar and also the ‘Diamond Princess’ issue in seas of Japan, we were denied entering and disembarking.

Amidst this the Australian authorities provided us with logistic replenishments.
 
By this time, the outbreak has been wreaking havoc in Europe especially in Italy. In addition, cruise liners across the world were receiving mixed responses from schedule ports of calls and it was much evident that we would not be able to end the world cruise as planned.

The Captain of the ship communicated this to all passengers and staff and later it was decided that the ship would sail straight to Italy, its port of origin. It was apparent that we would not be permitted to dock at any foreign port as no country wanted to import a possible virus threat into their littoral.

I wished if I had the possibility to come back home and to be with my family during this period as things would have been quite difficult in Italy, and given the circumstances based on news that was reported.

Work was going about as normal onboard, and one day our Captain, Roberto Leotta declared that we would be transiting through Sri Lanka for a replenishment stoppage. Upon hearing this, the thought of disembarking started brewing in my mind. I initially lent this news to my brother who was already residing in Australia but urged him not to disclose it to our mother, as nothing was sure.

I approached the Human Resources Department and shared my intention of disembarking during the replenishment stoppage off Colombo. Same was communicated via email to my employer in Italy.

Subsequently, I was summoned by the ship’s Captain who had given serious thoughts into my request and had deliberated the issue with both the HR Department and our employer. He said that despite vindicating my request it was highly unlikely that it would be a possible proposition as we would only be making an offshore replenishment and considering the string of safety and quarantine measures involved.

By this time I had given-up hope of joining my family as it seemed inevitable that I would be stranded on approaching Italy until this situation resided. Meantime, as a last resort, I recorded a video requesting the Government to look into the possibility of facilitating my request and shared it with a close friend of mine who apparently happened to be a regional reporter for a leading private news channel.   

Within hours the video had gone viral in Sri Lanka drawing much needed attention from the public, higher authorities and officials.  I’m forever grateful for each and every individual, organization and entity that voiced my concern.  

I am grateful to former minister and parliamentarian Keheliya Rambukwella who had personally endorsed my request to higher officials,” he said.

  Asked whether he had belief that the government would respond positively to his plea, Anura replied that, “I believed if anybody is going to get this done, definitely it would be our President. He is known to be pragmatic and a man of action”.

Asked whether he had belief that the government would respond positively to his plea, Anura replied that, “ I believed if anybody is going to get this done, definitely it would be our President. He is known to be pragmatic and a man of action”.

According to Anura, he had posted the video via social media on April 04 and he had no clue what awaited for him by Monday, April 06.

Just after I had completed my duty shift at about 4 a.m. on Monday (06), I was again called up by Captain Roberto and what he said brought instant tears to my eyes. I was overjoyed and overwhelmed from what I heard. Captain Roberto said that I was indeed lucky that my Government had gone extra distances in getting me down to Sri Lanka during our replenishment stoppage.

He said that the Sri Lankan Government had reached out to his Italian employer, MSC cruises and had expressed urgency in getting me down ‘ASAP’. All the necessary paper work and administrative formalities had been completed from either party he further said.

“You must be proud of your Government” he said. Indeed I was.  There are no words to describe what I felt at that very moment. I was so proud of being Sri Lankan after many years.

I could not control tears flowing down my cheek. For sure the government had gone to extreme lengths and had not left any stone turned in realizing my plea. I knew this involved a tremendous amount of diplomatic voice and deliberations. In addition, time and resources put into fulfilling a single person’s request defies conventional thought.

Also it should be mentioned that Captain Roberto took much responsibility and risk in making my disembarkation possible. A cruise liner’s environment is always air tight especially with the extra precautions and measure taken at ensuring unnecessary exposure of passengers to contamination or infection from the outside.

My disembarkation thus involved considerable amount of preparations and manpower involving the ship’s crew. Everyone congratulated me and shared my sentiments.

“You must be proud of your Government” MSC Magnifica’s Captain, Roberto Leotta said. Indeed I was. There are no words to describe what I felt at that very moment. I was so proud of being Sri Lankan after many years.

I was transferred to a vessel which had come to replenish our ship and was I overjoyed. Sri Lankan Navy personnel had boarded the replenishment vessel and were ready to receive me, geared-up with all equipment and attire.

As I stepped out of the ship I was joined with cheers from my colleagues and passengers alike onboard the cruise.

Witnessing the amount of preparations the Navy had undertaken in receiving me, made me feel proud and in the very presence of so many nationals exacerbates the emotions. I’m indeed grateful to the SLN Commander Vice Admiral Piyal De Silva and the personnel involved in this mission.

The Navy also facilitated in transferring a German national woman who had suffered a heartache. Indeed, these are moments, instances which speaks loud of the humanity of our armed forces, which are known for.

I cannot explain what I felt as I stepped into the pier. Just 48 hours before I was in total doldrums – in a cruise liner heading to its last destination and not knowing when I would see my family and friends and what would become for me in the coming weeks.
    
Now I do believe in miracles and I’m a witness to one, no doubt.

I cannot explain what I felt as I stepped into the pier. Just 48 hours before I was in total doldrums – in a cruise liner heading to its last destination and not knowing when I would see my family and friends and what would become for me in the coming weeks.    

When inquired if he had a message for the public, Anura said : “ First I would reiterate my humble appreciation to all those who were behind me and supported my cause. And if there is one single message that I would want to give, it would be – please do adhere to the instructions and notices given by the Government including the health and security officials. Social distancing is a must as there are enough examples globally what happens if we disregard such.

“Finally, I must say I’m proud to be a Sri Lankan”, said Anura in a concluding note to our brief conversation.

Now I do believe in miracles and I’m a witness to one, no doubt. Finally, I must say I’m proud to be a Sri Lankan

Anura’s episode might be a single story among millions, but there is a consistent rhetoric – that ‘every citizen counts’. From Wuhan to ‘MSC Magnifica’ this has been the common thread, and no doubt indeed we are proud of.

If one is to ascertain the threading line of Sri Lanka’s response against COVID-19 is that, ‘every citizen counts’. This has so much been the apparent premise guiding the island’s preemptive and multi-pronged response against the pandemic. The mounting evidences affirm this hypothesis - the latest been the disembarkation of a Sri Lankan crew member onboard cruise ship ‘MSC Magnifica’.
 
Earlier, on February 01, 33 Sri Lankan students stranded at Wuhan, China – the initial epi- center of the virus pandemic were charted back to the country via the national carrier.

Sri Lanka became among the first countries to do so at a time when many nations were refusing to accept their own, returning from mainland China.
 
Two different circumstances, but one core message – every Sri Lankan counts.