Commissioner General of Rehabilitation Maj. Gen. (Retd) Dharshana Hettiarachchi: No danger to society from Kandakadu
Posted on July 14th, 2020

Camelia Nathaniel Courtesy The Daily News

Commissioner General of Rehabilitation Maj. Gen. (Retd) Dharshana Hettiarachchi

Sri Lanka managed to control the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic in the country very successfully from the start, in comparison to many countries in the world. Since March 30 there have not been any community cases reported in the country and the cases that were reported were all from quarantine centres and mainly those arriving in the country from overseas.

However, by last week, a new cluster that sprung from Kandakadu has so far identified a total of 519 new coronavirus cases, following the detection of an inmate who was transferred to the Welikada Prison from the Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre – East in Kandakadu, testing positive.

So far, 440 of these infections are inmates of the rehabilitation centre in Kandakadu as of last morning (14). Out of this cluster, 63 of the cases are staff members of the Kandakadu rehabilitation centre. Meanwhile, 16 other cases were identified from the Rajanganaya area as contacts of the virus-positive cases of the Kandakadu cluster.

Many questions have arisen with the new cluster emerging from Kandakadu as to why the inmates of this drug rehabilitation centre were not subjected to PCR tests and how the virus had crept in without being detected by health authorities.

In an exclusive interview with the Daily News the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation Maj. Gen. (Rtd) Dharshana Hettiarachchi spoke about the Kandakadu and Senapura Drug Rehabilitation Centres, how it all began, its current crisis and future plans. Gen. Hettiarachchi was the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation when the Bureau was first established. He later moved on and after his retirement, he was re-appointed as the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation in February this year.

Q: How and when did the drug rehabilitation programme commence?

A: In 2013, we completed the rehabilitation of the ex-LTTE combatants and converted these rehabilitation centres into centres for rehabilitation of drug addicts. Since we were able to conduct a successful rehabilitation programme for ex-combatants, the Defence Secretary at the time, who is the current President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa decided to make use of the same facilities to start a rehabilitation programme for drug addicts, as narcotics were becoming a real menace to society and the country as a whole.

Thereafter, the necessary legal framework was prepared to send drug addicts to the Kandakadu Rehabilitation Centre from the Welikada Prison through the courts. Accordingly, the necessary legal framework was drafted under the supervision of the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board. At Kandakadu, we do a six-month programme for these addicts consisting of a number of subjects in an attempt to break their drug addiction. After the initial six months, they are put through another six months of vocational training to arm them with the knowledge to engage in some trade once they leave the centre and go back into society.

Q: How did the Covid-19 virus enter Kandakadu?

A: As a practice, we have been getting all these people from the Prisons Department. But during the Covid-19 period, in the month of May, there was a special programme in and around Colombo to track down the drug addicts. Accordingly, the police arrested around 66 persons and they were sent to the Air Force Quarantine Centre in Mullaitivu and another centre in Galkanda in the Welikanda area. They wanted to send these drug addicts for rehabilitation, but we insisted that unless they go through the required quarantine process, we cannot take them in as it would put the health of the other inmates at risk. Accordingly, they went through the 14-day quarantine process and thereafter PCR tests were also done and they were sent to the rehabilitation centre.

Although the PCR tests were done, we suspect that there may have been one or two who probably still had the virus in them when they entered Kandakadu. Since the months of May and June we did not have any problem. There are almost 600 persons at this Kandakadu Rehab Centre.

Q: Why were these inmates not tested?

A: It has been a very common thing that sometimes some of these inmates develop a cough or cold or fever. If anyone is ill, we usually take them to the Polonnaruwa General Hospital and have them treated. In addition, there is a doctor from the Polonnaruwa Hospital who visits the rehabilitation centre daily to check on these inmates. No one had any special symptoms or showed signs of coronavirus.

However, one of the inmates had to be produced in court for a case and we handed him over to the Polonnaruwa Prison to be brought to Welikada for his court appearance.

Prior to sending him back to Kandakadu, he was tested and his PCR test was positive and that is when we discovered that he was infected and traced him back to Kandakadu and did the tests on the other inmates and found many others too who tested positive.

The issue is that none of these patients showed any symptoms or signs of being ill. The activities at Kandakadu went on as usual and whenever anyone had a cough, cold or fever, the doctor treats these persons and they recover. This was a routine practice and no one thought much about it. Only after this inmate tested positive did we test the others and discover that many more had contracted the virus.

The rehabilitation of drug addicts is a very challenging task and the staff members involved in this process serve with great commitment.

Some quarters are questioning us as to why these inmates were not tested. But in all fairness to the officers at these centres, there was nothing out of the ordinary that warranted such testing.

Cough or cold and slight fever is a common thing at these centres and prompt action had been taken to get medical treatment for them. As there is a doctor visiting the centre daily, there was no concern as we were certain that the doctor could detect if anyone had contracted the virus. Even those who had minor ailments were treated and recovered well. Even one of the officers who was infected had been treated for a mild fever and having recovered after around three days, he had even engaged in his usual physical fitness activities such as his routine jogging without any issue. So no one expected this situation.

Even those who have been moved to the special hospital on the other side after testing positive are leading a normal life and are not showing any symptoms of being ill. This is probably why it was not detected earlier.

However, I don’t think this will have a strong impact on society as the Army and security forces are doing a wonderful job under the directives of the Army Commander, and the military intelligence units have traced all the contacts who had come in contact with these patients and have sent them for treatment or quarantine. Their mechanism is very efficient and effective. The very next day that these people tested positive, the military intelligence managed to trace all their contacts and isolate them to prevent further infection.

Q: Can social distancing be implemented at these centres?

A: This is something special unlike any ordinary hospital. These are drug addicts who most often do not adhere to rules and regulations. Even the staff are specially trained to handle these inmates. Under such circumstances and given the number of inmates and the limited resources, it is impossible to adhere to the required social distancing regulations.

It is not possible practically. In a place where there are around 500 persons accommodated, it is not possible to get them to maintain distance, especially when bathing and so on. Constructing separate bathing and toilet facilities is not practically possible.

One must understand that this facility has been set up to cater to drug addicts and not people who can act rationally.

Q: Based on the location of these facilities, is there a danger of a community spread?

A: Kandakadu is an isolated place and there is little or no danger of it spreading. In fact, even the Kandakadu Quarantine Centre was established there due to its isolation from congested town areas. Within a radius of around four to five kilometres there is no residential area, so there is no possibility of other communities being at risk.

However, in Senapura there are several residential areas in proximity, but we have taken all possible measures to ensure that these communities are not affected.

We have also temporarily stopped the families of these inmates from visiting them at these centres until the infection has been brought under control.

Q: If the 66 drug addicts who were brought to the centre were subjected to quarantine, how do you think the infection got in?

A: We must conduct a thorough investigation into this matter to see how it happened. Although they were sent for quarantine and the PCR tests were conducted, I suspect that due to some technical error, one or two positive cases may have gone undetected. We cannot blame anyone as there is evidence that the virus could surface even after 21 days. Otherwise, there is no possibility at all, as we have only been getting persons from Welikada under court orders. So if it had come from Welikada, then there would have been more cases reported from Welikada. So the only thing we can suspect is that somehow the infection could have crept through one of the 66 who were sent here.

After three months, we only allowed parents to visit their children in July. But we strictly adhered to all the health guidelines and there is no possibility that the infection could have been brought in by any of the relatives.

Hence, I expect the health authorities will do a proper investigation to trace as to how the infection could have got through.

Q: What are the future plans for the Drug Rehabilitation Centres?

A: There is a huge human resource at these drug rehab centres and the majority of them are in the prime of their youth. So we thought why not make use of this resource for the betterment and development of this country and contribute to the country’s economy.

Accordingly, we had several rounds of discussions with the Foreign Employment Bureau and the agencies and they have agreed to find out what jobs are in great demand overseas and in the future we plan to tailor our vocational training courses to suit these requirements. If it is required, we are prepared to give them the needed language training as well. Our aim is to direct them in a productive manner as soon as they complete their rehabilitation, so that they don’t get back to the same circle of drug addicts and fall prey again to drug abuse.

We are in the process of acquiring around 1,000 acres of land from the Mahaweli Authority to initiate a coconut plantation. The Coconut Development Board has already agreed to give us the saplings and the Coconut Research Institute will do soil research and show us the suitable areas for this project.

We have also initiated discussions with the Cashew Corporation to commence a cashew cultivation using the inmates at these centres. The Corporation will assist by providing us with the seeds and the expertise.

Discussions have also been held with the Ayurveda Department and we also had a workshop for our officers to grow herbal plants. The country spends millions of rupees every year to import herbal medicinal plants from India. Hence, we intend to plant these medicinal plants in Sri Lanka under this project, depending on the suitability of the climatic conditions. The produce can be given to the Ayurveda Department.

We also have plans to commence a cement block manufacturing plant, where the cement blocks produced by us can be supplied to low-income families for their construction purposes at only the material cost. Our main aim is to use these drug addicts to contribute productively towards the country’s development without being a burden on the country.

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