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A Pillar Of Sri Lanka’s Economy, Garment Workers Ostracized After A COVID Outbreak At A Factory



Colombo, SRI LANKA — On October 4 this year, a 39-year-old woman from the Brandix garment factory in Minuwangoda tested positive for COVID-19. 

By October 13, Brandix, which makes garments for global brands such as Victoria’s Secret, Gap and Marks & Spencer, was at the heart of an expanding cluster of over 1,500 cases. 

Garment workers were immediately ostracised. The family of that first worker diagnosed with Covid was evicted from their rented home, other Brandix employees reported being denied treatment in hospitals. Staff travelling to work in company buses cowered as people threw stones at the vehicle. 

For J, a 44-year-old garment worker at the Brandix factory, the realisation that her workplace was now a Covid cluster came freighted with discrimination: Local grocery owners, who know where she works, won’t serve her anymore; she and her fellow workers are not welcome on public transport, wary faces greet her in the neighbourhood. J said she no longer feels comfortable wearing her company T-shirt in public; more often than not, it draws the wrong kind of attention. 

Things would get worse: The Brandix factory had spawned a sub-cluster of its own at a regional fish market. Meanwhile, the virus moved quickly through the free trade areas and close-knit neighbourhoods that are home to Sri Lanka’s famous garment industry: other factories in the area reported outbreaks of their own. 

By November 11, the Minuwangoda cluster (now renamed the Divulapitiya cluster) and the fish market cluster accounted for over 11,000 cases or over half the national total, according to Sri Lankan authorities.  The Brandix Factory at Minuwangoda has been closed since October but Covid-19 has now spread to every one of the island’s 25 districts. 

It didn’t have to be like this. Sri Lanka, an island nation of 21 million people, diagnosed its first local Covid-19 case in a tour guide in March (the first reported case was that of a Chinese visitor in January), and quickly went into national lockdown later that month, when the country had  fewer than 100 cases. When the lockdown lifted in May, Sri Lanka appeared to have the virus under control. Weddings resumed, people went to watch Tenet, the new Christopher Nolan film, in the theatre and bars re-opened for happy hour. 

And then the Brandix Cluster emerged, cases rose sharply, and parts of the island are under lockdown once more.

“I was not scared to report for work after the first wave but now I fear a lot,” said J, explaining that her neighbourhood is one of those under lockdown. “There’s a lot of uncertainty over our health, finance and my job as I have been asked to stay home.” 

In a matter of months, Sri Lanka has gone from a success story to a cautionary tale. As policymakers in India, the US and much of Europe grapple with a fresh wave of winter infections, the story of J and her fellow workers at Brandix reveals how governments are struggling to contain the pandemic in the face of a contracting economy and widespread unemployment.

Sri Lanka’s garment industry accounts for almost 7% of its GDP, and provides direct or indirect employment to almost 15% of the national work force according to the country’s Joint Apparel Association Forum.

“The most direct impact in the sector from the pandemic has been on employment and wages,” says Kithmina Hewage, an economist attached to the Institute of Policy Studies.

Now most companies have instituted wage cuts; corporations are scaling back outsourcing even as they adapt their manufacturing processes to cater more to medical supplies like PPE, gloves, masks and so on. 

“The only hope Sri Lanka now has is the textile industry as it is clear that tourism has collapsed due to Covid-19,” said Chamila Thushari, Programme Coordinator at Dabindu Collective, a non-profit who advocate for women’s rights in Sri Lanka’s Free Trade Zones. “We need to have a proper plan to safeguard the frontline workers of the apparel industry amidst this crisis.” So far, she’s not satisfied there is one.

“I wasn’t at all surprised when I heard about the outbreak at Brandix,”

“I wasn’t at all surprised when I heard about the outbreak at Brandix,” said Thushari, explaining that workers had told her that health measures within factory premises could be lax.

Workers said temperature checks were not always conducted, and staff had begun eating together again—but more critically, Thushari said she was worried about what was happening outside the factories. 

The companies were heavily reliant on migrant workers, who left their homes to come and stay in boarding houses. Here, up to 150 of them might share a public well and toilets. Not only did the staff of many factories mingle in these spaces, but the group included workers who might work as cleaners or packers, and moved between factories, sometimes reporting to a new facility every other day. 

Workers were desperate for income. The first lockdown had already taken a toll—while full-time workers were paid half their salaries, temporary staff known as man power workers received nothing, and many couldn’t go back to their towns and villages to collect the aid the government promised to those facing a crunch. Having racked up debts as they tried to live out the curfew in their boarding houses, many workers were taking extra shifts wherever they could find them. 

Taken together, these factors created the ideal conditions for the virus to spread.  

J says the future looks grim. “I managed the lockdown period from the seettu (an informal savings scheme) money that I have saved. I need this money to educate my daughter and take care of my mother but I have hardly been able to send my mother anything. I live in a boarding place owned by one of my relatives and they too face stigma and rejections because of me.” 

This photo taken on October 4, 2020 shows the entrance of Brandix garment factory at Minuwangoda, near the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, where over 1,000 workers tested positive for Covid-19 making it the biggest outbreak of the virus in the country. 

Women are more vulnerable

Sri Lankan women have played a vital role in propping up the national economy since the first Free Trade Zones opened shop in the 1970s. Now, they are disproportionately bearing the costs of the pandemic and the ensuing economic recession.

“Tea, the international migrant worker sector, and garment sector all exploit women’s labour,” said Sandun Thudugala, Head of Programmes at Law and Society Trust in Colombo. “These women workers are the backbone of this country’s economy, and the pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of these people.”

He cites the government’s initial response as an example. As news of the cluster spread, a group of 98 workers, which included pregnant women and children, were taken to quarantine late at night, in some cases apparently against their will. 

“They were given five minutes to pack up and leave their boarding houses. There were no public health inspectors nor women police officers. They were treated not as patients but as criminals,” said Thudugala, who subsequently filed a complaint with Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission.

While there was no official response to the complaint lodged with the Human Rights Commission, Thudugala says there have been no more midnight quarantine runs, and conditions for workers in the quarantine centres have since improved. 

Thushari of the Dabindu Collective says women in isolation in centres and in their homes have struggled to access basics such as menstrual supplies, while incidents of domestic violence have risen amid escalating financial struggles. Outside of home, women workers have found themselves treated as vectors of the deadly disease.

Thudugala points the finger at the local media for generating a great deal of the stigma and fear around the disease. Television crews have made a habit of arriving on people’s doorsteps, and publishing names and locations of those who are suspected of being positive for Covid-19. 

In an attempt to address these issues, Thudugala and others filed a petition in October before the Court of Appeal, stating that ‘effective and efficient guideline and the regulations are required to address the legal issues relating to COVID 19,’ and arguing that among other concerns, it was vital the state enforce clear regulations for media, as well as for health authorities regarding quarantine procedures. Their hearing was postponed to 2021 thanks to the current outbreak, Thudugala notes ruefully.  

The virus is very contagious… but I have to face the fact that I need money for my family and that is why I have to overcome my fear.”

Meanwhile, Brandix has been fending off allegations that the company’s policies and practices resulted in the most recent outbreak. Brandix has categorically denied allegations that it circumvented the rules to bring employees back from the Brandix India Apparel City in Visakhapatnam, India. 

Workers have also alleged that they were forced to work despite reporting a fever, and that when some fainted on the factory floor, water was sprinkled in their faces and they were told to get up and keep working. 

The company hasn’t addressed these claims directly, but Natasha Boralessa — a director at Brandix Apparel Ltd — said the company is still assessing how the virus had entered the factory. Brandix had instituted strict health and safety protocols across all their 27 facilities island-wide and a reputed private medical company, overseen by an Occupational Health & Safety Committee, had been placed in charge of Brandix’s medical centres, she told HuffPost India.

“Since April, the rules of social distancing meant a rearrangement of factory layouts, canteen arrangements, and ensuring that a safe distance was maintained throughout,” Boralessa said over email. “The impact on capacity varied from plant to plant but in general plants were operating at less than full capacity as effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

More details are expected when the findings of an internal investigation are made public. Brandix is also facing an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. Brandix says that as at November 5 2020, 1,439 employees and their family members have been discharged from hospital while a total of 3,673 have been released from quarantine centres to date. 

Among the measures taken by the company have been the creation of a 24-hour call centre for affected employees, with a focus on reuniting families in situations where separations have occurred and ensuring those returning from the quarantine centres are taken care of. 

Employees are also back at work. D, who has been working in the packing division of one of Brandix’s garment factories for the last 8 months said she’s the only one who’s employed in her family and says workers from boarding houses have been told not to report yet. She’s one of the lucky ones – she still lives at home.

For D, every day has taken on a surreal quality. Social distancing is an impossibility at times – they have dedicated transport to work, but just getting on the bus means sitting next to someone. They all sanitize their hands before providing their finger print and logging in for the day, they wear masks and walk through temperature scanners and clean their feet before entering the premises. Toilets are numbered and workers assigned to each one. In the canteen, self-service has been banned and they sit apart. She has heard they may soon be a hostel for workers to live in, and hopes that might be the case. Human Resources calls her frequently and reiterates health guidelines. She’s not sure it will be enough to keep her safe. 

While on the factory floor, 1-metre away from her closest co-worker, D said she finds herself worrying about the future. “The virus is very contagious,” she says, “but I have to face the fact that I need money for my family and that is why I have to overcome my fear.” 


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Sex Toy Company Receives Award From Queen For ‘Outstanding Continuous Growth’



British sex toy company Lovehoney has received a royal seal of approval.

The adult retailer was this week honored with The Queen’s Award for Enterprise “for outstanding continuous growth in overseas sales over the last six years,” per a press release on its website.

The accolade, announced by the official journal of record The London Gazette, allows the company in Bath, southwest England, to fly The Queen’s Awards flag at their office and use its emblem on marketing and packaging materials for five years. It also won the award in 2016.

“We are thrilled to have received official recognition from the Queen,” said Debbie Bond, Lovehoney’s chief commercial officer. “Her Majesty has been a wonderful supporter of Lovehoney as we have grown into being the world’s leading sexual wellness brand.”

“Royal patronage will help us to create more jobs at our Bath headquarters and in our international offices and spread the sexual happiness message globally,” added Bond, who said royal approval shows how shoppers “are embracing sexual wellness products as never before and appreciating their importance in improving overall well-being ― a particularly important message as we come out of lockdown after a stressful year living with the pandemic.”

The first Queen’s Awards — described on the United Kingdom government’s website as “the most prestigious awards for UK business” — were issued in 1966. This year, some 205 companies were honored for their work in innovation, international trade, sustainable development and promotion of opportunity through social mobility.


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Joe Rogan Admits He’s A ‘F**king Moron’ After Offering Selfish COVID-19 Vaccine Advice



Wildly popular podcast host Joe Rogan admitted he’s a “f**king moron” and “not a respected source of information, even for me” when he addressed his selfish comments about young, healthy people not needing to get vaccinated from COVID-19.

Rogan, whose audience is in the hundreds of millions, drew backlash — and a rebuke from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert — when he said on an episode of his “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast released on Spotify last week that “if you’re a healthy person and you’re exercising all the time and you’re young and you’re eating well, I don’t think you need to worry about this.”

On Thursday, Rogan clarified in a video shared on YouTube that he was “not an anti-vaxx person.” “In fact, I said I believe they’re safe and I encourage many people to take them. My parents were vaccinated,” he explained. “I just said, ‘I don’t think that if you’re a young, healthy person that you need it.’ Their argument was, you need it for other people.”

“So you don’t transmit the other virus,” said his cohost.

“That makes more sense,” agreed Rogan. “But that’s a different argument. That’s a different conversation.”

Rogan, whose show was snapped up by Spotify in a $100 million deal last year, later attempted to explain away the comments by saying how he doesn’t plan what he says on air.

He’s often high or drinking alcohol during the shows, he said, before accusing “clickbaity” journalists of blowing his comments out of proportion.

“I’m not a doctor, I’m a fucking moron and I’m a cage fighting commentator who’s a dirty standup comedian who just told you I’m drunk most of the time and I do testosterone and I smoke a lot of weed but I’m not a respected source of information, even for me,” he said.

“If I say things, I’m always going ‘check on that Jamie, I don’t know if that’s true,’” Rogan added. “But I at least try to be honest about what I’m saying.”

A HuffPost Guide To Coronavirus


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Dozens Killed In Stampede At Jewish Religious Festival In Israel



JERUSALEM (AP) — The director of an Israeli ambulance service has confirmed that nearly 40 people died in a stampede at a religious festival in northern Israel.

Eli Beer, director of Hatzalah, said he was shocked by the size of the crowd at the Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mount Meron. Police were quoted as saying some 100,000 people were there.

He told Army Radio that there were four to five times the number of people that should have entered a location like this. “Close to 40 people died as a result of this tragedy,” he said.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS EVENT. AP’s earlier story is below.

A stampede broke out early Friday at a Jewish religious gathering attended by tens of thousands of people in northern Israel, leaving 150 hospitalized, authorities said. Israeli media reported that as many as 44 people were killed and published photos of rows of bodies.

The disaster occurred at Mount Meron at the main celebrations of Lag BaOmer, a holiday when tens of thousands of people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gather to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic who is buried there. Large crowds traditionally light bonfires, pray and dance as part of the celebrations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “great tragedy,” and said everyone was praying for the victims.

 The incident happened after midnight, and the cause of the stampede was not immediately clear. Videos circulating on social media showed large numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews packed together in tight spaces.

A 24-year-old witness, identified only by his first name Dvir, told the Army Radio station that “masses of people were pushed into the same corner and a vortex was created.” He said a first row of people fell down, and then a second row, where he was standing, also began to fall down from the pressure of the stampede.

“I felt like I was about to die,” he said.

Zaki Heller, spokesman for the Magen David Adom rescue service, said 150 people had been hospitalized and confirmed there had been some deaths. Army Radio, citing anonymous medical officials, said the death toll had risen to 44.

Heller told the station “no one had ever dreamed” something like this could happen. “In one moment, we went from a happy event to an immense tragedy,” he said.

Photos from the scene showed rows of wrapped bodies.

The Israeli military said it had dispatched medics and search and rescue teams along with helicopters to assist with a “mass casualty incident” in the area. It did not provide details on the nature of the disaster.

It was the first huge religious gathering to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. The country has seen cases plummet since launching one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns late last year.

Health authorities had nevertheless warned against holding such a large gathering.

But when the celebrations started, the Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, police chief Yaakov Shabtai and other top officials visited the event and met with police, who had deployed 5,000 extra forces to maintain order.

Ohana, a close ally of Netanyahu, thanked police for their hard work and dedication “for protecting the well-being and security for the many participants” as he wished the country a happy holiday.

Netanyahu is struggling to form a governing coalition ahead of a Tuesday deadline, and the national tragedy is sure to complicate those efforts.


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Gabrielle Union Talks Baby Kaavia’s Free Spirit: ‘Shade Is Her Super Power’



Gabrielle Union recently talked about her daughter, Kaavia James, and her funny “shady” moments, characterizing those times as her 2-year-old’s “super power.”

“Shade is her super power because when Kaavia gives you a look, it’s either you’re not respecting her boundaries or something is happening that she doesn’t like,” the actor told People in an interview published Wednesday.

Union and her retired NBA star husband, Dwyane Wade, welcomed Kaavia in November 2018.

The couple has since poked fun at the toddler’s occasional adorably shady facial expressions — and hilarious side-eyes — like when a photo of Kaavia seated on a couch looking pensive and slightly unbothered became a meme last year.

Or when the little one looked less than pleased with the outcome of her face paint design at her second birthday party:

Inspired by Kaavia’s witty personality, Wade and Union created an Instagram account for the little girl, often using the hashtag ”#Shadybaby” in the posts’ captions. The couple also collaborated to write a Kaavia-influenced children’s book titled “Shady Baby” due for release next month.

Union explained in Wednesday’s People interview that she celebrates Kaavia’s freedom to be her authentic self amid a long history of harmful ways Black women and girls have been treated in society.

“The main takeaway is that she’s free to be this amazing, dynamic, shady at times, loving at times Black little girl when the world has not been so kind to Black girls and women,” she added.

In addition to Kaavia, Wade is father to Zaya, Zaire and Xavier. Union and Wade also parent his nephew Dahveon Morris.

Wade told People that he and Union make a point to encourage their children to be their true selves.

“If we allow our kids to be their true selves we don’t have to worry about them conforming with anything or anyone,” he said. “Why wouldn’t we push our kids to be their authentic selves?”

Last month, Kaavia took a side-eyeing break to enjoy a sweet play date with 2-year-old Cairo, the daughter of actors Tia Mowry and Cory Hardrict.

After some hugs, Kaavia generously took Cairo for a spin in her toddler-sized electric car:


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Anne Heche Says Ellen DeGeneres Didn’t Want Her To ‘Dress Sexy’



Anne Heche took an unexpected swipe at former girlfriend Ellen DeGeneres this week during an online fashion retrospective.

In a short TikTok video Tuesday, Heche looked back at some of her favorite looks from years past, including the 1998 VH1 Fashion Awards and a memorable “Dancing with the Stars” routine from last fall.

The actor’s enthusiasm for nostalgia, however, notably dipped when she came upon a photo of her and DeGeneres from the 1998 Golden Globe Awards. The pair appear to have color-coordinated their outfits, with DeGeneres in a navy suit and Heche in a blue velvet gown and matching coat.

“Why do I look like a hippie? It’s because Ellen didn’t want me to dress sexy,” Heche, who has starred in films like “Donnie Brasco” and “Six Days, Seven Nights,” declared. After giving the look a zero out of 10 and a thumbs down, she added, “Bye, no!”

Heche and DeGeneres dated from 1997 to 2000. During their time together, the women were among Hollywood’s most-buzzed-about same-sex couples.

The former couple has remained mostly tight-lipped about the specifics of their relationship in the media. Heche, however, touched on her ex in a number of interviews timed to her appearance on “Dancing with the Stars” last year.

Chatting with Mr. Warburton magazine last year, she recalled angering Hollywood executives when she brought DeGeneres as her date to the premiere of 1997’s “Volcano.”

“I was told by Fox Studio executives that if I brought Ellen to the premiere, my contract would be terminated,” she told the publication. “I brought Ellen despite those threats, and we were escorted out of the theater before the lights came on by security and not allowed to attend the premiere party because they did not want any photos of us together.”

Ellen DeGeneres (left) and Anne Heche at the 1998 Golden Globe Awards.

“I was a part of a revolution that created social change,” she added, “and I could not have done that without falling in love with her.”

In an interview with Entertainment Tonight last October, Heche noted that she hadn’t spoken to DeGeneres “in years,” but would be open to a reunion under the right circumstances.

“With relationships, I think many of us have [been there], you come to a fork in the road, ‘What do you want and what do I want?’” she said. “Those goals, that intent in life, is determined by the individual. Her intent and my intent were different and that’s why we separated.”


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Elliot Page Emotionally Shares What’s Given Him The Most Joy Since Coming Out As Trans



Elliot Page is sharing the moment that has brought him the most joy since he announced he was a transgender man in December 2020.

In a peek at an interview with Oprah Winfrey slated for release on her Apple TV+ series “The Oprah Conversation” on Friday, the 34-year-old said that he’s found “the most joy.”

“Getting out of the shower and the towel’s around your waist and you’re looking at yourself in the mirror and you’re just like, ‘There I am.’ And I’m not having the moment where I’m panicked,” he said, before breaking down in tears. “It’s being able to touch my chest and feel comfortable in my body for the — probably the first time.”

The actor added his tears were “tears of joy.”

Earlier this year, Page talked to Time magazine about his decision to get top surgery and described the experience as something that allowed for him to recognize himself. Page recalled puberty as “total hell” and told the publication that the surgery “has completely transformed my life.”

He also told the publication that he spent much of his energy being uncomfortable with his body and the surgery has helped bring that energy back.

Page notably came out to fans last year with a heartfelt Instagram post, sharing that he would be using the pronouns “he” and “they” and said: “I feel lucky to be writing this. To be here. To have arrived at this place in my life.”

He went on to say: “I love that I am trans,” Page wrote. “And I love that I am queer. And the more I hold myself close and fully embrace who I am, the more my heart grows and the more I thrive.”  


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India Adds Another 379,257 Virus Cases As Vaccines Open To All Adults



NEW DELHI (AP) — India set another global record in new virus cases Thursday, as millions of people in one state cast votes despite rising infections and the country geared up to open its vaccination rollout to all adults amid snags.

With 379,257 new infections, India now has reported more than 18.3 million cases, second only to the United States. The Health Ministry also reported 3,645 deaths in the last 24 hours, bringing the total to 204,832. Experts believe both figures are an undercount, but it’s unclear by how much.

India has set a daily global record for seven of the past eight days, with a seven-day moving average of nearly 350,000 infections. Daily deaths have nearly tripled in the past three weeks, reflecting the intensity of the latest surge. And the country’s already teetering health system is under immense strain, prompting multiple allies to send help.

A country of nearly 1.4 billion people, India had thought the worst was over when cases ebbed in September. But mass public gatherings such as political rallies and religious events that were allowed to continue, and relaxed attitudes on the risks fed by leaders touting victory over the virus led to what now has become a major humanitarian crisis, health experts say. New variants of the coronavirus have also partly led the surge.

Amid the crisis, voting for the eighth and final phase of the West Bengal state elections began Thursday, even as the devastating surge of infections continues to barrel across the country with a ferocious speed, filling crematoriums and graveyards.

A coronavirus patient is shifted to a ward after admission at GTB hospital in New Delhi on April 29, 2021. 

More than 8 million people are expected to vote in at least 11,860 polling stations across the state. Election Commission has said social distancing measures would be in place.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party have faced criticism over the last few weeks for holding huge election rallies in the state, which health experts suggest might have driven the surge there too. Other political parties also participated in rallies.

The state recorded more than 17,000 cases in the last 24 hours — its highest spike since the pandemic began.

Starting Wednesday, all Indians 18 and older were allowed to register on a government app for vaccinations, but social media were flooded with complaints the app had crashed due to high use, and once it was working again, no appointments were available.

The vaccinations are supposed to start Saturday, but India, one of the world’s biggest producers of vaccines, does not yet have enough doses for everyone. Even the ongoing effort to inoculate people above 45 is stuttering.

One state, Maharashtra, has already said it won’t be able to start on Saturday.

Since January, nearly 10% of Indians have received one jab, but only around 1.5% have received both required doses.

Amid the acute shortage of oxygen and other hospital supplies, the White House said the U.S. will send more than $100 million worth of items, including 1,000 oxygen cylinders, 15 million N95 masks and 1 million rapid diagnostic tests. It said they will begin arriving Thursday, just days after President Joe Biden promised to step up assistance.

The U.S. and Britain have already sent a shipment of medical items. France, Germany, Russia, Ireland and Australia have also promised help.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has advised its citizens to leave India. An alert on the U.S. Embassy’s website warned that “access to all types of medical care is becoming severely limited in India due to the surge in COVID-19 cases.”

A HuffPost Guide To Coronavirus


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