Sri Lanka replaces health minister as COVID outbreak worsens

Pavithra Wanniarachchi, who publicly endorsed sorcery and magic potions to battle the virus, axed as infections and deaths hit record highs.

Sri Lanka’s president has demoted his health minister, who publicly endorsed sorcery and magic potions to battle COVID-19, as infections and deaths hit record highs.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office on Monday said Pavithra Wanniarachchi’s health portfolio had been given to Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella who is also the government spokesman.

Wanniarachchi was in intensive care in January after contracting the virus despite publicly consuming and endorsing a “magic potion” against COVID-19 made by a sorcerer.

She also poured a pot of “blessed” water into a river in November after a self-styled “godman” told her it would end the pandemic in the island nation of 21 million people.

During Wanniarachchi’s tenure, the health ministry came under intense criticism last week for understating coronavirus infections.

Despite the demotion, she will remain in the cabinet – the president gave her the transport ministry.

The number of daily virus deaths crossed 150 in the past week, overwhelming crematoriums.

Daily infections crossed 3,000 and, with hospitals struggling to cope, even government health workers say the actual number of infections could be three times higher.

The government has so far rejected calls for a lockdown to contain the surge, but last week tightened restrictions, imposing a six-hour nightly curfew on shops, restaurants and offices with effect from Monday at 10pm (16:30 GMT).

Weddings and parties have been banned from Tuesday, while state ceremonies and public gatherings are also prohibited until September 1.

In the cabinet reshuffle, Minister of Foreign Affairs Dinesh Gunawardena and Minister of Education Gamini Lakshman Peiris will also swap portfolios.

Prime Minister Rajapaksa’s son Namal Rajapaksa, who is the sports minister, was also given the additional responsibility of overseeing development activities.