Meeting the COVID-19 challenge | Daily News


Meeting the COVID-19 challenge

Sri Lanka’s current situation may seem favourable with only one case of the disease and that, too, with successful recovery, but the emergent global epidemic of COVID-19 bodes ill for the world in the coming months.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been pro-active from the very outset when the epidemic broke out and last Friday, following the success of the initial medical emergency response, the President set up a special ‘task force’ of experts and bureaucrats to meet the crisis and has called for a ‘scientific response’. The task force is to design and set up the machinery and infrastructure to contain the epidemic and also to meet longer term repercussions.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has designated the epidemic as a ‘global emergency’ and has now designated the whole world as being at ‘very high risk’. Most experts caution that the disease itself is currently not as dangerous or destructive as some other epidemics such as AIDS or Ebola or even severe influenza.

But no one wants yet another health disaster and, hence, the global response. In any case it is a new disease and needs quick action not only to prevent further spread but also to put in place proper medical treatment, a cure and permanent prevent (inoculation).

The WHO’s Situation Report says there are now 101,927 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide and 3,073 deaths so far. Outside China, WHO records 21,110 confirmed cases and 413 deaths so far in 93 countries/territories.

Given the speed with which this epidemic has spread – thanks to the constant and rapid movement of people in these modern times - Sri Lanka must be considered fortunate. We have actually not experienced a single confirmed case among our citizenry. The sole confirmed case so far was the single Chinese visitor who was quickly taken into the care of our State-run healthcare system and, having recovered quickly, has already gone back home.

Since her departure, the country could be said to be currently ‘safe’ with no confirmed cases and only a few hundred ‘suspect cases’ (those showing similar symptoms) who are under strict monitoring by State healthcare. Nevertheless, the continued rapid spread of the contagion and the lack of a cure means that we remain at the threshold of a possible health disaster.

The efficacy of the country’s State healthcare system (often criticised for its lapses) has, yet again, been proven, together with the expertise and dedication of our medical professionals. But illnesses need the co-operation of the patients to ensure treatment. Likewise, a potential epidemic needs the wholehearted co-operation of the threatened community to ensure avoidance or mitigation.

Unless a scientific response failure leads to a global catastrophe, most experts predict that the epidemic will continue and possibly worsen before it is contained. Disease control experts estimate that a proper vaccine will take several more months or even a year to be developed.

The required societal response needs the contribution of more than the health system, and its professionals – even if they benefit from an imaginative and meticulous leadership by the nation’s President.

The news media has a responsibility to ensure that the public is kept fully informed of the real picture at all times. The news media must collaborate with the authorities in sending the necessary messaging to citizens on measures to be taken not only to avoid the disease but also ensure quick treatment in order to prevent its spread.

The only way this epidemic can be contained at present - until a vaccine is invented – is by voluntary action by every single person to act responsibly in the case of even suspect symptoms. People must be alert enough to identify symptoms – they are very similar to common influenza – and resort to medical attention without delay. In fact, people with suspect symptoms must take personal precautions even as they go to seek treatment.

The wearing of medical face masks is primarily not avoid infection by others but to save others from any symptoms that you might be experiencing. And the public at large must get used to the wearing of such masks and not react negatively to this new practice.

Fortunately, Sri Lankans are experienced in dealing with emergencies that hit the whole population. The 1940s saw a massive societal voluntary response to mitigate Malaria. In recent years the value of a State-run free medical system has been proven time and again in all kinds of emergencies ranging from Dengue, to HIV, to natural disasters and even war and terrorism.

But COVID-19 is not merely about a health emergency. The global scale of the epidemic and, especially, its characteristic of rapid spread, has already resulted in a worldwide economic slowdown, not least because it began in the economy of the world’s biggest producer, China. Already, many countries not affected at all by COVID-19 have been affected by the China’s economic slowdown due to the epidemic.

While exports to China’s massive market are hit, likewise, imports from China of things vital to various developing economies – from manufactures components to machinery, equipment and logistics – have slowed down. Sri Lanka’s Chinese tourist influx has declined by 90 per cent while the general global slowdown in tourism means that other markets will not offset the shortfall.

Thus, the whole nation and all its various stakeholders, from business to civil society, must now come together to meet this challenge of a new global disease that is also afflicting life as whole worldwide.

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