Corona overpowers election fever | Daily News


Corona overpowers election fever

The growing global pandemic of the coronavirus (COVID-19) disease has slowly but surely encroached upon Sri Lanka, with the country following a pattern of an exponential growth in the number of cases detected particularly over the last few days.

This is causing significant concern at the highest level of government with worries that, if the virus follows trends noted in other countries, a fully blown epidemic will hit the nation in the next few weeks that could potentially cripple the country.

This is why the government has called for calm, restraint and common sense, urging the public to engage in safe health practices such as frequent hand washing while at the same time avoiding public gatherings that could provide the impetus to spread the disease.

The coronavirus pandemic has also cast a cloud over the ongoing process of nominations for the April 25 general election, due to end today. There have been calls to postpone the poll, but at the time of writing, the government has maintained that there is no reason to reschedule the election.

Origin of the disease

The coronavirus pandemic originated in Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei province in China in December last year. It was detected when a cluster of patients presented with pneumonia that did not respond well to treatment and some of them died. The virus is believed to have an animal origin.

At the time of writing, about 194,000 persons have been infected in about 160 countries worldwide and of them, 7,800 have died. This is a relatively high death rate. It has been noted that the elderly and those whose immunity has been compromised are more susceptible to the disease.

Sri Lanka has now recorded its 43rd case at the time of writing. Nearly 2,000 people are in quarantine or isolation. Lately, there has been a spike in the number of cases being detected. While this is in keeping with known trends, the concern is that this increase could soon reach greater proportions.

Sri Lanka’s first coronavirus patient was detected on January 27, when a 44-year old Chinese female tourist reported sick and was found to have the virus. She was admitted for isolation and treatment to the Infectious Diseases Hospital (IDH) in Mulleriyawa where she made a full recovery.

There was much fanfare when she was discharged from the hospital with the Minister of Health, Pavithra Wanniarachchi attending the occasion and wishing her well. Health authorities were commended for the prompt and efficient manner in which the care of the patient was managed.

Subsequently, the government was very proactive in repatriating thirty-three Sri Lankan students stranded in Wuhan. Sri Lanka, using its good offices with China, was able to send a Sri Lankan Airlines aircraft to Wuhan to bring back the stranded students.

Spread of the disease

This was at a time when Chinese authorities had already placed Wuhan in lockdown in a bid to control the epidemic which was spiralling out of control there. Sri Lanka was only the fourth country allowed to repatriate its nationals from the disease-stricken city.

Those students were placed in quarantine in a makeshift quarantine centre constructed specifically for that purpose at the army camp in Diyatalawa and observed for fourteen days. They were discharged thereafter. None of them had developed the disease. Sri Lankan airlines, health authorities and the Army earned widespread praise for their timely actions.

If the spread of the disease in Sri Lanka appeared to have been controlled until this time, the first weeks of March have brought about an abrupt change. Many attribute this to Sri Lankans arriving from Italy, the Middle East and South Korea carrying the disease with them.

Although it was required that these returnees self-isolate themselves and be quarantined if they had symptoms such as fever, some of them allegedly did not do so. Director General of Health Services Dr. Anil Jasinghe also related how two Sri Lankans travelled to a remote airport in Italy to avoid health screening and took paracetamol tablets to bring their fever down to avoid detection.

This lack of co-operation from the public was causing concern. The Ministry of Defence revealed that over 170 passengers who had returned to Sri Lanka from Korea and Italy had not been subjected to a quarantine process and requested them to contact Police or health authorities.

“They are living with their families. As a precautionary measure, we need to get them into the screening process to detect positive cases to prevent coronavirus spreading further,” Defence Secretary Major General Kamal Gunaratne said.

Currently, patients who have been exposed to the virus and those who have tested positive are being observed and treated in several centres including a quarantine centre in Kandakadu, the Infectious Diseases Hospital in Mulleriyawa and the Polonnaruwa General Hospital.

Among those detected as being positive for the coronavirus were an officer of the Foreign Service, a First Officer of SriLankan airlines and an Army officer who was involved in quarantining returnees from overseas. As a result of the Sri Lankan airlines officer being infected, several airline staff who had come in to contact with him have been sent on leave for observation.

This officer also reportedly attended last weekend’s Royal-Thomian encounter. The Health Ministry said that several individuals who attended the game and were in the same tent as the officer and those who he closely associated with throughout the match and afterwards are being identified to check on their health and to advise them to self-isolate for fourteen days.

In a response to the spread of the disease, the government initially banned travellers from several countries of including Spain, Norway, Switzerland, Belgium, Sweden, Germany, France, Austria, Netherlands, Britain, India, South Korea and Iran.

The doctors’ trade union, the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) also called for drastic measures to curb the pandemic. The union called for a shutdown of all airports and ports and the declaration of public holidays for a period of one week.

“We should send infected people to specific centres. The private sector needs to act responsibly. There is a huge risk to the country by treating COVID-19 patients at facilities not specialised to treat the infected patients. It is the responsibility of the authorities to issue a clear set of guidelines,” GMOA Secretary Dr. Haritha Aluthge said.

On Tuesday, it was announced that all passenger arrivals at Bandaranaike International Airport, Katunayake have been suspended with effect from midnight Wednesday for two weeks. However, no restrictions have been placed on departures.

On Tuesday, the government also announced the creation of a National Operation Centre to deal with the outbreak. It will be headed by Army Commander and Chief of Defence Staff Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva. This Centre will coordinate preventive and management measures to ensure that healthcare and other services are well geared to serve the general public, the government said.

Health practices

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa addressed the nation on Tuesday night regarding the spreading pandemic. He announced a series of measures and requested the public to act with restraint and responsibility and not engage in unsafe health practices.

Also announced were a series of relief measures. These include a reduction in the price of dhal and tinned fish and instructions to banks and other financial institutions to halt the collection of business loan repayments for a period of six months, as businesses could be badly affected by the pandemic.

President Rajapaksa has also directed that no communications by any government agency regarding the pandemic is issued without the prior concurrence of the Presidential Secretariat. This is to curb the flow of conflicting advice emanating from different agencies regarding the spread of the outbreak.

The President was however quick to reassure the public that there was no need to panic. There is no reason to place the country in a ‘lockdown’ state at present, he said. However, a public holiday which was declared on Monday has been extended for three more days. Schools will remain close until mid-April.

At the time of writing, the process of handing over nominations for the April 25 General Elections - which is due to conclude today- is progressing, albeit on a low key. Candidates handing over nomination papers have been instructed to present themselves with only a few supporters instead of gathering in large numbers.

The government is keen for the elections to go ahead and to minimise the disruption to public life. At the same time, it is also eager to make sure that every precaution is taken to minimise the spread of the coronavirus pandemic over the next few weeks which, health experts say, will be crucial in determining how the disease evolves in Sri Lanka.

If the General Election scheduled for April 25 does go ahead, it will probably be a poll like no other the country has witnessed so far, with voter enthusiasm and campaigning dampened not by terrorists or security concerns but by a minute virus that has virtually brought the entire world to a grinding halt.

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