Planning for a COVID-19 contingency | Daily News


Planning for a COVID-19 contingency

Police stop motorcyclists during curfew hours in Colombo yesterday. (Picture by Sulochana Gamage)

The entire country has now come to a virtual standstill in the face of the pandemic caused by Covid-19, more commonly known as the Coronavirus. A curfew has been clamped down and when normality returns depends on the spread- or containment- of the deadly disease in Sri Lanka.

At the time of writing, the number of infected persons has hit the 100-mark, with a total of 102 identified cases. Three of them are critically ill and are being cared for in Intensive Care Unit (ICU)s. While two persons have recovered from the infection, there are 100 patients with active illness.

A further 229 persons are under observation, having thought to have been exposed to the virus and are in various stages of quarantine. A total of over 1,700 tests have been carried out. The majority of reported cases have been recorded in the three populous districts of Colombo, Kalutara and Gampaha.

A factor causing concern for health authorities is the rate of local transmission. While just over 60 per cent of the cases have acquired the disease overseas, just under 40 per cent have contracted the illness locally. This means that there could be many other persons who have been infected locally but who have not been detected yet. That is why epidemiologists are worried that they are only seeing the ‘tip of the iceberg’.

The health crisis sparked by Coronavirus has crippled health systems in more developed countries. Countries as advanced as the United States, France, Spain and Italy are in the throes of an epidemic that has brought their hospital networks to a standstill, unable to cope with the daily influx of patients. The results are devastating: thousands of new cases and hundreds of deaths on a daily basis.

As such, the emphasis for countries such as Sri Lanka which has limited resources in its health system is on preventing the spread of the disease. That is why the government last week went full steam ahead with a series of drastic measures to try and achieve this. If there was previous consideration given to maintaining a semblance of normality in daily life, that was abandoned.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made an address to the nation, explaining the measures taken by the Government to combat the epidemic. In doing so, the President’s frustration about the lack of discipline and self-restraint was obvious. In particular he referred to the Royal-Thomian big match being staged as scheduled and pilgrimages still being undertaken to Adams Peak- an indication that the public had failed to grasp the seriousness of the pandemic.

Last week, Monday was initially declared a public holiday with mercantile institutions expected to follow suit. Thereafter, the holiday was extended until Thursday. The public returned to work on Friday. However, it was then announced that a curfew would be enforced from 6 p.m. on Friday.

This led to crowds thronging shops, markets and supermarkets. Public transport, stretched at the best of times, was overflowing as workers attempted to get home to beat the curfew deadline. This decision attracted criticism because it did little to prevent the congregation of people, a decisive factor in the spread of the disease.

However other measures have earned praise from the public. Since the curfew has been imposed, the Army, Police and health authorities have been lauded for their commitment to the cause of containing the epidemic and the manner in which they have dealt with challenging circumstances.

A series of other measures went in to force. The country closed its borders, shutting down all incoming flights. Departing flights were still allowed. Prior to that, the Government had to ensure that arrangements were made to bring down groups of Sri Lankans stranded overseas- such as those on pilgrimage in India- back to the country.

However, there are other groups of Sri Lankans who still remain overseas, who wish to return to the country. The Sri Lanka Association of Bangladesh, which has about 450 members has written to President Rajapaksa asking for a relaxation of travel restrictions to return to Sri Lanka. Similarly, the Sri Lankan embassy in Myanmar has advocated the evacuation of Sri Lankans in that country, numbering about 200. As most countries act to seal their borders, these requests will need to be dealt with by diplomatic channels.    

The Government also announced a raft of financial and other concessions in the wake of the Coronavirus crisis. These concessions which include grace periods for the payment of loans and other rebates have been offered because the disruption caused by the pandemic would inevitably affect the cash flow of the average wage earner. Similar measures have been enacted in several other countries.

On Monday, President Rajapaksa issued a special gazette notification that empowered the Army, Navy and the Air Force to be called in to enforce law and order and maintain peace throughout the country. This will be valid for an initial period of one month. This was seen as necessary as there was a possibility that the curfew that was enforced may be quite prolonged, until the health crisis is declared over.      

There were a few controversies that were encountered in the process. It emerged that several Sri Lankans who had returned from Italy had evaded quarantine. Some had left from the BIA itself; others were reported to have absconded from a bus that was transporting them to a quarantine centre.

As Italy emerged as the epicentre of the epidemic in Europe and began surpassing China as the country suffering the highest death toll, there were fears- and indeed, public anger- that the returnees from Italy could spread the disease in Sri Lanka. Some criticism was also directed at the Government for not ensuring that these returnees were not securely transported to quarantine centres directly from the airport in the manner that students returning from Wuhan in China were escorted to the quarantine centre in Diyatalawa.

Health authorities and security personnel pooled their resources in trying to locate these persons. On Monday night, the Government went to the extent of publishing a ‘wanted’ listed of twelve persons who had returned from Italy and were evading quarantine.

This list included nine children. Later, the Government withdrew the name of one person from that list, stating that she had already left the country for France. A significant reason for returnees from Italy not turning themselves in for quarantine was the fact that they were in that country illegally and therefore feared prosecution or the prospect of not being able to return to Italy.

Indeed, the Italian embassy in Colombo appeared to confirm this when it issued a statement on Tuesday. In a statement, it said that “the returnees from Italy referenced in recent news publications have never obtained a visa from this Embassy, nor have ever requested one”.

On Tuesday, the Government also announced that the curfew in the Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara districts will continue until further notice as these have been identified as high-risk zone in the Coronavirus epidemic. While these three districts recorded the highest numbers of detected cases, it was also noted that compliance with health measures in these regions was poor, with people congregating in large numbers to collect essential provisions.

To circumvent this, the Government has directed wholesale dealers to deliver essential consumer goods to the doorstep of each household until the situation is brought under control. This will be done through the country’s larger supermarket networks. Providing these essential consumer goods such as food, medicine, gas and other services was due to commence yesterday.

Political differences between major parties, even in the face of an impending General Election which has now been postponed indefinitely, have been put side while the country deals with the Coronavirus epidemic. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa met with leaders of political parties represented in Parliament on Tuesday to apprise them of the measures taken to deal with the crisis as well as to seek the views of these parties.

At this meeting, the Director General of Health Services Dr Anil Jasinghe informed party leaders and their representatives on the present situation in the country. The provision of essential commodities to the public as well as cushioning the economic impact of the epidemic were discussed by those present.

Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Former President Maithripala Sirisena, Former Minister Basil Rajapaksa, Ministers Dinesh Gunawardena, Bandula Gunawardena, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Wimal Weerawansa, former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem and former Parliamentarians M.A. Sumanthiran and Udaya Gammanpila attended this meeting.

The question policy makers and health professionals are asking is whether the worst of the epidemic is yet to come and whether Sri Lanka will face an overwhelming situation as that witnessed in Italy and China. It is possible to avoid such a crisis by adopting stringent health measures but these need to be enforced with military precision because the average citizen cannot be relied upon to adhere to them at all times. That is the overarching challenge facing health authorities and the Government in Sri Lanka right now.  

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