A welcome move | Daily News

A welcome move

The islandwide lockdown has been extended till October 1, a move that was anticipated following strong appeals from the medical fraternity. The country has been under lockdown for nearly a month now, with tangible results in the form of reduced COVID case numbers and deaths. Doctors believe that extending the lockdown into the first or second week of October could bring these numbers down further.

The Government’s initial reluctance to impose a lockdown was understandable, as all sectors of the economy are adversely affected when the country is closed. The main concern was about the plight of the eight million or so daily wage earners who lose their livelihoods almost overnight whenever a lockdown is imposed.

The Government has since evolved mechanisms to look after this segment and also allowed many informal sectors to function in spite of the lockdown. This has enabled most, if not all, of the daily wage earners and self-employed persons to earn a living, albeit on a reduced scale.

Imposing a lockdown is never an easy decision for any country, even a developed one. New Zealand recently imposed a lockdown when some cases were discovered there and the authorities expressed regret about the inconvenience caused to the public. Lockdowns are especially harsh for developing countries such as Sri Lanka, which is reeling from the adverse effects of the pandemic including a foreign exchange crisis, loss of tourism and remittance income, loss of jobs and livelihoods, a strained health system and a general downturn of the economy.

Conversely, the argument of medical professionals is also true. The people should survive first for the economy to function at least to some degree. Nearly 12,000 deaths and 500,000 patients are huge numbers, given that the country’s population is only 22 million. Among these patients are those who are economically active. Their absence from jobs and other economic ventures is a huge loss for the economy. Moreover, the phenomenon of Long COVID means that some recovered patients may suffer from various symptoms for nearly a year, minimizing their contribution to the economy.

In addition to all these losses, the State has to bear a huge burden in terms of the costs for COVID treatments, purchase of medicine and equipment, PCR and Antigen Tests and import of vaccines. This amount has been estimated at Rs.700 billion so far, not counting the economic cost of the pandemic, estimated at over Rs.1,600 billion. These are huge amounts which could have gone for development and social welfare at any other time.

But at the rate that infected numbers were reported, there was a danger of a massive tidal wave of infections that would have overwhelmed our hospitals and Intermediate Treatment Centres. Since public cooperation with regard to the existing health regulations and restrictions was also minimal, a total lockdown that minimises public movements and gatherings was the only available option. This is an option aimed at saving lives in the short and medium term.

While the most obvious aim of the Quarantine Curfew is to keep people indoors and limit their movements, there is another aim. There are still thousands of people aged 60 and over who have evaded COVID vaccination so far. Given that most of the COVID deaths reported during the last few weeks were of unvaccinated individuals aged over 60, it is imperative that all those over 60 who have still not had the shot are found and given it. The Quarantine Curfew will make it easier for the Police and Health Services to track down such individuals with the help of Grama Sevakas and Divisional Secretariats during the next few days. If, among them there are persons who cannot go to a vaccination centre due to mobility, old age or disability issues, arrangements can and should be made for in-situ vaccination.

In the meantime, we should take a cue from countries that already have a high rate of vaccination and are trying to “live with the virus”. Among these countries are Singapore, UK, Denmark, Thailand, South Africa and Chile. Their approaches vary, but each one is a case study. The virus will be with us for some more years and we will have to live with it after it becomes an endemic disease, like we do with the common cold or the Flu.

Right now, however, vaccination and the ensuing herd immunity is the only way out of this pandemic. Lockdowns can help to a great extent to minimise the community spread, but they cannot be imposed for months on end. In any case, lockdowns are not a long-term measure. The only hope lies in vaccinating ideally the entire population, failing which everyone above 12 must be vaccinated (only a very few countries are so far vaccinating anyone below 12).

Judging by the rapid progress of the islandwide vaccination drive, this should be possible by mid-next year. The Government is also mulling booster shots for health workers, which can be extended to the general population should the need arise. Hence all should cooperate to make the inoculation drive a success in order to return to normality as soon as possible.

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