FOR three months Sri Lankans watched the burgeoning coronavirus crisis in other parts of the world with a measure of equanimity as something that was faraway and international rather than national. There was a belief that the country’s warm climate would better protect it against inroads by COVID-19. More than the discovery of the first 28 victims of the virus as of Monday it has been the decisiveness of the government’s delayed response that has caused a measure of alarm. Initially the government imposed quarantine restrictions on those passengers coming from countries that had already been affected by the global pandemic and followed this up by stopping the issuance of visas and flights from them.
However, the seriousness of the crisis dawned when the government closed all schools for over a month. The closure of schools has been followed by a government directive that all public events and meetings be postponed and that the police have been given orders to take action against those who violate the directive. The unexpected declaration of Monday as a public holiday, followed by a further three day holiday, is a confirmation of the threat that lies ahead along with the uncertainty of what next. The video images of overflowing hospitals in Italy and the inhumane choices facing health workers there as to who should be given priority to life-sustaining machines has highlighted the importance of Sri Lanka avoiding going down that path at all costs.
The rationale for the government’s actions can be understood by studying the Chinese success in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic. They imposed lockdowns of entire cities and regions to minimise the possibility of human travel and interaction. The logic is that the lesser the number of human interactions, the slower will the virus spread. This gives more scope for the country’s health system to cope with the numbers who are infected unlike in Italy where the numbers suddenly shot up. News media has reported that in addition China ordered school closures, no films, no malls, no non-essential businesses open and most bank branches closed. Businesses get sprayed with disinfectant. Street fumigation takes place regularly. Building sterilisation takes place several times a day.
DESPITE the economic costs the government has made a timely decision to tackle the COVID-19 threat. It has sought to restrict the mobility of people and their interactions in large numbers to slow down the rate of infection. The number of infected persons will grow for some time, but the rate of increase can be reduced. But even in China, which is a success story of disaster response once the nature of the disaster was understood, the number of those who were infected continues to rise. The total number of diagnosed cases has climbed to over 81,000 based on World Health Organisation figures. The virus has spread to over 140 countries and territories. The global death toll has crossed 5,700, with more than 152,000 confirmed cases worldwide, according to the WHO, which declared the outbreak a pandemic.
The challenge for the government is its willingness to pay the political and economic costs that might be required for the people’s best interests. There is mixed evidence in this regard but overall the government has been proactive and acted earlier than many other more developed countries. On the one hand, the government took an early and necessary decision to set up quarantine centres and to order all passengers who suspected themselves to be infected or who came from coronavirus affected countries to undergo 14 days of quarantine. On the other hand, the government changed its original decision to set up a quarantine centre near to the airport due to protests from by influential government politicians and the local population who stake a claim to live there. Instead it ended up with the decision to take those who are in the categories who require quarantine to the distant Eastern province.
The most significant issue on which the government needs to consider the people’s interest is with regard to the exception it has made for Chinese citizens to enter the country without restriction. This has nothing to do with being anti-Chinese, but the fact that China like 140 other countries continues to struggle to contain the pandemic. The head of the Government Nursing Officers Association, Saman Ratnapriya has questioned why China has been excluded from the two-week-long suspension of visas to foreign nationals. The former opposition MP who is also the president of the Government Nursing Officers Association said that approximately 300 Chinese recently entered the country without being quarantined. The government spokesperson’s justification is that China has successfully contained the pandemic. But this does not mean that China is COVID- 19 free.
THE media recently reported that China was to provide financial assistance, medications, medical equipment or anything required to fight against COVID-19. This is very important to Sri Lanka, and the Chinese government is to be commended for being willing to assist Sri Lanka in its time of need. The COVID-19 crisis will exacerbate the economic problems as the economy slows down as supply chains break down. Stock market trading had to be suspended on two days due to its precipitous fall by five per cent on each day. The tourism industry in particular is suffering heavily as foreign tourists can no longer come in without being subjected to quarantine and visas to many countries are no longer given.
The second major issue that the government will need to consider is the general election that is due on April 25. Both president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and election commission chairman Mahinda Deshapriya have stated that the elections will be held on schedule. There is a need for elections to be held as parliament has been dissolved. On the other hand, all government ministries are in place and can function under the leadership of the president and prime minister. The war against COVID-19 needs to be given the utmost priority. Already the government has deployed the military, which is the most disciplined and best funded of all the state services, to take the lead in the battle.
In this time of crisis and with fear increasing in society, the state and public service needs to be focusing its attention on public health, public order and social welfare related issues and give less emphasis to less urgent issues. The government’s sudden decision to declare Monday as a public holiday, prohibition of on the conduct of events and to shut all the schools and universities for a month is an indication of the gravity of the situation and measures to come in the form of restrictions on movement and on large gatherings. An election at this time would require a massive diversion of human and economic resources to election related issues. The Chinese example must guide Sri Lanka at the present time.
Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.
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