The globe was hit by three major pandemics in the 20th century, the Spanish Influenza (Great Influenza Pandemic) during 1918-1920, the Asian Influenza in 1957 and the Hong Kong Influenza (1968) in which the great influenza was the most severe. Researchers have highlighted three major health disasters observed in the early part of the 21st century, SARS (2003), H1N1 Influenza (2009) and sporadic H5N1 influenza virus. The year 2019 marks another milestone of the world history by the recurrence of another global health disaster called Coronavirus or COVID-19 after about 100 years from the 1918-20 Great Influenza Pandemic.
Given the nature of the virus and its spread, the COVID 19 is estimated to have a far reaching impact in terms of mortality, health risks, socio-economic and political impact on nation states and countries. The COVID 19, beyond its impact on health expenditures and mortality, has seriously affected stock-markets, financial stability, interest rates, public spending and borrowings, banking and financial sector, etc. The real sector of a country has also been seriously affected as the pandemic led to low production of goods as well as services such as tourism industry, operations of ports, harbours and airports, international trade and labour migration, etc. There is a greater degree of uncertainty around the final scale of COVID-19 and its economic implications on country-wise and global economies as the state of the life-cycle of the virus is still unknown. The immediate future of any country/state in the face of COVID-19 is bleak and nobody knows when, where and at what level the virus hits back.
The preparedness planning for a pandemic requires balancing two policy strands:
(i) Mitigate the pandemic and save lives through educating and encouraging people to follow good health practices, maintaining social distancing, and implementing highest level of health precautionary and readiness measures; and
(ii) Maintain business and economic activity as usual as much as possible and thereby minimizing economic costs and hardships.
The promotion of good health practices and health preparedness will help mitigate and control the spread of the pandemic and save lives while the continuation of economic activity as usual prevent the loss of livelihood and income. In a situation of great potential risk of losing living and income, public responses may exaggerate the spread of the pandemic making both health and economic losses greater. Similarly, in a situation of highly spreading pandemic efforts taken towards continuation of business activity become futile as malfunctioning or partial closedown of economic sectors and centres may lead to high inefficiency and low productivity. Therefore it seems that there is a mutually reinforcing nature of health and economic effects of a pandemic.
Like in other countries, the COVID-19 has already made a significant impact on the economy of Sri Lanka in addition to its eminent impact on the public health, burden of government’s health budget and mortality of people. By 17th of February 2021, about 75,000 cases of confirmed corona patients and about 390 deaths have been reported in the country. This indicates a low level of corona mortality rate (0.52%) compared to an estimated global coronavirus death rate of 5%. However, from 10th of March, the date the first local corona case reported, to the 1st of October 2020, there were only 3380 confirmed cases and only 13 deaths. This indicates that the number of cases and deaths have been increased exponentially by more than 22 times and 30 times respectively in a period of just about four months, from October 2020 to February 2021. This indicates an alarming situation of the pandemic in the country which is getting worse as the government fails to implement appropriate policy measures to contain the spread of the virus.
In response to the reporting of the first local coronavirus case in 10th March 2020, the government of Sri Lanka rapidly introduced island-wide lockdown measures within six days with the prime objective of protecting lives. These policy responses include quick actions on enforcing social distancing, lockdown measures, quarantine process, delivering foods and essential services and providing relief measures to people who lost their income sources. This complete shutdown of the country and isolation of people for about three months have restricted most of economic activities, especially industrial and services sectors and created huge economic impact island-wide. The government had to inject more money to provide public health protection systems and relief packages for the vulnerable groups and loss of livelihoods. It has significantly affected the country’s main foreign exchange earning sectors such as garment industries, travel and tourism services, tea exports, labour migration, ports, harbours and airport operations, etc.
Facing the pandemic in the long-run, as recommended by the United Nations, however requires strengthening capacity and preparedness of the health system, scaling up of social protection policies and efforts, improving the distribution system of foods and essential items, securing sufficient and fair learning opportunities for all children and youth, protecting workers from health risks in the work place, protecting jobs and income sources, ensuring continuous operation of business sector, improving community resilience, ensuring equal treatment and service delivery among different groups, promoting social dialogue, protecting fundamental freedom and the Rule of Law, assessing short-term and long-term fiscal situation and financing options, and undertaking short-term and long-term policy reforms for financing the log-term recovery and development process.
The quick policy responses of the government to contain the spread of the pandemic and precautionary behaviour adopted by the public was instrumental in the successful control of the first wave of the pandemic in the country. In October 2020, the second wave of the pandemic occurred especially with the Western province as the epicentre. Contemplating about the non-threatening effects (low death rate), high economic costs in terms of loss of livelihoods, income sources and heavy relief measures and the burden on the public exchequer, the government adopted ‘a wait and see policy’ and did not impose island-wide lockdown measures and restrictions. This policy response indicates a clear government policy shift in response to the two waves of the pandemic:
(i) First wave –attempt to save life- impose immediate lockdown measures, provide full information of the pandemic for the public, educate and encourage people to follow good health practices and maintain social distancing and implement protection measures for vulnerable;
(ii) Second wave- attempt to save economy- maintain business and economic activity as usual as much as possible by downplaying the severity of the pandemic, highlighting high recovery rates and low mortality and not preparing the supportive mechanism for the long-run as highlighted by the United Nations. Especially, high attention should be given to testing and detection, isolation, virus-free transportation, worker protection at work place, promoting good health practices, increasing health budgets, regular assessment and monitoring, etc.
Adopting a passive policy to protect economic activity without sufficient protective and controlling mechanism may be too dangerous as it increases the vulnerability and the contagion effect. As is evident in the second wave, the pandemic has been penetrated into the community, though the government is still reluctant to accept it, and as a result more cases and deaths are reporting daily.
One would emphasize that the government of Sri Lanka has failed in the fight against corona, especially in the second wave, because of few reasons given below:
(i) Less faith of health expertise but more faith on military mighty
(ii) Less faith on science but more faith on myth
(iii) Less faith on value of life but more faith on value of money
(iv) Less faith on public welfare but more faith on crony welfare
(v) Less faith on public views but more faith on self-regard.
Sri Lanka is one of few countries which rely more on military mighty in the fight against the pandemic. Contrary to the accepted norms in situations of health disasters, the government of Sri Lanka had more faith on military involvement in the combat of corona virus. This is evident with the appointment of the army commander as the head of the task force of corona control. Ideally this responsibility should be assigned to health experts who can take prompt actions in all aspects of the fight against the virus with adequate support from other sectors/ institutions. To make the matters worse, the government has appointed district wise army commanders as the chiefs of district level corona control committees. These committees should also ideally lead by District Secretaries or district level health experts again with adequate support from health staff, police, defence forces and other institutions. Here I do not totally negate the involvement of defence forces including the police in the fight against the virus. However, this pandemic control is not a military offense and it involves lot of individual and social aspects including responsible behavours, habits and attitudes, family and social responsibilities, civic rights, etc. which can be inculcated in a democratic nature of operation. The use of force to change lawful behaviours, habits and attitudes, family and social responsibilities, civic rights of people will be bounced back as civilized societies tend to reject military presence in their day to day affairs. The presence of military leadership at district or provincial level corona fighting committees may restrict or prevent public officers, civil society representatives and others from the true discussion of the pandemic. Further, the involvement of benevolent health expertise in the fight against corona virus was undermined by removing capable persons and bringing parrot-like officers to cheat people and spread wrong information. Still these so called health experts of the ministry of health were not able to detect community level spread of the pandemic in the country. For various reasons, this has resulted in falsifying the true state of the pandemic and keeping the public in dark which makes the pandemic worse.
It seemed that some politicians and Buddhist monks together used myths and mythology to mischief people of the country during the last presidential election. During the pandemic, we observe that the government from its top to bottom promotes the myth than the science against the corona fight. Starting from Dammika paniya, the minister of health, speaker, state minsters tried to promote “god given” prescription than vaccination and river dropping pots than practicing good health. The corona victimization of politicians who tried to promote myth is an ironical situation as it indicates that pandemics do not listen to myth and god given prescriptions. The state sponsored cultivation of disbelief has exaggerated the pandemic as the general public thought that good health practices are of secondary importance.
The fight against the second wave of the corona virus pandemic in Sri Lanka took a new twist when the government turned its policy from saving lives to saving income as the prime objective. To make the objective of saving the economy in a pandemic situation requires adequate efforts on containing the pandemic. Before the opening up of economic activities, the government should make sure that adequate health precautions have been made to make sure the conduct of sufficient amount of tests, maintaining hygiene and good health practices in work places and transportation, conduct of regular assessment and monitoring on ground condition, initiating adequate research on the dynamic nature of the pandemic. Efforts to save the economy become futile in a situation where adequate precautionary measures are not implemented and as a result the pandemic tends to spread exponentially. The opening of business at the peak of pandemic without sufficient health precautions will not generate its best possible outcome but lead to malfunctioning and inefficient business sector. Schools are opened but majority of students are at home following online tuition classes. Universities are opened but students are kept away from classrooms, labs, libraries and research centres. Hospitals are opened but patients fear to visit them and doctors fear to treat patients. Government offices, private businesses and factories are opened with restricted operations. The failure of the corona fighting committees to provide accurate and detail information of the pandemic has created a situation where the general public has no information on pandemic laden palaces. Finally the passive nature of government effort to control pandemic leads to inefficient and malfunctioning economy and it may also create a greater health risk to the public.
The opponents of the government complain that the government has allowed some of its supporters and cronies to garner undue benefits through corona pandemic. Favouritism for selected hotels in the quarantine process, issues related to air travel ticketing of incoming pandemic affected migrant workers, opening tourism for selected businessmen, issuing import licences of protective gears to selected businessmen, are few examples that the public is in the opinion that unfair treatment can be seen. The government has mostly neglected the hardships faced by virus infected individuals and families, migrant workers, small scale businesses and employees in the tourism and other highly vulnerable sectors, and the general public, especially in the second wave of the pandemic.
The general public through social media has continuously demanded from the government to completely shut-down the country for about 2-3 weeks since the reporting of Minuwangoda and Paliyagoda clusters in October 2020. The people’s views are correct. Had the government shut-down the entire country for 3 weeks or even a month that time, the second wave of the pandemic could not have created the pathetic situation that the country is now experiencing. As there is no vote (election) pending at the time, people’s views are not that important and the government easily kicks the public views off and sticks to its hegemonic decision “not to shut down no matter who is demanding it (shut-down)”. The genuine concerns and wish of the people are thrashed into the bin to stand on self-regard of one or few individuals.
The Corona virus pandemic of the country has reached a new phase with the presence of rapidly spreading new variants. Though the vaccination process has been started, complete reliance on the vaccine might be another pitfall as the degree of the efficacy of the vaccine is still questioned. With immediate action to parading all forces for the fight against the pandemic, the government should place more confidence on health sector in handling the pandemic and prepare the public for cooperation by providing them with true information of the pandemic and required resources and assistance.
Lanka Newsweek © 2021