COVID-19 has already made a significant impact on the economy of Sri Lanka in addition to its eminent impact on public health, burden on government’s health budget and mortality of people. By 30th of April 2021, about 108,130 cases of confirmed corona patients and about 678 deaths have been reported in the country. The mortality rate has been increased from 0.38% by October 2020 to 0.63% by April 2021, getting it increasingly deadly. However, from 10th of March 2020, the date the first local corona case reported, to the 1st of October 2020, there were only 3380 confirmed cases and 13 deaths. This indicates that the number of cases and deaths have been increased exponentially by more than 32 times and 52 times respectively in a period of mere six months, from October 2020 to April 2021. From 15th -30th April more than 12,000 new cases were reported and it indicates an alarming spread of the pandemic in the country immediately after the Sinhala and Tamil new festive season.
In response to the reporting of the first local coronavirus case in 10th March 2020, the government of Sri Lanka quickly introduced island-wide lockdown measures 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 a huge economic impact. 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. The quick policy responses of the government to contain the spread of the pandemic and precautionary behaviour adopted by the public was instrumental in controlling the first wave of the pandemic in the country.
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 businesses, improving community resilience, ensuring equal treatment and service delivery among different groups, promoting social dialogue, protecting fundamental freedom and the Rule of Law, and undertaking short-term and long-term policy reforms for financing the log-term recovery process. The way in which the government handles the pandemic control system at present seriously questions the adoption of above requirements in the short-run as well as the long-run. The
In October 2020, the second wave of the pandemic occurred especially with the Western province as the epicentre. Contemplating about the non-threatening effects of the pandemic (low death rate), high economic costs in terms of loss of livelihoods and income sources, and heavy relief measures and the burden on the Treasury, 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: First wave –attempt to save life, Second wave- attempt to save economy.
Under the slogan of saving the economy, the government tried to maintain business and economic activity as usual as much as possible. In order to make the economy going the government and health authorities downplayed the severity of the state of the pandemic and highlighted high recovery and low mortality rates. However, the government failed to ensure the preparation of supportive mechanism for the long-run economic operations as highlighted by the United Nations. The government did not pay much attention to testing and detection, social distancing, virus-free transportation, worker protection at work place, promotion of good health practices, supplement budgetary provisions for new requirements, and regular assessment and monitoring.
Adopting a passive pandemic control policy to protect economic activity without sufficient protective and controlling mechanism is too dangerous as it increases the vulnerability and the contagion effect. As evident in the second wave, the pandemic has been penetrated into the community, though the government was reluctant to accept it, and as a result more and more cases and deaths were reported. It was evident by February and March that the government almost totally ignored the pandemic and even slowed down or stopped testing, detecting and monitoring process.
Further, interests and enthusiasm on vaccination have also been faded and the government did minimum to secure sufficient vaccines. There were concerns over the laxity of the government on the continuation of corona control mechanism, especially during the great festive season of the country, Sinhala and Tamil New Year period, as it could lead to another massive wave of the pandemic. Though various quarters such as benevolent health authorities, professionals, politicians, civil society organizations, general public made repeated requests to impose at least partial restriction on movement of people, the government ignored all such requests and even downplayed the risk of the resurge of the pandemic.
The corona controlling mechanism of the country became faded and unattended, people gathered and gathered in and around shops and they enjoyed the new-year in a world that the corona was never existed. The sweetness of the new-year did not last long as the government has made a sudden woke up with surging number of pandemic cases, increased deaths and presence of new deadly variants of the virus. Over the last few days about 1500 daily cases were reported which is about 8-10% of tests conducted.
The health authorities have named the new surge of the pandemic as “Aurudu pokura”, but it is not a cluster, the entire society and the entire country. The celebration of new-year has ended up with closing schools, pre-schools, universities and tuition classes again inland-wide and is now boiled down to the loss of education of children and youth. The third wave of the pandemic has now hampered partially all functions of government and private sector institutions and led to cancellation of many activities and therefore restricted operations of the economy. It is now clear that the government was not able to save lives of people nor to protect the economy, thus the government has in every respect failed in controlling the pandemic.
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 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.
Similar appointments should be made to lead the district-wise corona control committees. One should understand that the pandemic control is not a military operation but a “social operation” which involves lot of personal and social aspects including responsible behavours, habits and attitudes, family and social responsibilities, civic rights, respects for others, equality, humanity, 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, etc. will result in an ineffective implementation of policy and actions as civilized societies tend to reject forceful influence in their day to day affairs. This has happened at Suduwella, housing schemes, and in many other places. In a framework non-democratic institutions, you cannot expect public officers, civil society representatives and other interested groups to engage in a true discussion on the pandemic and its spread. Further, the involvement of benevolent health expertise in the fight against corona virus was undermined by removing capable persons and bringing in highly inefficient and incapable persons to handle health mechanism. It is evident that the officers of the health ministry and health experts have become mouthpiece of politicians. These so called health experts of the ministry of health were not able to detect community level spread of the pandemic in the country. There were occasions where these incompetent health officers tried to falsify true ground conditions of the pandemic and keep the public in dark and therefore make the pandemic worse.
I think Sri Lanka is the only country in which government politicians and supporters used myths to overcome the pandemic. Starting from Dammika paniya, the minister of health, speaker, state minsters and parliamentarians promoted “god given” prescription by downplaying the vaccination and promoted river dropping pots by downplaying practicing good health and social distancing. Ironically, many politicians who promoted myth against science in controlling the pandemic became victims of the pandemic. The state sponsored disbelief and untruth has made the pandemic worse as the general public thought that good health practices and social distancing are of secondary importance.
The fight against the corona virus took a new twist when the government switched its policy from saving lives to saving economy as the prime objective. Saving the economy in a pandemic situation requires adequate efforts on containing the pandemic, before opening the country for economic activities. In so doing, the government should make sure that adequate health precautions have been implemented to conduct tests sufficiently, maintain hygiene and good health practices in work places and modes of transport, conduct regular assessment and monitoring on ground condition and initiating adequate research on the dynamic nature of the pandemic (for new variants). Efforts to save the economy become futile in a situation where inadequate precautionary measures are implemented and as a result the pandemic tends to spread exponentially. The opening of business at the peak of the pandemic without sufficient health precautions will not generate its best possible outcome but lead to a malfunctioning and inefficient business sector and economy.
The Corona pandemic of the country has reached a new phase with the presence of rapidly spreading new variants and increased number of reported cases and deaths. Now, each day more 1500 cases are reporting from about 23,000 tests. If there are more tests, more cases will be reported. The vaccination process has also been stopped or slowed down. Given the availability of limited ICU facilities and hospital beds with necessary equipment, increased contagion will create a situation where the health capacities become inadequate and may experience a situation like in India at present.
Therefore, it is advisable for the government, at least at this point in time, to follow and implement a coordinated approach in the fight against the virus through (i) the appointment of knowledgeable and politically impartial health experts to run the health mechanism and to lead the corona control task forces, (ii) allocation of sufficient amount of money and resources to the health ministry via supplementary budget to cover the costs of adequate testing, purchase protective gears, adopt good health procedures and practices and conduct research on new variants, (iv) purchasing enough vaccines for the entire population, (v) limiting its attention only to scientific aspects of the pandemic control, (vi) providing sufficient relief measures for affected people, (vii) be cautious about getting visitors from affected countries and (viii) be cautious about relaxing checking, preventive and monitoring measures for whatever reason. Since the government has failed to get none of these aspects correct right from the beginning, we as a country is now in a highly vulnerable situation to face a pandemic catastrophe.
Lanka Newsweek © 2021