Curfew and what next?

Seen here are people in an area close to Colombo, purchasing vegetables on Tuesday, the day the curfew was lifted for a few hours. Most are not observing the one meter apart physical distancing.

Dr. Prasanna Cooray

A countrywide curfew was imposed, on 20 March, as a desperate measure to contain the spread of the Covid -19 virus within the country. This stringent action was taken in the wake of the declaration of a special holiday (16 March), which was extended for three more days for the state sector workers. The private sector was requested to consider it a mercantile holiday, if possible. Some private companies complied while others didn’t. The commencement of the first-term-end school vacation was advanced to 13 March to prevent schoolchildren being exposed to Covid-19.

Subsequently, as the situation worsened, the government announced that the extraordinary measures adopted in a hurry would continue till 27 March. They, however, did not apply to the private sector. The effectiveness of the closing of schools and offices was in doubt as there was no lockdown (or self-quarantine and physical distancing). Covid-19 pandemic has literally engulfed the entire globe and such measures are essential at the initial stage of any epidemic of this nature as the new virus has a short incubation period (up to 14 days), and is extremely contagious and could also be fatal.

The government’s initial response to the Covid-19 threat has been characterized by hesitancy and inconsistency. The health authorities, however, seem to have got its act together. It is the responsibility of everyone to help them achieve their ultimate goal; beating the virus decisively.

Is curfew the answer?

Whether a curfew was necessary is the question. Had a proper countrywide lockdown been imposed for two weeks effectively, following the detection of the first case of the indigenous spread on 3 March, the situation could have been brought under control. This, however, is not the time to criticize the government for its initial lapses, which prevented timely action being taken to tackle the ‘exogenous’ transmission of coronavirus into the country or to prevent its ‘indigenous’ spread. (This could have been easily done as ours is an island state, but let bygones be bygones.)

Considering the pace at which the present pandemic is spreading, both numerically and spatially, one may argue that a curfew is the answer. It is imperative that a small country like Sri Lanka with about 21 million people stopped making more mistakes.

Curfew was lifted temporarily, on 23 March, in some areas; the country was plunged into chaos with desperate people pushing and shoving to purchase and stock up on essentials. The curfew was aimed at preventing mass gatherings, and the purpose was lost when people thronged market places when the curfew was lifted. Will the curfew be extended for a couple more weeks? If so, there will be more such mad scrambles at market places. How does the government propose to handle such a situation? Most of all, the predicament of the marginalized sections of society has been ignored. They are without money to buy basic food items. There are reports of many of them sleeping on empty stomachs. They must be looked after.

The government should seriously consider adopting what the Chinese authorities practised in the Wuhan city at the height of the Covid-19 crisis. They allowed one person from each household to go out to attend to the immediate needs of the family. Even at the places where the people could come into close contact, for example department stores, healthcare facilities, banks etc. the one meter-rule was strictly enforced. A steady supply of goods was ensured to prevent panic buying.

Essential services

Naming the essential services and maintaining them round the clock will help people maintain physical distancing. Healthcare services, grocery outlets (ranging from department stores to small retailers) that sell dry rations and other essential household items and water and electricity, fuel, banks, transportation, waste management services, etc. are only some of them. The maintenance of the supply chain is the key to the success of the campaign against coronavirus, and the tri-forces could be entrusted with the responsibility of helping maintain supplies and essential services while the police and Grama Niladharis could facilitate such operations at the local level. It may be recalled that the late Minister, Lalith Athulatmudali, tackled an acute food shortage following the ’83 Black July very efficiently; he even had private vehicles commandeered to transport goods.

Resort to lockdown instead of curfew

There is a need to place the country under a voluntary lockdown while the police and forces should remain alert and strictly deal with those who don’t fall in line. Only one member of each family should be allowed to leave home to buy essentials. The government has already requested the people ‘to work from home’; this move should be applauded, but its feasibility is in doubt as Sri Lankans’ are not known to have a strict work ethic. The people should also not be allowed to assemble in groups or take part in any form of social activity. Public transport, especially for short distances, should be maintained for the convenience of the public, but commuters must be made to adhere to the safety measures.

What next – After two weeks?

Ensuring an effective lockdown for two weeks will help minimize the community spread of coronavirus. But new cases are bound to be detected during the lockdown and afterwards. Such patients and their immediate contacts could be easily traced, quarantined and treated if symptoms appear. However, the new infections during the two weeks will be from the households of the infected persons already under quarantine. They will be easy to handle.

The onus for maintaining the supply of essential commodities, especially facemasks, and services is on the government and the relevant state authorities.

The sanitization/disinfection of vulnerable places, including public places and vehicles, is essential. This practice will have to be continued for a reasonable period of time.

Meanwhile, it is unfortunate that at the initial stage of the spread of coronavirus in other parts of the world, Sri Lankan tourism authorities, in a bid to make the most of the global crisis, attempted to attract foreign tourists, by making this country out to be a safe destination. Casinos in Colombo were kept open day and night, placing those working there at risk. The first Sri Lankan to be afflicted with coronavirus is a tourist guide who accompanied a group of Italians holidaying here. He has recovered and returned home.

Restrictions on inbound flights must continue until the threat of Covid-19 is over globally.

Health management planning: Key areas

Sri Lanka’s health management strategy should focus on two areas in particular: the need of a robust social security network for the poor, and further strengthening of the public health system.

More ICU beds

Health workers are rendering a commendable service in the country’s battle against coronavirus.  They are overworked and some of them have even been infected. However, it has to be mentioned, even at this moment where emergency services are an absolute necessity that there are only 500 ICU beds in the entire government health system of the country.

Dr. Cooray is a Former Regional Epidemiologist  and a member of the Public Health Writers’ Collective

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