The government’s cat and mouse games have gambled with lives and they have been lost. Last Sunday the leader of the Janatha VimukthiPeramuna Anura Kumara Dissanayake said one person was dying of Covid every nine minutes. A week since and the number of daily deaths have been rising.  According to the Health Promotion Bureau (HPB), 195 people had died on the 20th of August.  This is about eight deaths an hour and an increase from last week if an hourly count is to be taken. According to the HPB, the cumulative total of new infections by the 20th was 3806.  Meanwhile the Epidemiology Unit which comes under the Ministry of Health reported 186 deaths and 3839 new infections on the same date. Both the HPB and the Epidemiology Unit are government entities, yet there is a discrepancy in their reported figures.  For months there have been suspicions about a distortion in the Covid data, the accuracy of which is vital for health experts to chart the trajectory of the virus and design a response to it.  In the past days health units at ground level have been taking matters into their own hands and have been revealing the number of new Covid infections that are being reported from their areas. In the Gampaha district which has been one of the worst hit areas, local authorities recorded 12, 555 new covid infections between 1st and 9th August but the Epidemiology Unit had registered 3729Covid patients during this same period. Similarly in the Kegalle district, the District Director of Health Services registered 2270Covid cases between 9-16 August. In contrast the Epidemiology Unit had recorded 166 Covid patients during this same period. The government’s own medical officer’s association, the GMOA, in a letter dated 18 August addressed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksequestioned the credibility of the morbidity and mortality data and accused the Epidemiology Unit of failing to carry out its five tasks.  It said that the Unit is accountable for disease surveillance, outbreak control, vaccination coordination, clinical management, operational research and monitoring and evaluation and that it had failed in all of it. They requested that Dr S.M Arnold is put in charge and six committees, each headed by a consultant community physician who is attached to the Epidemiology Unit, are appointed to carry out the six tasks.While the GMOA’s letter is a signal that all is not well in the health ministry, it will also help President Gotabaya Rajapakse to get out of a tight corner.  Others who sent a letter to the President about the distortion of Covid figures were the political parties affiliated with the ruling SLPP. Once again in a letter dated 18 August they told the President how there had been a deliberate manipulation of Covid data by a group of officials at national level.  They went on to elaborate that these officials must be punished and the public’s confidence in the government must be restored.  They also impressed on the need for the vaccination program to be speeded up including for those over the age of 60, and encouraged the use of traditional and ayurvedic medicine. The letter was signed by Athureliya Rathana Thero on behalf of the Apey Janabala Pakshaya, Vasudeva Nanayakkara for the Democratic Left Front, Thissa Vitharana for the Lanka SamaSamaja Party, Wimal Weerawansa for the Jathika Nidahas Peramuna, Udaya Gammanpilafor the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya, SLM Athaullafor the National Congress, Tiran Allesrepresenting the Eksath Mahajana Pakshaya, G. Weerasinghe on behalf of the Sri Lanka Communist Party, Asanka Navaratne for the Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya and GevinduKumaratunge on behalf of the YuthukamaJathika Sanvidanaya.

The figures from the Gampaha and Kegalle districts and the letters the GMOA and political party leaders sent to the President lend credibility to long standing claims by medical experts and the PHI union that there is underreporting of Covid related data and it is as high as 30 -40 percent.  It further erodes any credibility that the government is left with.  

Similarly, last week’s denial by the Deputy Director General of Health Services Dr Hemantha Herath that the virus has not spread in the community was met with incredulity. According to him, although there are more Covid positive patients being found in the community there is no scientific basis to think there is a spread of Covid in the community. The Epidemiology Unit’s website attributes most of the country’s Covid cases, a total of 377, 973 by 20 August, to an origin such as the Navy cluster and those originating from the Kandakadu treatment and rehabilitation centre, Peliyagoda fish market and the New year and prison clusters.  Only 313 cases are categorized as ‘other’.  

On the Covid case management front, the disinformation will have a serious backlash as thousands of cases that have been swept under the carpet come to light and will have to be dealt with.  The health care system is already tottering and on the verge of collapse, trying to cope with the rising number of new infections and deaths. More than 200 doctors, over a 1000 nurses and an unnumerable number of other health sector workers have contracted the virus. A chorus of calls by various medical sectors for the government to lockdown the country, which will also be a respite for the health sector to recover and recoup, fell on deaf ears as it focused only on bulldozing along its path of economic recovery while the medical fraternity diverged from it to save lives.

After their fifth meeting on the 10th of August, the Independent Expert Group told the government if immediate action to restrict mobility to the levels they were at between May and July is not taken, there will be a cumulative total of 30, 000 deaths by January next year and that the daily death rate will top 220 in the coming weeks. In between, various cities such as Gampaha, Badulla and Ratnapura started to gradually self- impose a  lockdown in defiance of the government’s position to the contrary. The letter the SLPP affiliated political parties sent to the President amidst their growing angst also ended with a suggestion for a lockdown.  They also called for an all party mechanism to fight Covid, which has now become a national crisis.

Despite a subsequent halfhearted relenting by the government to revise its guidelines for weddings by reducing the number of guests and eventually banning them and public gatherings, it remained stoic about not declaring a lockdown. At the end of last week the President and Army Commander Shavendra Silva dug in their heels and said they will not lockdown the country. But the government had to back down after trade unions issued an ultimatum that a lockdown will be self imposed from Monday if the government didn’t do it.  By Friday as if on cue, the chief prelates had thrown the government a face saving lifeline and an exit from its dogmatic stance and refusal of a lockdown.  It was the newly appointed health minister Keheliya Rambukwella who broke the news with a tweet about the lockdown from 20 – 30th of August. So far there has been no official communique from the government about the do’s and don’ts of the lockdown except for a press release issued on the 21st of August with a list of functions that are permitted.  

The government’s approach to its Covid management response defies reason and sense,increasingly so to its own ministers as well. The President’s brother Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse wanted the limitations to mobility going beyond travel restrictions. State Minister for Covid Prevention Sudarshini Fernandopullehas been making repeated statements about thefutility of her advice because it is not heeded. Reports have emerged how the President had refused to give former Health Minister PavithraWanniarachchi an opportunity to present a paper on the country’s Covid situation during last week’s Cabinet briefing which was held via zoom.  The President had reportedly told her to ask the medical specialists to meet him and the chapter had closed there. In the eyes of the President, this intransigence by a minister in his cabinet, could have cost Pavithra Wanniarachchiher health portfolio. The President’s heavy reliance on the information provided to him by the State Intelligence Services to the  exclusion of that of all others is reportedly inhibiting bureaucrats and government servants from giving the correct picture. While costing the country her citizens ultimately it is also what is bringing Sri Lanka to her knees.



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