Country’s Covid situation is grave
Surge in the number of cases overwhelms health services • 700 ICU beds, only 100 reserved for Covid patients • ‘Short arm’ of law for Minister Gamini Lokuge?
More than one thousand Covid positive patients are at home without hospital beds and ambulances to transport them to hospital as Sri Lanka’s Covid crisis worsens. The President of the Public Health Inspectors Association UpulRohana said that cases are being reported from all over the country with a daily average of about 2000 cases, up from about 1500 last week. The capacity of the health services are overwhelmed by the surge in the number of cases.
Rohana explained how a backlog has resulted in a delay of between four to ten days for PCR test results to come through. The ideal is 48 hours. Due to a lack of hospital beds in their local area ambulances are having to drive patients to far away locations. A case in point is where a patient had to be taken from Gampaha to Pooneryn. Sometimes when the patient reaches hospital amidst the travails there are no facilities and they vent on the PHI. Sri Lanka has 700 ICU beds of which 100 have been set aside for Covid patients. The other beds are reserved for other emergencies.
A senior health official described the situation as grave, advising on the need to be extremely careful not to contract the virus. The government narrative largely has been one where responsibility to contain the virus is pinned on the people exclusively. It has not shown any introspection of how things came to this crunch and the role it ought to have played but did not, precipitating a health crisis which has become deadly for the citizens of this country and a burgeoning strain on the health services. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake last week called on the government not to play Covid politricks while revealing how the government’s cronies have made a business from PCR testing kits, antigen testing, hotel stays for repatriated Sri Lankans and quarantine tourism at US $ 690 for a two week stay in Sri Lanka. He pointed out how the origins of the current wave can be traced to the groups of Ukrainian tourists who were brought in by Udayanga Weeratunge, Sri Lanka’s former Ambassador to the Russian Federation, who was seen frolicking around with them sans masksand throwing social distancing to the wind. Even with the evidence being on its’ doorstep, the government has shown it is incapable of projecting the future trajectory of the virus. ‘The world’s media were showing visuals of the devastation in India, Australia clamped on travel restrictions on people travelling from India to protect its citizens. But people from India were coming to Sri Lanka until the 28th of April and tested positive for the virus during subsequent PCR tests’, he said. Dissanayake bemoaned the lack of political leadership, management processes and forward planning in the handling of the crisis.
The lack of a plan to procure and administer the Covid vaccine for the country’s population has left more than 500, 000 people in limbo and angst because they don’t know when they will get their second dose. Doctors complain that even now, there is no method to the vaccination program that is going on to give the first jab to sections of the population. At some centrespeople are seen queuing up for the vaccine,forgetting public health measures such as social distancing. It is promoting concerns about the breakout of a ‘vaccination cluster’.
During a zoom meeting last week which wassponsored by the Government Information Department State, State Minister for Primary Healthcare, Epidemics and Covid Disease Control explained how other countries had procured quantities of vaccines for themselves. Ms. Fernandopulle appeared to be implying thatas a result, Sri Lanka could not get her foot in through the door to purchase the vaccine. But sources point out how the government missed an opportunity it had at the end of last year to pay US$ 5 and pre order the vaccine because of its preoccupation with the Dhammika Paniyawhich was being touted as the Covid panacea. The senior health official pointed out how the health ministry has failed to capitalize on the skills of seasoned negotiators like Dr. PalithaAbeykoon, who works for the local chapter of the WHO, to secure vaccines for the country.
The government’s credibility took a further beating with the ongoing Piliyandala saga. Two weekends ago, there was public consternation after it came to light that Minister GaminiLokuge was behind the move to lift the isolation restrictions which had been imposed on the Piliyandala Police division even though the virus was spreading there. Mr Lokuge’s act drove a hapless Dr Samanthika Wijesundara, the medical health officer in the Kesbewa MOH division, to tell the media that there is no point mopping the floor with the tap left open. Last week, in an attempt at damage control, the army commander issued a statement claiming that the decision to lift the isolation restrictions was not done with the involvement of a minister. However it now transpires that the decision to lift the restriction was taken by Minister Lokugeduring a meeting in his home at which the District Secretary had also been present. DrNavin De Zoysa of the Government Medical Officers Association told the Balaya talk show that according to the quarantine laws, the decision to declare an area as an isolated one and to lift the restrictions, is the prerogative of the Director General of Health Services. The Police are out on the streets bundling the public into jeeps and taking them away for not wearing masks. The signs are that in Mr. Lokuge’s case political impunity will prevail and the long arm of the law will not reach him even though histyrannical move appears to have cost the area. According to Rohana, there are about 600 Covid positive patients in Piliyandala and there has been one death. A committee in the Ministry of Health which was appointed to look into the matter had subsequently said that some Police divisions in Piliyandala should be isolated. Dr Wijesundara meanwhile is reportedly being vilified for her statement.
Worse was to come after the President’s newly appointed spokesperson who defected from the Sirasa media network, for long seen as a thorn in the government’s side, announced to the country that the WHO had approved the Sinopharm vaccine after it received a phone call from President Gotabaya Rajapakse. WHOapproval for the vaccine had been pending for months, at least since March, and there was strong speculation that approval for it will come through in May. Following the announcementby the President’s spokesman, the WHO didn’t waste time asserting itself and issuing a statement denying the President influenced the decision on Sinopharm.
The death of two suspects in police custody has once again raised questions about Sri Lanka’s questionable record for extra judicial killings. The two dead men, Mambulage Dineth Melan Mambula alias Uru Juwa and Tharaka PereraWijesekera, alias Kosgoda Tharaka had been wanted by Police for their alleged involvement in organized crime including murder and extortion.
The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) which has been increasingly vocal following theelection of new office bearers was quick to condemn the killing of the two men. In a statement issued soon after it said the ‘deaths are the hallmarks of extra judicial killings’ and called on the State ‘to ensure the safety and security of persons in their custody’. The statement went on to ask for an independent and impartial investigation into the deaths, highlighting how the BASL had raised the issue of killing of suspects in Police custody as far back as 2013. The statement concluded with a pledge to use all means ‘to prevent similar acts of omission and commission by State authorities’.
Earlier in January, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said in her Report that ‘grave human rights violations and abuse including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention and torture committed by all parties have been documented in successive UN reports. The Report laid the foundation for the last UN Resolution on Sri Lanka which was passed at the UN Human Rights Council in March this year.