Actual number of Covid cases are three times the number of those detected
Discernible divisions in government camp emerge
Low key 12th anniversary of ending of war

Once a beacon in the fight against Covid today, Sri Lanka has become a lesson in how not to fight the virus. An unprecedented daily record of positive cases is making the health system buckle under the pressure. Opposition politicians are questioning for how much longeran already shaky economy can support the country with the government’s Covid management program being likened to a ship which has lost its way in stormy seas. Dogged by accusations of suppressing data to hide the real picture and allowing its cronies to engage in Covid business to make big money, the trust deficit between the government and its people is also growing wider.

Politicians in the Opposition have highlighted how the government has routinely instrumentalized the surges in Covid cases.  The first and second waves in March and October last year pre -dated and post- dated a general election.  The current surge has been used to push through the controversial Port City Economic Commission Bill which many fear will impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Sri Lanka into a hub for money launderingand other questionable deals.

With the country now in the grip of a third surge, Sri Lanka is thought to be in second place in South East Asia and next to India in terms of Covid 19 infections, the medical profession onone side and the National Operation Centre for Prevention of Covid 19 Outbreak (NOCPCO) are pulling in different directions and sending mixed messages.  The public are hardly enamored with the government’s adhoc Covid response measures.

In a statement issued on the 21st of May a collective of medical associations has demanded that the government, which has built a reputation for not listening to the advice of health professionals, lockdown the country or impose a curfew for 14 consecutive days.  According to the statement which is backed by the Sri Lanka Medical Association, Government Medical Officers Association, Association of Medical Specialists and the Sri Lanka Medical Intercollegiate Committee, it is scientifically proven that  when the detected number of cases in the community if over 3000, the actual number in the community is more than three times the number detected. When the infection is spreading this extensively, there is no country that has managed to contain the infection without a strict lockdown (or curfew) being declared, says the statement.  

‘The incubation period for 85 percent of the cases in Sri Lanka is between 3- 7 days.  This is why we are advocating for a 14 -day lockdown’, said one health professional.  

Justifying its reasons for calling for a two week lockdown or curfew, the medical collective point out that ‘a country-wide lockdown for just a few days at a stretch will not have any significant effect on the case load or transmission of the disease as it does not cover even one incubation period to reduce infectivity and transmission of the infection’. The statement goes on to add that ‘repeated, intermittent and short lockdowns, with people coming together for work in enclosed areas following this, will not have any benefit on the economy as it will only create a scenario that will only increase the numbers of COVID-19 cases within these premises’.

Among the other scientific justifications given are that the infection is rampant in all provinces which nullifies any benefits from inter-provincial travel restrictions at this stage of the outbreak. It also points out the futility of isolating Grama Niladhari divisions. ‘As isolation of Grama Niladhari (GN) divisions occur with a 5 – 7day delay following the detection of cases, their isolation does not serve the purpose of restricting the transmission of infection. By the time the GN divisions are isolated, the infection with an inherent very high transmissibility has spread way beyond the GN division.

The statement also elaborates that letting people go out according to National Identity Card numbers is unlikely to serve any purpose at this stage of infection which is characterised by very high transmissibility. ‘Allowing public transport with seated passengers, 25% of capacity of customers in supermarkets, restaurants (dinning in), hotels, rest houses, shopping malls, shops will increase the number of cases at this stage of spread of infection in the community, it says.

The ideal scenario would have been for the country to go into the 14 day lockdown which is being demanded by these medical professionals from 11 pm last Friday night. However officially and for now, it is the start of only six days of travel restrictions which has become the new euphemism for lockdown or curfew, with a break in the middle for people to replenish stocks.  The government has also said that economic centres should be kept open on the 24th and 25th of May. Farmers struggle to sell their crops when there are travel restrictions. During last year’s curfews and lockdowns, farmers were affected after they were left with a glut of produce that they could not sell. Despite these lessons learnt, during last weeks travel restrictions too, farmers had to deal with the same dilemma.  

Meanwhile, a statement by the Army Commander, who is the head of the NOCPCO,scoffed at social media posts of a 14 day lock down starting 1st June.  His statement that there won’t be a lockdown has confounded the situation even further.

Last week, fissures were also showing in the government’s ranks with the State Minister for Covid Control Sudarshani Fernandopulle taking up positions contrary to those in her party. Like the medical professionals, Fernandopulle who is also a medical doctor by profession, spoke out and asked for a 14 day lockdown which the government is fighting shy of because of the hit on the economy. Fernandopulle has also been appealing to rich Sri Lankans for ICU beds, oxygen, ventilators and other medical equipment to boost Sri Lanka’s drive to fight the virus. The Foreign Affairs ministry has also reached out to Sri Lankans living overseas for their support. A statement by Fernandopulle that the mixing of vaccines is not yet allowed anywhere in the world has also shown up claims made by the State Minister for Production, Supply and Regulation of Pharmaceuticals Channa Jayasumana and Minister of EnergyUdaya Gammanpila that the vaccines can be mixed, as false. Fernandopulle’s appeals for help prompted her colleague in government Johnston Fernando who, during the purported parliamentary coup of 2018 forgot societal niceties and famously hurled a bible when the fracas in the well of parliament was taking place, to suggest that she is suffering from stress.  Fernando was emphatic with his denial that the country is in a financial crisis.  He questioned how the government can spendmoney building roads and lakes if this is the case. Fernando’s replies reveal his ignorance of the Central Bank report for 2020 which was tabled in parliament two weeks ago. Although the government has been at pains to scapegoat the state of the economy on Covid, according to the Report, the economy’s negative growth cycle which plunged to -3.6 for the first time in 38 years started in the first quarter of 2020 when the impact from Covid would have been minimal. The budget deficit was -11.1 although Opposition MPs claim it was higher at -14. They also claim that benefits from tax concessions given for Nation Building Tax, PAYE, and VAT for example while reducing its income and contributing to the widening of the deficit, was creamed off by the government’s cronies. If it had been passed on to the people it would have reflected positively with less poverty, better health facilities and less inflation they point out.

The actions of Fernando will only damage further the government’s credibility which has already taken a battering not least because of the likes of Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi and Chief Epidemiologist Sudath Samaraweera. Wanniarachchi, now famous for nothing else but her endorsement of dubious brews and hocus pocus, has made it to the news once again after the Colombo Telegraph expose of her husband’s alleged involvement in a vaccine scam. Chief Epidemiologist Sudath Samaraweera whose straight faced claims that there is no community transmission of the virus have been met with incredulity especially after information to the contrary emerged from within the medical fraternity itself.

With thousands of Sri Lankans desperately waiting to be vaccinated, health professionals point the finger at government laxity for not preordering the vaccine, the resumption of the vaccine program last week saw long queues and people standing for hours in inhospitable weather to get their jab. Amidst this, instances have been reported where people with political influence and friends in high places have jumped the queue and got the vaccine. It pushed the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) to write to the Director General of Health Services Dr. Asela Gunawardena to ask for an inquiry into what it termed ‘gross irregularities in the vaccine program’.  The letter explains how the GMOA had received many complaints from the public and its branch unions that low risk categories of people are being vaccinated through various influences which violate risk priorities.

Meanwhile, one small silver lining among the dark clouds is the breakthrough that the Astra Zeneca vaccine is responsive to the Indian variant of the virus.  This strain, believed to be more transmissible and virulent, was detected in Sri Lanka during sample testing carried out by scientists at the Sri Jayawardenapura University.The extent of the spread in the country of the Indian variant is still unknown.  According to a source from the University, this information will be available when its team carries out genome sequencing on samples next month. This source said that they carry out genome sequencing once a month and that it had already been done for the month of May. For now, the dominant variant in the country is the UK one.

With the country preoccupied with Covid, the 12th anniversary of the end of the war went by unnoticed. In the Northern province there were low key remembrances and in Colombo, tributes were paid to the armed forces.  

In Mullaivaikkal, the theater of war during its final phase, a memorial for the dead was destroyed on the 17th of May and the day before the anniversary.  A Tamil politician told Counterpoint that it can only be the Army who could have done it but the Army has denied it had a hand in it. ‘This means they have no objection to a memorial being built again’, pointed out the politician. ‘Therefore another memorial should be erected’. (SW)



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