How many lives will it cost for this government to learn the lesson the corona virus is trying to teach? Many, many more, apparently.

At the time of writing, some 4727 lives have been lost to the corona virus in Sri Lanka according to official statistics. The daily death toll, averaging about 50-60 deaths not so long ago, suddenly jumped to 82 on Wednesday.

The real figure, doctors say, is likely to be much higher as some corona virus related deaths are classified under other causes, when these deaths occur as a result of complications that follow infection with the corona virus.

This is also the government’s way of deflecting statistics that would distress the public. Cabinet Spokesman Ramesh Pathirana, a medical doctor to boot, said as much this week, declaring that ‘most corona virus victims died because of comorbidities and not purely because of the virus’. Pathirana will become the laughing stock of the medical community but he is only saying what he has been asked to say!

Understandably, it may not have been possible to save all these lives but at the same time some of those lives would have been saved had the government acted more prudently and with an element of caution.

It is also true that the corona virus pandemic is a once in a century event and mistakes may be made in managing it. However, it has now been with us for well over one year. We have seen countries mismanage it and end up with catastrophic consequences- such as the United States and the United Kingdom did initially. We have also seen how these same countries overcame those disasters subsequently.

Sri Lanka had its own share of successes and disasters. Initially, it was hailed as a role model for other nations when the country was locked down and infections and deaths were kept to a minimum. Then, complacency set in and it was but a short step from the sublime to the ridiculous: superstition replaced science and concoctions and holy water from charlatans replaced vaccines.

The result was a disastrous second wave but the government chose to ignore the obvious, insisting on calling them the ‘Minuwangoda cluster’ and the ‘Peliyagoda cluster’.

Since then, the government seems intent on keeping the economy open instead of keeping people alive. Towards the Sinhala and Tamil New Year this year, health experts gave a timely warning: a wave of infections was likely if free travel was permitted and a lockdown, the kind of which was enforced in 2020, was required to keep that in check. That appeal fell on deaf years and unfortunately the prediction came true: thousands were infected and hundreds of lives were lost.

At least after that sobering experience, one would have expected the government to pause, reflect and change course. It has not done that. While commendably enhancing vaccination efforts and increasing its efficiency by handing it to the military it hasn’t deviated one bit from the mantra of keeping the country ‘open’.

Medical experts- specialist physicians, infectious diseases specialists, microbiologists, community physicians, epidemiologists-have spoken in one voice. They have forewarned that this is not the time to say ‘open sesame’ because we are now confronted with the delta variant of the virus. This is the virus which originated in India and wreaked havoc there. It is deadly because it is transmitted even through fleeting contact and more age groups- such as children and young adults- are susceptible to it.

Just the other day, the Association of Medical Specialists (AMS) announced its most dire warning yet. “Further relaxation of Covid restrictions would, in our opinion be ‘adding fuel to the fire’. We, as a professional body feel it is our prime responsibility to alert and warn decision makers of the current grim situation,” the AMS said in a statement.

“In our opinion, relaxation should have commenced once we have achieved vaccination targets along with a declining number of daily Covid-19 cases, maybe in four to eight weeks from now,” the AMS said. Perhaps in a reflection of its exasperation with the authorities, the AMS noted testily that, “we strongly believe that economists and other have to be alive in the first place to develop the economy”.

This is not the isolated view of an organisation that is at loggerheads with the government. Through social media and other means senior doctors are speaking out about the challenges they are facing every day: all Covid-19 beds in major hospitals including the National Hospital of Sri Lanka (NHSL) and the Lady Ridgeway Hospital for Children (LRH) are full. Admissions are undertaken only when there is a discharge of a patient or sadly, a death. Oxygen supplies have been overrun both in the state and private sectors.

The chief culprit, the delta variant, was initially largely confined to the districts of Colombo, Kalutara and Gampaha in the Western Province. Now though, with the country opening up, the virus will roam free in other regions and create a high death toll in these areas, doctors say.

Officially, doctors do not wish to speak out individually for fear of reprisals. The few who have, have faced reprisals such as transfers out of the positions of responsibility they held. Several highly respected professionals including professors in universities resigned from their positions in committees tasked with approving vaccines for the virus- rather than compromise their professional integrity by approving vaccines without supporting data.

That is also why statements are issued only by professional organisations such as the SLMA. The other medical organisation which usually barks at the drop of a hat, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) maintains a deafening silence because it is a lapdog of the Rajapaksa regime- but that is another story in itself.

The warnings then, are very clear. They are not alarmist or sensationalist and are not driven by political motives. The government needs to reverse its myopic vision of ‘balancing health needs with economic needs’ now.

The longer it refuses to do so, it will have the blood of corona virus victims on its hands.


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