As the third wave of the Covid19 pandemic rages through the country with infected cases surging day by day, the decision-makers are engrossed in a debate on a crucial question.

The question is whether the country should go for a total lockdown. The pandemic is swelling to furious proportions in every corner of the country, showing no signs of remorse and will overwhelm the health services soon.

This time last year Sri Lanka was in total lockdown. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa bowed to the advice of health professionals and moved promptly to impose a country-wide lockdown forcing the populace to remain confined to their homes including during the Sinhala and Hindu New Year and the Wesak festival. It also prompted the government to put off the parliamentary general election to later in the year in August.

It was in April 2020 that Sri Lanka was named the 16th high-risk country in the world because of the concerted efforts of the health sector and the security forces to contain the spread of the virus.  The country was hailed globally for tackling the virus successfully and came ninth as a country that cares for its people.

By May 11th the government lifted the curfew which had been in place for over two months but the public was advised to strictly maintain social distancing and to adhere to other health guidelines stipulated by the government while travelling and when at work.

Nevertheless, the most appropriate question that went unanswered was the cost of the lockdown. Has anybody been able to compute the actual cost of the lockdown or the economic downturn? It has indiscriminately affected many. The poor became poorer and many middle-income families fell below the poverty line.

On the other hand, the loss of man-hours and loss of employment due to the closure of businesses put the economy under severe strain.

The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom reported that a year of Covid-19 lockdowns has cost the UK economy £251bn – the equivalent of the entire annual output of the south-east of England or nearly twice that of Scotland.

Analysis by the Centre for Economics and Business Research UK found that while the whole of the country had suffered huge damage from restrictions on activity since the first national lockdown began, some poorer regions had suffered the most.

Under the circumstances it is patently clear that the cost of a lockdown affects everybody but more particularly the poor.  The numbers are expected to swell even after the country returnsto normal because of the scarcity of employment opportunities and the lack of capital to engage in self-employment or other businesses.

An article in The Times of India said that India was already struggling with a serious economic downturn when the shutting down overnight of both demand and supply across the country led to a calamitous shrinkage of the economy.

Surajit Das, an economist from Jawaharlal Nehru University, calculated that even assuming government consumption remained unaffected and private consumption expenditure was one-third of normal during the lockdown period, in 40 days of the lockdown private consumption would have fallen by Rs 9 lakh crore (128 billion USD).

Since capital or investment is unlikely during a lockdown, investment demand would have fallen by at least Rs 6.75 lakh crore (95 billion USD). The estimates of Tejal Kanitkar, associate professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, are even more dire. He expects that the total loss of output would be between Rs 40 lakh crore and Rs 66 lakh crore (500 billion USD), or about 20 to 32 per cent of the GDP.

In such a scenario what would have been Sri Lanka’s position? The fall out cannot be at a lesser degree or magnitude. However, since January this year the people have been more tolerant while the government proceeded to issue various caveats from time to time after being complacent even though they were well aware of the imminent dangers and the human tragedy that is waiting to unfold.

As the number of cases keep rising, it will soonbe beyond our capacity to handle the loadeffectively. If the distress of the people reaches higher proportions, the government will not be able to escape from its responsibility of not taking appropriate action at the right time. The wrath of the people may come in a different form, not in a very mild way like the honking of horns when the Chinese defence minister was passing by.

The vaccination program carried out by the health authorities was once again a reminder of administrative failures and mismanagement in the government sector which have now become rampant. The government, without diverting the attention of the people to mythical beliefs of magic potions of local charlatans wanting to make a quick buck at the expense of their misery and throwing pots of holy water into rivers and waterways, should have looked at the problem more pragmatically and meaningfully.  Taking a cue from global trends the government should have chartered a course for the country well ahead of time.

This is a pandemic which has crept into every corner of the world and  many countries have tackled it laudably. They have put their citizens first, as a State should. We have to look at the global perspective in tackling the infection with proper laws in place and vaccination programs taking precedence over other matters of government. In our country, the infected shows an upward trajectory. The mathematical model by scientists should have helped the government to get a clear picture of the ticking time bomb the country is sitting on and which is expected to go off any minute.

The government must be open to accepting responsibility for this  current Covid wave because it disregarded warnings and advice from health experts. The government had an opportunity to pre order the vaccine at the end of last year but was trying to export the ‘Dhammika paniya’ instead. It had been told not to stop random PCR testing after the vaccination started but had not heeded the advice. But let’s stop the naming and shaming and start doing what is needed at least now which is for the government to stop fumbling, take its blinkers off and save the people.

Against this backdrop some people argue that human life is priceless and cannot be comparedwith an economic fallout the country is poised to face following a total lockdown. In any case they point out that already a large number of Grama Sevaka (GS) divisions have been placed under isolation by the Task Force appointed to prevent the spread of the pandemic and many government departments have been closed for business with government servants advised to report to work on a rotational basis. Hence, it will be prudent to decide on a complete lockdown for at least two weeks while factories that bring in foreign earnings through exports can be allowed to function under stricter guidelines.

Simultaneously, the government will have to take care of the poorest in society during a lockdown because we know from experience that it is difficult for them to earn a living during a lockdown. It is the absolute responsibility of the government to take realistic and prudent measures to save the country from dire consequences. What the country does not wantis a reenactment of the Indian situation where the cost of human suffering is enormous.

Suhas Palshikar of the Indian Express summed it up aptly and precisely when he said “as the distress reaches epochal proportions, it may force our attention to questions of human suffering and immediate relief. However, the monumental failure of governance cannot be hidden behind moments of grief or waves of self-pity. It will be nobody’s case that we, as a society, are blameless nor that there were no structural constraints to the handling of the pandemic. But the history of this pandemic will have to clearly shout out the key failure — the failure of governance. Governance, despite much scholarship, continues to be an enigmatic term. The pandemic has brought forward in a stark manner, however, the opposite of governance: misgovernance.”

Famous Indian Author Arundhati Roy said in an article “We are witnessing a crime against humanity”

It’s hard to convey the full depth and range of the trauma, the chaos and the indignity that people are being subjected to she said.

We hope that it will not be the case where our country is concerned. A lockdown will invariably have crippling effects, but history will hound Sri Lanka’s political leaders if appropriate action is not taken to alleviate human suffering. It will be a “monumental failure” on the part of the government which history will not absolve it from.

It is time to weigh the plusses and negatives of a total lockdown.  The economic fallout will outweigh everything else, but it is the people that should matter to a people-centric government as claimed by it.

The time is right and, all the necessary conditions are in place for a complete lockdown to save the people from the Covid misery. This is the stark reality.


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