The manner in which the government has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, mismanaging the Covid-19 pandemic is a truly remarkable tale of arrogance, incompetence and inefficiency.

Around late September last year, Sri Lanka was well in control of the pandemic. New cases were confined to single digits daily and the number of deaths were few and far between. The country was being hailed the world over as a model of how to deal with the deadly virus with limited resources.

How that was done was no secret. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, although his initial reaction to the pandemic was to ask incredulously why the country should locked down after a few deaths when it was not locked down during the war when hundreds were being killed, bowed to medical advice. He closed the nation’s borders and ordered a lockdown.

It meant that his grand plan of having a general election soon after the presidential poll had to be put on hold. It also meant that the country had to celebrate its two major national festivals, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year and Vesak, in virtual solitary confinement.

Nevertheless, President Rajapaksa was firm in his decision. The country just had to grin and bear it. It turned out to be the right decision. When other countries were moaning and counting their dead, Sri Lanka was being cited as a success story, not just in the subcontinent but globally.


That is where it went horribly wrong. A sense of complacency set in. Sri Lankans- including those making decisions in government- developed an utterly misplaced feeling of immunity from the infection and began acting with impunity. It was as if they believed that the threat from the corona virus was not real.

The worst example of this came from Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi herself. At first, she was caught on camera- along with several other ministers- throwing a pot of ‘holy water’ given to her by the self-proclaimed ‘Royal Physician’ Eliyantha White into a river with the hope of containing the virus.

Even if that was to be dismissed as a superstitious ritual that didn’t harm anyone, what followed was a disaster. A charlatan by the name of Dhammika appeared on the scene promoting a potion which he claimed would cure the virus- and Wanniarachchi happily gulped it down for the benefit of the cameras.

Wanniarachchi is, of course, entitled to her own beliefs and can do what she wishes but she should have realised that as Minister of Health, she was sending a powerful message to the public. The public flocked to Dhammika’s residence forsaking all social distancing regulations in search of the magic potion.

If one was looking for a turning point to denote what went wrong with Sri Lanka’s success story, this was probably the defining moment. If any proof was needed that Dhammika’s potion was ineffective, it came in the form of Wanniarachchi herself becoming seriously ill with Covid-19. Thankfully, the lady recovered but not before making international headlines as the Minister who drank a ‘magic potion’ to ward off Covid-19 and fell victim to it, becoming the laughing stock among more rational audiences.

Blunder after blunder followed. A group of garment factory workers returned from India, bringing the virus with them and spreading it in several areas. The government adopted a policy of denial maintaining that there was no ‘community transmission’ even though cases were reported in the dozens.

The President and the government then made a radical change in policy. It took an about turn from the tried and tested lockdowns which prevented the pandemic from spreading to a ‘business as usual’ model because it was thought Sri Lanka could not afford the economic cost of lockdowns anymore.

It is not clear who offered this advice to the President- or indeed, whether it was the President’s own decision. Whether medical experts were consulted in the process is a moot point because few would dare to disagree with the powers that be after several highly respected doctors were dismissed from the National Medicinal Regulatory Authority (NMRA) when they refused the fast track the Chinese made Sinopharm vaccine before rigorously scrutinising the scientific data.

As part of this ‘no lockdowns anymore’ policy, there was an attempt to portray that Sri Lanka had returned to ‘normal’. Tourists were invited from Ukraine. Expatriate Sri Lankans were encouraged to return. Slowly but surely, the mindset of the average Sri Lankan was recalibrated to believe that the corona virus didn’t exist anymore.

President Rajapaksa has been sticking to his philosophy. In his most recent statement on the Covid-19 pandemic, released only a few days ago while a tragedy of biblical proportions is being enacted in neighbouring India, he reiterates that Sri Lanka cannot afford to have lockdowns because it could cripple the economy. To put it bluntly, the President was saying that the economy mattered to him more than the lives of his citizens.

To be fair, President Rajapaksa is not the first to propagate this theory. As Covid-19 raged throughout the world, we have heard this argument before. Britain tried this strategy as did the United States. Both countries, which much more advanced health systems than Sri Lanka failed miserably and had to revert to lockdowns as the human cost was too high: 127,000 deaths in Britain and 573,000 deaths in the United States.

Busy with scattering ‘holy water’ into rivers and promoting magic potions, the government had forgotten to order adequate stocks of vaccines for the disease. Now it is begging for vaccines from whoever is willing to supply it to them. Meanwhile, the daily toll of corona virus infections has been slowly but steadily increasing in recent weeks, fuelled by the blatant disregard for social distancing regulations during the New Year, which the government did nothing to curb.

Reality is sinking in as images from across the Palk Straits, filter into our lounge rooms. Suddenly, there is a gradual return to a lockdown of sorts. Schools are being closed, attendance at offices are being curtailed. Now, the government is in damage control mode but it appears to have come too late.

Will Sri Lanka pay a price similar to what India is paying now? We fervently hope not, but if we do, it will be only because we chose to ignore the obvious and go along with the dubious.


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