Prof. Malik Peiris

The pandemic situation is taking a turn for the worse in this country, and fear is being expressed that the worst is yet to come. Warnings of impending disasters may be taken seriously anywhere in the world but not here. It seems to be in Sri Lankans’ genes to live dangerously. Nobody seems to care about traffic warning signs. Vehicles frequently plunge down steep precipices, or collide head on at sharp bends. Motorcyclists ride like bats out of hell, and pedestrians enjoy jaywalking as though they had a death wish. The number of lives lost in road mishaps averages eight a day.

There were several early warnings before the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, but nobody cared, and tens of thousands of people lost their lives within minutes. Animals acted far more intelligently; they moved away from the sea when it rolled back moments before the killer waves barreled across the Indian ocean and pummeled the littoral, destroying as they did everything in their path.

In April, 2019, there were several warnings of terrorist attacks to be carried out on churches and hotels, on Easter Sunday. All information about them was available including the names of the attackers, their telephone numbers, etc. But neither the government in power at the time nor the defence authorities paid any attention to the warnings. A series of suicide bombings rocked the country and left about 270 people dead and many others injured.

In April, 2021, public health experts warned of an explosive spread of Covid-19 during the festive season, and called for at least travel restrictions to bring the situation under control, but no preventive action was taken. People, shopped, partied and travelled, freely, throwing caution to the wind. Infections surged, and so did the death toll. Today, hospitals are finding it difficult to cope with increasing caseloads. More and more Covid-19 patients need high-flow nasal oxygen therapy, and the healthcare system is likely to be overwhelmed sooner than expected.

Pandemic control and politics

Partisan politics is the bane of Sri Lanka. It has not spared virtually anything, not even religion. In fact, it has become the religion of many Sri Lankans, who venerate politicians. It is one of the main impediments to pandemic control, which requires the cooperation and unstinted support of all citizens and civil organizations.

The government and its rivals are currently embroiled in a fiercely fought political war of sorts much to the neglect of the much-needed collective action to stave off a disastrous situation. Public health specialists have been doing their best to convince the warring parties of the need to prevent super-spreader events like mass gatherings. But their efforts have been in vain. Hardly a day passes without public protests in some part of the country with hundreds, if not, thousands of people marching together with no regard for the health regulations in place to prevent the spread of the pandemic.

The number of guests at wedding receptions has been limited to 150 each, and similar limits have been imposed on participation at other social events as well. But the government kicks up controversies, almost daily, and its opponents react by launching street protests with no heed for their safety or that of others. At present, the government teachers are on a continuous protest against longstanding salary anomalies affecting their profession, and the General Sir John Kotelawala National Defence University bill to be taken up for debate in Parliament shortly.

Last week’s talks between the protesting teachers’ unions and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa failed, and the protests are likely to drag on indefinitely. This is a frightening proposition. Teachers have rejected out of hand a circular issued by the Secretary to the Education Ministry that they report for work immediately like all other public servants. The government has not announced how it is planning to ensure teachers’ compliance with its directive, but it is likely to resort to some action that will provoke the protesters further. The government and the Opposition thus being determined to fight it out regardless of the consequences of their action amidst the worst ever health crisis the country is faced with, an escalation of street protests looks inevitable. This is the last thing the country needs.

Eminent Lankan’s prescient warning

The latest dire warning about an unprecedented surge in Covid-19 infections in the near future has come from no less a person than the Head of Virology at the University of Hong Kong, Prof. Malik Peiris, who is of the view that Sri Lanka has to brace for the worst to come, owing to the extremely high transmissibility of the Delta variant of coronavirus. “As a public health professional, it would be remiss of me not to warn that Sri Lanka is going to face the worst COVID outbreak in the months ahead,” he has told a local television channel. Everybody is aware how destructive this new variant is. It wreaked havoc in India, and Prof. Peiris has made specific mention of this fact in trying to knock some sense into the heads of Sri Lankans, who do not seem bothered, at all.

Prof. Peiris is an international authority on Covid-19, and his views must be taken very seriously and acted upon urgently. But nobody here seems to give a monkey’s about his prescient warning although his previous prognoses were spot on. The government is all out to go ahead with the KNDU bill, come what may, and its critics are threatening to intensify their protests in a bid to scuttle it.

Prof. Peiris, an illustrious Sri Lankan trying to save human lives here, must be really disappointed. Politics has stood in the way of the country’s battle against the pandemic.

Irresponsibility of the public

The ordinary people are as irresponsible as their political leaders and trade unionists. They follow the health guidelines because they cannot afford to do otherwise, given the legal action they have to face for noncompliance. They do not wear masks properly and hardly care to observe the one-metre-plus rule or wash/sanitize their hands regularly. They also throw parties on the sly. It was reported on Monday (02) that a coming-of-age ceremony in Kalutara had given rise to a large cluster of infections numbering 85. This cluster would have gone unnoticed if the Public Health Inspectors in the area had not remained vigilant. Contact tracing is not being conducted vigorously unlike in the past although the need for it is felt more than ever owing to the prevalence of the Delta variant, which the World Health Organization says, is as contagious as Chickenpox.

Sri Lanka seems to have pinned all its hopes on vaccines as can be seen from its suboptimal response to the spread of the Delta variant, which has scared other countries. The vaccination campaign has made considerable progress here, and inoculation prevents morbidity and mortality, but much more needs to be done to curb the transmission of the highly contagious variant, which is troubling even China, which was thought to have overcome the pandemic successfully. Cities have been closed in Australia in view of the Delta variant. This shows how concerned the world is about the prospect of being beaten by the virus. But grand preparations are being made to reopen Sri Lanka as if the pandemic were a thing of the past. The consequences of the lifting of restrictions will be seen within the next few weeks. There are signs of infection clusters forming, and their cumulative impact could be really devastating.

Prof. Malik Peiris has done his duty as an eminent Sri Lankan, who feels for this country. All he can do is to issue warnings, and it is up to the government leaders, the Opposition, the trade unions, and the general public to heed them, or perish collectively.


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