When this Coronavirus pandemic is eventually done and dusted and its history comes to be written, Sri Lanka will surely be the case study that is highlighted in the chapter on “How not to manage a pandemic’.

Now, the country is in lockdown, as it was one year ago. There is a difference though. Officially at least, there is no lockdown. All we have are ‘travel restrictions’. These restrictions will continue until the middle of this month. They will not be interrupted at any time in between for the public to obtain essential supplies. They will cover the entire country. In other words, a total lockdown, but by another name!

This is somewhat similar to the government’s nomenclature for the current outbreak. When the second wave hit Sri Lanka late last year, the government insisted that there was no community transmission and that there were only two clusters, one at a garment factory in Minuwangoda and another at the wholesale fish market at Peliyagoda. Fast forward to today, and nothing has changed. The entire country may be in lockdown with thousands of infections and forty deaths per day but all we are having, according to the official releases from the government, is the ‘New year cluster’!

In other words, the government is in denial mode. It is still- after over 1500 deaths which are increasing at the rate of at least forty a day and after 189,000 infections- denying that there is a raging pandemic in the country. Most importantly, it is trying to deny that it got it horribly wrong, in the way it managed the pandemic. In doing so, it is trying to deny that it is responsible for the loss of lives of over 1500 people- and counting- which, by the way, right now, is six times more than the death toll from the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks.

There is no better illustration of the sheer incompetency of the government in managing the pandemic than the saga of the Astra Zeneca vaccines. When the first shipment of the vaccines arrived, either someone forgot to divide the total number of vaccines by two and administer them to that number of people who would have required a second dose three months later, or, as is more than likely, health authorities received orders from the powers that be to vaccinate as many as possible, so they could get bragging rights to the claims that a greater number has been vaccinated. Clearly, there was more interest in the public relations aspect of the exercise than the health of the nation.

The result: the second stock of vaccines did not arrive. This week, we heard that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had directed his principal advisor Lalith Weeratunga to expedite securing stocks of the vaccines for 6000,000 persons who are left without a second dose. Reportedly, the President has instructed Weeratunga to secure the stocks as soon as possible and to purchase the doses ‘at any price’!

The reality though is that stocks are not available with the manufacturer unable to meet the global demand even for orders that have already been placed. Weeratunga, like someone roaming the alleys of Panchikawatte, looking for a second-hand spare part of a car that is not available on the open market, now has to go shopping among nations that may have excess stocks of the vaccine because they are not using it as a first choice due to the risk of side effects.

In a bid to deflect criticism the government was copping for miscalculating the number of vaccines that were administered, it put out another red herring- that research is being conducted on whether those who received the Astra Zeneca vaccine could be administered a different vaccine for its second dose, in effect, ‘mixing and matching’ vaccines as if they were cocktails, trying to get the best ‘kick’.

We do not know where this research is being undertaken in Sri Lanka and whether the government is actively sponsoring it but in the rest of the world, there is no conclusive evidence yet that this possible, given the complexities associated with each of the vaccines and their different mechanisms of action. However, this is a government that does engage in ground-breaking coronavirus research. Why it conducted research on charlatan Dhammika’speniya’ before recently concluding that it was ineffective against the coronavirus. We knew that all along didn’t wewhen Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchigulped down the concoction and then went on to develop Covid-19?

The government has also been accused of not even managing its so-called ‘travel restrictions’ in a fair manner. People who went out to purchase essential supplies were remanded and sent to quarantine whereas make-up artists and models with links to those in high places are released on bail when they are caught hosting birthday bashes in five-star hotels. The law does not apply equally to all but that is not really news under this regime.

The list of impunity and unequal treatment in the face of the pandemic can go on ad nauseam: Minister Gamini Lokuge in Piliyandala, the Moratuwa mayor, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) ‘prioritising’ their extended family members for vaccines etc. etc.

The missing piece in this massive mismanagement jigsaw puzzle is the marginalisation of medical experts (though not the GMOA). That is also the reason why the management of this pandemic has been one utter failure for the government. It is clear that decisions are based not on medical or scientific advice but on political considerations. The pandemic was tightly managed until the general elections; thereafter, rules were relaxed and no one really cared about maintaining strict health guidelines.

Even as recently as this week, with the pandemic raging and the country in lockdown in all but name, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was re-iterating that factories and industries should be maintained at a functional level. It is this type of myopic thinking, the lack of proper advice and guidance to the President and the reluctance of those who can provide such advice to do so because they fear they will be branded as traitors and saboteurs if they do so, that has led to this disaster.

When the pandemic eventually dies down in this country, it will extract a heavy cost in terms of lives lost. That will be only because our leaders and decision-makers were so blind that they did not wish to see the blatantly obvious.


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