We are living in troubled times. In April last year -just as we felt the island’’s economy was beginning to recover in the aftermath of the 30-year-long insurgency, out of nowhere the Easter Sunday terror attacks devastated the country.
The attackers not only took more than 250 innocent lives, they destroyed the incipient tourist industry and far worse -they once again soured communal relations in the country. And this year, as it appeared that tensions were easing, the coronavirus struck.
In January the first COVID-19 patient was discovered. By March with the number of cases spreading, government imposed a nationwide curfew, roped in the military to help the near 10,000 health workers involved in the struggle to trace and quarantine infected persons in an effort to combat the fast-spreading pandemic.
By end March, 45 quarantine centres had been built by the armed forces and nearly 3,500 persons quarantined in. With numbers of victims rapidly growing, the government enforced a strict strategy of detection and identification of contacts, quarantine, travel restrictions and isolation of houses/small villages etc, which successfully confined the pandemic to a few identified clusters.
The measures effectively slowed down the spread of the virus. Death rates did not soar as in China for example. However, local civil activists described the measures taken to control the virus as draconian. They saw inherent dangers in the involvement of the armed forces to combat the coronavirus, even though the measures brought the spread of the pandemic to controllable levels. Even more unfortunate was the reaction of the western ‘liberal media’, which saw the use of the military to combat the virus as ‘a militarised response to COVID-19’.
Today, these self-same countries are using the military of their countries to help combat the spread of the coronavirus -Australia being the most recent case in point. By June it appeared the spread of the virus in Sri Lanka had been brought under control. For two days between June 20 and 22, no new cases were reported country-wide. Despite WHO warnings that the virus was not going away any time soon, in SL we felt we had overcome all major hurdles.
Then on June 22, two new cases were reported. At that time according to the Ministry of Health 414 persons remained infected and receiving treatment at hospitals and 11 persons had succumbed to the virus countrywide.
Out of the blues so-to-say on July 10, the Director-General of Health Services (DGHS) Dr. Anil Jasinghe announced a COVID-19 cluster at a rehabilitation camp for drug addicts at Kandakadu. The patients were inmates, staff members and their families. The cluster had produced more than 300 new cases and was linked to a cluster that emerged at Suduwella in April. The numbers have been growing since then and patients have been detected at numerous places quite far from Kandakadu.
According to officials, the drug-addicts who tested positive at Suduwella had been quarantined and when they were released, were sent for rehabilitation to Kandakadu. To add to this witches brew, on July 15, the University of Sri Jayawardenepura which had been asked by the health ministry to conduct PCR tests related to COVID-19, announced it was withdrawing from PCR testing regarding rejection of particular tests.
On July 16, senior medical specialists warned that if Sri Lanka ignored the current spread of the virus, it may end up in a similar situation to that of Brazil or India. Brazil has over two million COVID-19 cases while India has over a million cases.
Worsening the picture in public perception, the Public Health Inspectors’ Union President Upul Rohana said cases relating to the Kandakadu Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre (KTRC) had been reported from 16 districts and around 3,000 persons were under quarantine. President of the Association of Medical Specialists (AMS), Senior Consultant Dr. Ranasinghe warned there was an imminent or established community transmission of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka. Not unnaturally the public was aghast. Rumour mills worked overtime, talk of shutdowns, imminent curfews, anticipated food shortages became the talk of the town. Once again food items flew off the shelves of super markets indicating a panic situation.
On July 17, DGHS Dr. Jasinghe entered the fray claiming a number of false positive reports had come from the Jayawardenepura lab which led to the suspension of PCR testing at that institute. On the same day, the Army Chief who heads the task force combating COVID-19, claimed the situation at the KTRC was under control.
The contradictory statements made by ‘knowledgeable persons’ has become gist to the rumour mill. Public confidence in official statements and belief in official statements regarding COVID-19 situation in the country is fast eroding.
It’s time the authorities took the public into confidence and clear the misconceptions troubling the people’s minds.