Its been just over a year since the discovery of the first case of a Covid-19 patient in the country. On January 27, 2020, it was discovered that a Chinese tourist who entered the country around two weeks earlier had been infected with the virus.
In 2019, the country was on the road to economic recovery from the effects of the three-decade-long civil war which ended in 2009. Then quite unexpectedly, suicide bombers struck on Easter Sunday in 2019 in three tourists hotels and Churches, killing more than 250 persons in a matter of minutes. The devastation effectively halted the forward march of the tourist trade which contributed over 5% to the country’s GDP.
By January 27, 2020, the Covid-19 virus was reported in 11 countries with 2,798 confirmed cases and 80 deaths, which added to the woes of the tourist trade. By March 2020, the total number of confirmed cases in the country had increased to 122, reporting two deaths.
With numbers rapidly rising, on March 20, an islandwide lockdown was imposed, but numbers continued to rise and by July 31, 2020, the number of COVID-19 cases in Sri Lanka had escalated to 2,814. The lockdown literally brought the tourist industry in the country to its knees. Tourist arrivals in the months of April, May and June were nil, as countries worldwide went into a state of lockdown to combat the spread of the virus.
The immediate effect of the lockdown was the loss of employment. Private remittances sent by migrant workers which contributed to 63% of total export earnings of the country, decreased to approximately 32% by April 2020. In like manner, agricultural exports declined by 32% on a year over year basis, causing carnage to the export earnings of the country.
A study by D. Amaratunga on the effect of the pandemic in Sri Lanka revealed, 1,465 establishments were fully closed, 1025 enterprises were functioning under their maximum capacity and only 94 establishments were functioning in their full capacity when the pandemic was at its height.
Not unexpectedly the high levels of unemployment, loss of job security and pay cuts resulted in anxiety and economic stress among the population in the country.
The Governor of the Central Bank pointed out the informal sector - daily paid workers - comprise nearly 60% of the country’s total workforce, and of this number approximately 24% comprising nearly 660,000 lost their jobs overnight during the lockdown.
A survey carried out by the ‘Daily Mirror’ revealed, it cost a family of four a minimum of Rs. 27,550/- to have two basic meals a day. That is without taking into account the cost of basic health needs, children’s education, travel (bus fare) or leisure etc!
One of the worst impacts of the virus was the disruption of educational activities following lockdown restrictions which led to closure of the educational sector. Government promoted continued provision of educational services online. But less than 30% of students enjoy this facility and has widened social inequalities in access to education.
The lack of this facility - access to online facilities - is also fueling unrest among those sections of the population especially those in the rural areas, the plantations and the inner city dwellers (slums) to whom these facilities are beyond reach.
While the government moved quickly to avert the worst effects of the Covid-19, as for example, before the first confirmed case of Covid-19 was identified in the country, it formed the National Action Committee for Covid-19. It was also proactive in banning all public gatherings, closure of education centres including schools and universities. It discontinued non-essential services and enforced an island wide curfew, with a ‘work from home’ option for the population across the country.
Government also, despite the sharp drop in its export earning provided food rations and a sum of cash to poorer section of the population. However, there were also shortcomings during this period. Just when it appeared that government had been able to control the spread of the virus, a second wave of the virus broke out at a garment manufacturing outlet which had apparently flouted rules.
Again while government provided employers with a raft of measures to tide over the financial hit employers took as a result of the lockdown, many businesses especially small and medium enterprises were forced to close down
While on the whole, government’s efforts did help avert the worst effects of the virus, the big question we face is ‘whether government has, a plan in place to face similar situations which could arise in the future.