Sri Lanka is one of the success stories in the world in respect of containing COVID-19 threat. It is so successful that people have even totally forgotten the threat and now media rarely carry stories about the disease. However, does it mean that we are absolutely safe? Relevant authorities say ‘No’. The Chief of the Health Ministry’s Epidemiology Unit Dr. Sudath Samaraweera on Saturday warned of another wave of the pandemic, citing the reckless behaviour of the people in the country, in respect of safety measures against the coronavirus spread.
Dr. Samaraweera’s warning is a timely reminder, as even the government and the authorities seem to be of the view that Sri Lanka is totally safe now, leave alone the ordinary people. Rarely now authorities appear in media to warn or advise the people on safety measures. The person who spearheaded the fight against the pandemic, Director General of Health Services, Dr Anil Jasinghe, possibly the most experienced health administrator during disasters has been appointed the secretary to the environment ministry. People seem to ignore wearing face masks in public places. Hand-washing and hand-sanitizing facilities in many public places have gone missing. Social distancing was totally ignored at high profile funerals and election rallies. This apathy has mainly been resulted in by the fact that no local cases of COVID-19 were reported for a relatively long time, except for the “imported cases”- the cases among the returnees from other countries.
The last cluster of COVID-19 cases was reported from the Kandakadu Rehabilitation Centre early July where 300 inmates were tested positive on July 10 alone, and it was brought under control by early August. Cases among the local society outside the confined groups and groups under observation or the community spread was reported even before that. However, the celebrations of success seem to be far away, as a single case was reported from the Kandakadu Rehabilitation centre itself on Saturday.
The danger is that the origin of some clusters such as the one detected in Kandakadu had not exactly been identified. It was inferred then that the coronavirus might have spread to the rehabilitation centre from the drug addicts taken there from Suduwella in Ja-ela where another cluster had earlier been detected. However, if there had been such a possibility that the authorities would not have been so lethargic until they detected over 600 cases all of a sudden among the inmates of the centre. The origin of the Bandaranaike Mawatha cluster was said to be a woman returned from Dambadiva pilgrimage, but she had returned home one month before she was tested positive for COVID-19. The latest case has also been reported about a month after the last case reported from there.
Sri Lanka has been fortunate enough to be protected from a countrywide threat of the deadly pandemic, despite there being several loopholes in the safety mechanism. The virus-infected Chinese woman, the first ever case reported from Sri Lanka had travelled to many areas in the country before she was tested COVID-19 positive. But, fortunately, none in any of those areas had been contracted the virus. The Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) said that it had told the authorities to monitor the passengers entering the country, as early as mid February, but the process was started only after the first local case was reported on March 11.
Initially the passengers from China where the latest version of the coronavirus was detected first were allowed to be self-quarantined, whereas the passengers from South Korea, Iran and Italy (and later from other countries as well) sent to state-run quarantine centres. The government first allowed the buses and the trains to take passengers to half of their seating capacity and then to the full seating capacity, but within days, they were seen fully packed, while the authorities turning a blind eye, amidst so many media revelations of the situation. After all these loopholes, we are still fortunate to confine COVID-19 cases to the restricted places and places under observation.
That does not mean that we would be fortunate to the extent to ignore for ever any flaw on the part of the authorities or the people, in respect of COVID-19 control. Dr. Samaraweera on Saturday said that even a single case inadvertently left out would suffice to wreak havoc. Our closest neighbour, India has become the latest epicentre of COVID-19 with 4.2 million people having been infected so far, and over 90,000 new cases being reported for the second day, yesterday, which is the highest number of cases reported in a single day anywhere in the world. Many countries which have successfully controlled the disease such as Russia, Vietnam and New Zealand have seen the second spike of virus spread. Therefore it is high time that the authorities start a second wave of the awareness programme on the pandemic.