To ignore the advice of WHO chief calling for “extreme vigilance” to countries beginning to exit lockdowns would be disastrous
It seems that only one cluster of Coronavirus infected persons –the Navy cluster that constitutes half of the total infected persons so far - is active now in Sri Lanka, according to the health and defence authorities, who are in the frontline in fighting the COVID-19 threat.
As if to confirm this point they always emphasise these days that almost all new detection of infections are related to the Navy personnel, who are believed to have been infected with the deadly virus while they were pursuing contact persons of an infected man in Suduwella, Ja Ela.
Some days they report about new infections outside of this cluster, but those reports come from quarantine centres – from among persons confined on suspicion of being infected with the virus. Then the picture given to the country by the authorities is that they have completely contained the threat as no cases have been reported from unexpected areas for the past few weeks.
In other words, all COVID-19 patients and possible patients have been identified and encased. This is the rationale behind the decision to ease the restrictions imposed on more than 22 million people in the country in varying degrees in various districts for the past two months.
World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday that before any country begins to lift restrictions, it should have the epidemic under control, ensure that its health systems can cope with a potential resurgence and have necessary testing, tracing and isolating infrastructure in place. Sri Lankan leaders seem to believe that the country complies with this.
Now, only in Colombo and Gampaha Districts, a bizarre indefinite “curfew’ is imposed amidst which the offices and most of the workplaces are allowed to function with skeletal workforces. A dusk to dawn curfew is in force in other districts.
Working amidst curfew – a new concept was put in practice in Colombo and Gampaha Districts while allowing buses to carry passengers only to half of their seating capacity and this measure created chaotic situations in many places as some passengers were left out.
Private bus owners refrained from deploying their buses because they would incur losses by carrying few passengers adhering to the new rules.
" The picture given to the country is that they have completely contained the threat as no cases have been reported from unexpected areas for the past few weeks"
Yet, the Health and defence authorities expressed dissatisfaction over the relatively large crowd being seen on roads disregarding the “social distancing” or physical distancing instructions.
Nevertheless, taking the insufficiency of transport facilities for the workforce into account, Transport Minister Mahinda Amaraweera permitted buses and trains on Tuesday to carry passengers to their full seating capacity.
Before the global pandemic hit the country early March, the Colombo bound buses and trains from other areas in the morning were fully packed with many passengers dangerously travelling on footboards.
And parents hired vans and buses for their children to go to schools in cities and towns, and they too were overcrowded. Some private vans and buses had been hired by office goers. It is clear that bringing the economy to the pre-COVID-19 period and the life returning to normal is nowhere in the near future if we are to maintain the “social distancing.”
But it is a well-known fact that Sri Lanka, a country always seeking foreign borrowings and grants cannot endure this situation for long, mainly for economic reasons. Even before the dissolution of Parliament on March 2, the government on February 20 attempted to increase the borrowing limit of the Vote on Account that had been passed in Parliament on October 23 last year for the first four months of this year, by Rs. 757 billion.
However, it had to withdraw the motion as the Opposition which then had the majority power in Parliament opposed it.
Shortly after Gotabaya Rajapaksa assumed office as the President - on November 27 last year - the government apparently having the forthcoming Parliamentary election in mind announced a plethora of tax concessions.
The immediate loss of revenue to the government from these tax cuts estimated to range between Rs. 650 billion and Rs. 680 billion and this amounts to a third of the government revenue, according to an article written to the Daily FT of December 9 by former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank W.A.Wijewardena.
Media had quoted Rehan Lakhany, President of Sri Lanka Apparel Exporters Association as saying that country’s apparel industry would lose 1.5 billion US dollars’ worth of revenue between March and June, as a result of the virus threat.
According to another report, the World Bank had projected that “Remittances received by Sri Lanka will drop by 19 percent in 2020, due to the global crisis induced by the COVID-19 pandemic and declining oil prices.”
President’s Secretary Dr P.B. Jayasundera in a letter to State institutions on May 6 had requested all State sector employees to donate their salary for May-or a part of it- to the government while claiming that it would relieve the economic burden on the people.
Despite this being later described by the government as a personal request by the President’s Secretary, trade unions have expressed fear that it would be perceived as an order or instruction when the letter reaches the heads of State institutions.
"People are tired of being confined to their homes. Prolonged confinement might bring in psychological issues especially in children "
President Rajapaksa during a telephone conversation on April 1 urged the WHO Director-General to pursue with the international financial organisations such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and lending nations to provide debt moratorium or debt re-profiling facilities for developing countries like Sri Lanka, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic situation.
Politically, the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) was earlier preparing to hold the Parliamentary Elections amidst Coronavirus threat and it was keen to proceed with the nomination process even after curfews were imposed and holidays were announced for schools and workplaces.
On the other hand, a situation conducive for the election would be helpful to resolve the impending Constitutional crisis as well, for some extent.
People are tired of being confined to their homes. Prolonged confinement might bring in psychological issues especially in children. Also, the curfew is eating into the savings of the people and the daily wage earners are the worst hit segment of the society. Thus the situation begs the easing of lock-downs and activation of the economy at its full throttle.
But it is a dangerous manoeuvre since the possibility of an explosion of virus outbreak again and losing everything that has been achieved through the hard work by the health and defence personnel and the sacrifices by the people cannot be ruled out.
In his brief, on Monday the WHO chief underscored the “challenges that may lie ahead,” in the light of several countries that have lifted Coronavirus restrictions and reopened businesses, including China, have seen jumps in Coronavirus cases.
In Wuhan, China, where the Novel Coronavirus was first reportedly detected last December, the first cluster of cases since the lockdown was lifted, was identified this week.
Germany and France have also reported an increase in cases since the easing of restrictions. However, countries have no option other than gradually easing the restrictions to activate the idling part of the economy which is essential for the survival for many countries.
Yet, to ignore the advice of the WHO chief who said earlier this week “extreme vigilance” was needed in countries beginning to exit from lockdowns would be disastrous.