As 43 cases have been tested positive for COVID 19 at the time this article was penned Sri Lanka’s health authorities and staff are keeping a close watch on returnees from high risk countries and any foreign countries during the past couple of days. While everybody has been advised to remain indoors and avoid public gatherings, employers and employees employed in essential services are at work. These include food, transport, health, divisional secretariats and Pradeshiya Sabhas. However the COVID 19 outbreak seems to be having a drastic impact on the country’s economy and various other sectors. But the Government continues to request support from the public to help them contain the disease and ensure that all citizens are safe.
Help authorities to contain disease
According to Dr. Neranjan Dissanayake, Consultant Respiratory Physician, Teaching Hospital and District Chest Clinic, Ratnapura the definition of Quarantine is the ‘separation of a person or group of people reasonably believed to have been exposed to a communicable disease but not yet symptomatic, from others who have not been so exposed, to prevent the possible spread of the communicable disease’. Hence these persons do not have symptoms, but have been exposed to the disease.
They have a higher risk of developing the disease compared to the ones who are not exposed. Isolation on the other hand is defined as ‘the separation of a person or group of people known or reasonably believed to be infected with a communicable disease and potentially infectious from those who are not infected to prevent spread of the communicable disease. Isolation for public health purposes may be voluntary or compelled by state, or local public health order.’ “Hence these persons are having symptoms of being infected, and should be separated from the healthy population until it is confirmed that they do not have the disease. If investigations confirm that they have the disease, then they will be further isolated until they are not infectious.
Dr. Neranjan Dissanayake
Hence these persons are having symptoms of being infected, and should be separated from the healthy population
“COVID 19 is very contagious and is thought to be more contagious than MERS and SARS. Fortunately the mortality rate is low,” he added. But some groups are at high risk of dying and serious disease. These include elderly persons, those with heart disease, cancer, immune suppression and diabetes. If you belong to one of these high-risk groups then it is advisable to refrain from going to a high-risk area where there is a tendency for the disease to spread. This could be anywhere from public transport to a personal function such as a wedding. Even to those who do not belong to these groups, it is always better to avoid unnecessary gatherings, to prevent them from getting the disease because they can transmit to another person, who may have a poor outcome. There are some cases that have been reported to be acquired in Sri Lanka from local spread but it is too early to comment on further spread. My kind request for all Sri Lankans who have come to Sri Lanka recently or who have been exposed to such people is to declare themselves when seeking treatment without fear. Please help the authorities in containing this disease. This will help our mother land prosper,” said Dissanayake.
Importance of quarantine process
While the authorities request those arriving from high risk countries and any foreign country to quarantine themselves, it was revealed that many have escaped this process. This could be mainly due to the stigma revolving around the disease. But by keeping symptoms to themselves, the risk they are posing to a larger community is much more. This is why the authorities are now urging all those who arrived from Italy between March 1-15 to register themselves at the nearest Police station. “The Quarantine and Prevention of Disease Ordinance has been established to prevent person to person transmission of a disease,” opined Dr. Nimal Gamagedara, Consultant Community Physician, Uva Province. “In the event of a highly contagious disease such as COVID 19, the Director General of Health Services has the authority to put the Ordinance in effect. But right now MOH Officers, public health inspectors (PHIs) are also given the authority to implement the Ordinance in order to contain the disease. Right now we do not know from where and from whom it’s being transmitted. When the first Sri Lankan who was employed as a chauffeur guide was tested positive for the disease, a few days later his friend who also stayed in the same accommodation and travelled with him together also contracted the disease. Therefore the WHO declared that COVID 19 is spreading as a community transmission. Therefore the quarantine process is very important,” added Gamagedara.
Quarantining happens in two ways and it could be either institutional or home quarantine. “Institutional quarantine is compulsory for those coming from high risk countries such as Italy, Iran and South Korea. Once they arrive in the country they are sent to one of the four quarantine centres. We then keep them there and observe if they are developing any symptoms. This applies to those entering from ports as well. Thereafter we closely monitor the people during an incubation period between two to 14 days. If we observe any symptoms we send them to a hospital for treatment. Thereafter people who were around or in close proximity to this person will be quarantined for another 14 days to observe any symptoms developing on them. Apart from that, those coming from countries with a possible local transmission including India, Thailand and Singapore are sent to their homes from the airport or ports and are requested to be on self-quarantine. Here, PHIs will visit them at their houses and instruct them on what food to take and will closely monitor if any symptoms are being developed,” said Gamagedara.
Maximum capacity reached
A statement issued by the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) called the government to shutdown all ports of entry including airports and harbours, extend public holidays to cover the entire week, place centrally coordinated vigorous measurers for contact tracing and monitoring, utilisers Medical Officers of Health (MOH), Grama Niladharis, Armed Forces and Police, provide adequate protection for healthcare staff in both government and private sectors and postpone all non-emergency healthcare services in government hospitals. It further said that containing the disease is the only path available to our country as ICU services and ventilator support which is necessary to treat patients with advanced COVID 19 is already at maximum utilisation with virtually no reserve.
Impact on local and global economies
As countries continue to be on lockdown and governments requesting the public to stay indoors the impact on the economy is greatly felt. “Not only Sri Lanka but the entire world is caught up in two battles,” opined Prof. Sirimal Abeyratne, Professor of Economics at University of Colombo. “One is to deal with the spread of COVID 19 where countries have taken many measures to control its spread. As a result many interactions and transactions have been limited. This will inevitably have an impact on the economic machinery. The other battle these countries have to engage in is to minimise its impacts on the economy. Actually there are multiplying effects in the upward and downward direction. By restricting travel, by reducing fuel prices, closing down shops, deploying military will limit production, consumption and trade. This will result in loss of employment and as such the world is heading towards an economic recession. However we have to cope up to minimise the negative impacts this virus outbreak would have on our economies.” said Prof.Abeyratne.
When asked how it would affect Sri Lanka’s trade links with China, Prof. Abeyratne opined that Europe and USA would be most affected regions when compared to China. “This is because their economic growth is stronger than China as far as trade relations are concerned. But in the mean time we need to look for new opportunities as well,” he said.
Prof. Sirimal Abeyratne
With the COVID 19 outbreak and the government declaring another three day vacation period, several industries are experiencing a massive blow. One group that closely work with foreigners and earn an income from tourist arrivals are tour guides.
“The whole industry is paralysed as tourist arrivals experienced a steep decline,” opined Priyalal Malaviarachchi, Treasurer, Sri Lanka Institute of National Tour Guide Lecturers. “But there are some groups from countries such as Australia who are still here but unfortunately they cannot visit any place as they have been shut down,” said Malaviarachchi.
When asked how tour guides have been instructed to keep themselves safe, Malaviarachchi said that he himself returned from a tour and went on self-quarantine at home. “We meet a lot of people when we go on tours and therefore do not know from where or whom we would contract the disease,” added Malaviarachchi.
So far around 1500 tour guides have been registered while licenses have been issued to around 1700 of them. However, around 1200 active tour guides could be found today. “We experienced a drastic drawback during the Easter attack and started recovering.
In 2018 we experienced the highest arrival of tourists with 2.5 million arrivals recorded in a year. We were just picking up and now we have become paralysed,” said Malaviarachchi. Banking was declared an essential service and those in state and private banks had to report to work, despite the government declaring special holidays.
“We requested the Finance Ministry a special holiday for staff working in banks since there may be a risk for those coming to do transactions,” said Ranjan Senanayake, Ceylon Bank Employees Union Secretary. “People are dealing with money and it could be an easy mode of transmitting the virus. When authorities have already asked the public to help contain the virus, it’s our responsibility to contribute.
Therefore apart from automated systems and international banking services which need to be continued we are looking at ways to allow employees to work from home. There may be an impact on the monetary transactions but we should ensure that everybody is safe first,” said Senanayake. Apart from that the hotel industry, apparels and many other import export businesses have been greatly affected.
Some of the key clientele is found in countries such as Italy and South Korea while many local firms have already inked deals and agreements with China and many Chinese establishments already exist in the country. As a result of the COVID 19 outbreak, economic links between these countries have weakened.
As we continue to witness deserted streets in Colombo, those employed in essential services are still on the roads. We spoke to a few people seen by the roadside and here’s what they had to say :
Little vigilant now
B. Somapala is a lottery ticket seller down Bastian Mawatha. Unlike other Mondays, last Monday wasn’t a profitable day for him. “Even at 5.00pm in the evening I’m left with 20-30 tickets to be sold. If they closed down the airport during the initial stages we wouldn’t have been facing all these repercussions today. At least now the government is being a little vigilant now.”
If they closed down the airport during the initial stages we wouldn’t have been facing all these repercussions
It will affect wages
“The Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) sector constitute 65% of the GDP and right now we are experiencing a massive blow,” said Dhammika Samarawickrama, President of Colombo Electrical Traders Association.
“This was the same during the Easter Sunday attack and just when we were recovering the COVID 19 outbreak has now imposed a threat on our businesses. We have a staff of 25 people and many whom we have outsourced. If the government declares holidays or if the country is on lockdown it will affect their wages and bonuses which were to be given during the Avurudu season.”
If the country is on lockdown it will affect their wages and bonuses
Responsibility falls on citizens as well
Mohamed Hussain has been running a retail business in Pettah for the past 14 years. “Some days are dull and some are not. We cannot expect profits when there are fewer crowds on the streets.
But we have some hope that at least one or two people would buy some clothes.” When asked if he was satisfied with the government’s decisions to mitigate COVID 19 he said that part of the responsibility falls on the citizens as well.
We cannot expect profits when there are fewer crowds on the streets
“We thought of closing down shops”
“Most of the shops have closed down and there are no business transactions happening,” said A. Vijayakumar, President of Sri Lanka Jewellery Association.
“Therefore we thought of closing down shops today and tomorrow even though it wasn’t declared a mercantile holiday. People need to corporate with authorities and help curb the spreading of this virus. However we will look after our employees even during this difficult situation.”
People need to corporate with authorities and help curb the spreading of this virus