Can Sri Lanka contain the surging third wave of the COVID-19 outbreak in the country without going for a major lockdown is the question currently faced by the health authorities? The Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) seems to be of the view that only a country-wide lockdown would help arrest the latest spike of the pandemic that has emerged following the Sinhala and Hindu New Year. The Public Health Inspectors’ Union President Upul Rohana had insisted several times after the festival that the country should be locked down at least for a few days.
However, Political leadership seems to be more concerned about the consequences of such a lockdown in terms of economy which is already in the doldrums. National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 outbreak (NOCPCO) chief, Army Commander General Shavendra Silva had stated that there won’t be a country-wide lockdown. Hence the health authorities have been isolating individual villages where infected persons are reported in considerable numbers.
Nevertheless, one might question whether the spike is a sudden development or a situation that had already existed and came to light after an increase of PCR tests following the New Year festivities. Earlier the authorities reduced the number of PCR tests conducted daily claiming that the decline of deaths due to COVID-19 was an indication that the pandemic was subsiding in the country. Whatever the reason for the spike may be the latest situation is that people carrying deadly coronavirus are roaming around each of us.
Echoing the statements by the head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said on April 26 that vaccinating citizens is the only solution to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Sri Lanka seems to be in a catch 22 situation or the country’s health authorities’ efforts to vaccinate 14 million out of 22 million people in the country is feared to be a shot in the dark.
The Government announced on February 23 that the Ministry of Health plans to vaccinate 14 million people out of Sri Lanka’s total population against the COVID-19 virus. And the WHO, under the COVAX facility promised to provide vaccines for 20 per cent of the population. Initially, the Cabinet approved the purchase of 10 million Covishield vaccines, the Indian version of Oxford AstraZeneca vaccines for $ 52.5 million as a direct procurement from the Serum Institute Private Ltd, India and to enter into an agreement between AstraZeneca institute in Britain and Sri Lanka State Pharmaceutical Corporation to purchase 3.5 million of COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by the said institute.
Yet, the vaccination programme hit a snag with India seeing the worst spike of the pandemic following the election for several State Assemblies in the country and the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu religious event where millions of people flock. India has stopped exportation of Covishield vaccines due to local high demand for vaccines after these developments. And the doses expected under the COVAX facility too seem to have hit the same snag.
The country received 764,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccines from India and under the COVAX programme and purchased another 500,000 doses before beginning inoculation in January. However, since over 900,000 people were administered with the first dose, now the authorities are in a fix to find 600,000 more doses for the second jab for the same people.
In light of this situation, the government announced in late March that it would purchase seven million Sputnik V doses and on mid-April again announced that it has decided to buy six million more Sputnik V vaccines, raising the total it plans to purchase from Russia to 13 million doses. 200,000 doses of the Russian-made vaccine were expected at the end of the Sinhala & Tamil New Year holidays, but it did not materialise.
The government is also looking at sources other than India to purchase the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in view of the delay in securing the vaccines from India, according to health authorities. Also, Chief Epidemiologist Dr Sudath Samaraweera said authorities were also considering a mix-and-match approach to the second dose roll out. Experiments are underway in other countries and if there are positive results, we can give another vaccine as the second shot, Samaraweera had said. These various announcements by various ministers and officials indicate desperation on the part of the government in inoculation and lead to confusion among the people.
Meanwhile, Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi stated in Parliament last month that the Policy Decision on vaccination of people with the Sinopharm vaccine of China will be taken only after the WHO approves it. It must be recalled that the government during the controversy over the cremation of COVID-19 victims argued that WHO was not always correct. Also, it has already announced that it would buy the Russian vaccine which is also yet to receive the approval of the WHO.
All in all, people are in the dark on what vaccine they would receive, when it would happen or would it happen at all.