Implosion of COVID cases at Welisara Navy Camp: Something is not right


  • Military bases are tinderboxes for the virus spread. The close-knit living arrangements and shared amenities provide a fast track for the multiplication of virus cases
  • Military played a pivotal role in Sri Lanka’s response to COVID-19, aggressively tracing contacts, effectively enabling the medical authorities to try to stop the virus on its tracks


 Sri Lanka’s initial COVID-19 response was, by and large, a success. Immediately after the discovery of the first case, a Chinese tourist from Wuhan, the government responded promptly. It set up a task force, sent an aircraft to evacuate the Sri Lankan students from Wuhan, and established a network of quarantine facilities where all arrivals from high-risk countries were self- isolated for 2-3 weeks. Military intelligence units undertook aggressive contact tracing. An islandwide lockdown brought the country to a standstill, but also limited the spread of the virus. A combination of mitigation and suppression strategies averted an implosion of local cases.   

Now, that early success hangs in the balance. Last week, a naval personal, who served in the frontline of contact tracing was tested positive for the coronavirus. Subsequent PCR testing revealed a large cluster of naval personnel in the same barrack of the Welisara Naval complex as infected with COVID-19. As of noon yesterday, 95 sailors attached to the Navy base have been tested positive. That includes at least 27 personnel who were on leave.   

The sprawling complex of 4000 uniformed and civil employees is now sealed off. Also an Army Special Force camp in Seeduwa was isolated on Sunday after an officer there was tested positive. His spouse, a naval officer attached to the Welisara base is believed to have contracted the virus first. Also, an Airman has been tested positive for the virus. He is believed to have come into contact with a group of navy personnel.   

Military bases are tinderboxes for the virus spread. The close-knit living arrangements and shared amenities provide a fast track for the multiplication of virus cases. In their susceptibility to the virus transmission, those dwellings are little different from cruise ships or aircraft carriers. The only difference is while the spread is confined in the ship, military bases, as feared now, could become a nexus for community transmission.  

After the recent developments, the Government’s Medical Officers Association (GMOA) has raised concerns that new cases are being reported in the far-flung areas which until now had limited exposure to the virus. Thirty-four additional cases were reported by yesterday noon, bringing the total number of positive cases to 568.
“ The emerging situation in Anuradhapura, Kurunegala, Ratnapura, Polonnaruwa, Monaragala, Ampara, Trincomalee and Hambantota districts should be taken into attention,” it wrote in a letter addressed to the Commander of Army, Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva. The GMOA proposed that the existing social distancing methods be continued until they are reviewed.  

Combating the virus spread within the confines of the closed-off naval garrison would not be much of a hassle for the medical officers. However, tracing the cases spread out potentially countrywide would be extremely difficult.   
The ministry of defence yesterday directed all military personnel who were on leave to report to duty. That was a change of heart. The earlier position was that the naval personnel on leave to spend their holiday in their residences. The change may highlight the gravity of the emerging situation and fear that potential and undiscovered virus clusters would implode without prompt action. The recent developments would disappoint the government’s plans - which the majority public had been eagerly awaiting- to relax the curfew and the gradual revival of social and economic activities. Needless to say, it is dangerous to open the country without knowing the full scale of the virus spread.  

The military played a pivotal role in Sri Lanka’s coronavirus response, aggressively tracing contacts, effectively enabling the medical authorities to try to stop the virus on its tracks.   

However, in hindsight though, when the military personnel were sent to the frontline of the epidemic without proper Personal Protection Equipment and adequate training on the unseen enemy, it was a disaster waiting to happen.  
Also, some lessons could come handy when Sri Lanka and the world is getting ready for a long haul battle against the coronavirus. (As one epidemiologist quipped, the world is still in the second innings of a baseball match (the game has nine innings)). It could go on for at least 18 months.

Probably, the first lessons to draw from is that the coronavirus epidemic is first and foremost a medical contingency, and not a military one. It is the qualified medical officials who should lead the government’s coronavirus response. It may be fashionable - and still sycophantic- to say otherwise. When a response to a medical emergency is not led by qualified medical personalities, blunders can happen easily and some of which could cost lives.  

The second is the reappraisal of the strength, limits, and shortfalls of each apparatus that had been deployed in the government’s COVID-19 strategy. The government should review the strength and limitations of the military style contact tracing, and equip both military personnel and PHIs with adequate PPEs and training to reduce their exposure to the virus.  

Shared accommodation of military members involved in frontline contact tracing activities was a grave mistake. The military should provide them with separate housing and access to separate amenities. If the frontline workers were subjected to virus testing, at least after their deployment in high- risk areas, infection rates could have been lower.   

The third is the need to enhance testing capacity, substantially. The epidemiologist unit of the Ministry of Health earlier estimated that Sri Lanka should conduct at least 5000 tests a day, that included the testing at the airport once it is opened. However, even after having dramatically increased the number of tests- from barely a hundred tests a day about a month ago- the country still conducts around 1000 tests a day. If adequate tests were conducted in March, many asymptomatic carriers could have been identified. Also, the enhanced testing capacity is sine qua non for the post-lockdown context as the factories and schools are opened.   

The fourth is not directly related to the government’s COVID-19 response, but it could overshadow everything else in the country. The government should avoid a constitutional crisis. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has repeatedly ruled out the reconvening of the old Parliament. Now that the elections are tentatively scheduled for June 20 the likelihood of which is diminishing day by day - it is unlikely that the new parliament can meet before June 1.   
As a result, the country would be without a Parliament for more than three months. The opposition parties are planning to go to the Supreme Court demanding the reconvening of the House. However, mass gatherings that are associated with an emotionally charged court case are exactly the reason why a constitutional impasse should be avoided. If the President opts for a face-off with the political opposition, his government would lose the grip of the epidemic. He may or may not win the self-made constitutional crisis, but the country would surely lose.

Follow @RangaJayasuriya on twitter   

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