Wed, 22 Sep 2021 Today's Paper

Playing with fire: Sri Lanka should avoid ‘long Covid’ on economy

14 September 2021 12:08 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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 Extended lockdown and quarantine curfew add to country's economic woes

 

  • Some research raises concerns over the health complications of vaccinating school children, but findings are inconclusive and there is no consensus in the medical community. The government would have to rely on emerging scientific know-how when making the decision
  • Though the country is still in the midst of the pandemic, which, though has slowed down due to the ongoing lockdown, might spike up if the restrictions are lifted prematurely

 

Sri Lanka’s Covid-19 response has been reeking with gaffes, procrastination and miscalculations which effectively saw its initial modest success degenerating into a runaway pandemic. But in one crucial area, the country got it right: Vaccination. Sri Lanka has now vaccinated more people as a percentage of the population than the United States. Around 62.6% of Sri Lankans are now fully or partially vaccinated, including 49% who have received both jabs. Public interest to get jabbed is high, and usual sceptics and charlatans who have cropped up to stall the progress in the vaccination drives elsewhere in the world do not seem to have much hold here. The political leadership deserves credit. A presidential directive to vaccinate all population over the age of 30 by September 10 might have fallen short of the target, but it is still the catalyst of the success.

The authorities are now planning to vaccinate school children and those under the age of 30. Some research raises concerns over the health complications of vaccinating school children, but findings are inconclusive and there is no consensus in the medical community. The government would have to rely on emerging scientific know-how when making the decision. Vaccines do not stop people from getting the virus, but they greatly ease the complications and save lives. Had the initial vaccination drive was better focused to target the senior citizens and those with underline complications, many lives could have been saved. Sri Lanka disregarded the WHO advice to first vaccinate those above 60 years. As a result, over 75% of Sri Lanka’s Covid deaths are over 60 years and 91% had not received a single vaccine. Though the country is still in the midst of the pandemic, which, though has slowed down due to the ongoing lockdown, might spike up if the restrictions are lifted prematurely. Yet, a prolonged lockdown is not itself the solution, especially when the country is facing the worst economic crisis in its post-independent history. However, when moving forward, the government should make sure that it would take lessons from its failures in the past.

As much as a lockdown is deleterious to the economy, an unholy rush to lift restrictions can be dangerous in the long term. Piecemeal measures that have little economic benefits, but also entail substantial risk in introducing new variants of the virus can prolong the pandemic. This could result in the ‘long Covid’, a situation where the virus pandemic would last much longer than it ought to have. Emphasis on the militarized efficiency and loyalty over the country’s wellestablished community health services would not produce the intended result, but leave the Covid -19 strategy in the wilderness. Not to mention the long term impact of militarization. Preference to sycophancy over scientific advice from established medical experts would deprive the country’s Covid response with a much needed rigorous scientific basis. The Covid task force has seen a string of resignations, including two medical professionals last week. The civilian health intelligentsia should not be made subordinate to the military. Such status quo cannot be sustained or even if it does, it produces abysmal outcomes. Sri Lankans have witnessed that firsthand. The politicization of the success of vaccination can have its own fallout. Some of the politically calculated decisions in the past such as the policy of compulsory cremation of Covid dead bodies created racial animosity and mass grievances at home and made headlines abroad for all the wrong reasons. There are already signs that the authorities are revisiting some of the same old blunders. Sri Lanka is pushing ahead with a plan to bring in Russian tourists despite the pandemic in Russia has hit a new high, with a seven-day average of 775 Covid related deaths. Indian tourists are also courted under the new plan for the revival of tourism. They would have to produce vaccine certificates with the second shot taken at least 14 days before the arrival and stay in designated hotels. Vaccination though save lives does not prevent infection. In the meanwhile, the Covid-19 virus has been mutating at an alarming pace, with some of the latest mutations such as a new variant in South Africa (C.1.2) and another in Latin America (C.37 also known as Lambda) have contributed to an even faster spread of the virus.

Large countries with large infectious populations are more likely to become breeding grounds for mutation. Sri Lanka’s high-risk tourism strategy that targets some of the most infected countries could potentially bring in a new dangerous variant of the virus. On the other hand, Sri Lanka’s current positivity rate (which is down to around 9% now from 25% in late August) still places the country among high-risk travel destinations by the EU guidelines. Local authorities tried the same misplaced strategy early this year, bringing in Ukrainian tourists while that country was beset by the pandemic.

Then in February, the local researchers’ gene sequenced the Delta variant in the country. No research has been done to explain how the virus was introduced to the country. Recently, the researchers at the Sri Jayawardenepura University raised concerns that a new Super Delta variant is responsible for the fast-spreading Covid virus in the country. Sri Lanka should take precautions, instead, there is an unholy rush to project itself as safer than it is actually is. A recent directive for the airline staff to remove their PPE kits when flying Russian tourists has been opposed by the flight crew members. Sri Lanka’s economic woes are dire as they can get; however, ad-hoc measures have not necessarily helped the economy. A previous measure to bring in Ukrainian tourists helped at best a few politically connected hoteliers and a politically connected front man. Sri Lanka cannot bring in tourists in numbers that are economically consequential until it gets the domestic pandemic under check. Once it brings the Covid positivity rate and overall infections within the numbers of the UK’s amber list and any other international equivalent, it can safely court tourists. Authorities should work towards that end, rather than playing with fire. Follow @RangaJayasuriya on Twitter

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