The Small Indian Ocean Island Deserves Recognition
Viewpoint by Dr Palitha Kohona
The writer is former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, and former Foreign Secretary.
COLOMBO (IDN) – Sri Lanka has been successful so far, compared to most countries in the world, in the fight against Covid-19. The mind-numbing figures of death and infection streaming in from many parts of the globe are not being reflected in Sri Lanka. An infection rate of around 700 with 7 deaths in a population of over 21 million are figures to arouse excitement. But surprisingly, no glowing headlines applauding the success of this small relatively poor Indian Ocean island embellish the front pages.
Sri Lanka reacted rapidly to early warnings of a new virus strain issued by the Chinese and WHO authorities while most Western countries carried on unconcerned, believing, and perhaps even hoping, that it was only a problem for China. The Sri Lankan government rapidly mobilized its limited resources despite the prevailing uncertainties, with the state funded health service responding with impressive efficiency and the security establishment being marshalled with speed.
The rapid escalation of the Covid-19 pandemic caught most countries by surprise although adequate red flags had been raised. The world was put on notice on 31 December 2019, when the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reported an unusual cluster of cases of pneumonia. A novel coronavirus was quickly identified.
On 1 January 2020, the WHO set up the IMST (Incident Management Support Team) across the three levels of the organization: headquarters, regional headquarters and country-level, putting the organization on an emergency footing for dealing with the still uncertain outbreak.
The WHO, understaffed due to the Christmas/New Year holidays, was still uncertain about the nature and implications of the new virus. On 4 January, the WHO reported on social media that there was a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, with no deaths as yet. The next day, it published its first Disease Outbreak News.
On 10 January, the WHO issued a comprehensive package of technical guidance online with advice to all countries on how to detect, test and manage potential cases, based on what was known about the virus at the time. On 12 January, China shared the genetic sequence of Covid-19 with the world. The next day, officials confirmed a case of Covid-19 in Thailand, the first recorded case outside China.
Sri Lanka, taking note of the rapidly escalating threat, reacted quickly and adopted the WHO guidelines. Others continued their normal jolly lifestyles and are paying a lethal price now with thousands of deaths.
Sri Lanka’s state-funded universal health care service possessed considerable but unheralded expertise in managing deadly diseases, having eliminated malaria and polio, grappled successfully with AIDS, SARS, H1N1, Chikungunya and MERS and was substantially containing Dengue. In 2005, it avoided the much-anticipated epidemics following the Indian Ocean tsunami.
Taking the initiative and acting proactively, prior to 27 January, the Ministry of Health of Sri Lanka had instructed the Quarantine Unit at the Bandaranaike International Airport, Colombo, to screen passengers for suspicious symptoms. Additionally, the ministry warned that infants, children, pregnant women, the elderly and people who suffer from chronic diseases, among other issues, should avoid visiting crowded places.
A 22-member National Action Committee was set up by the Ministry to address the various aspects of Covid-19. The Department of Immigration and Emigration also informed all construction sites with Chinese resident visa holders to restrict their Chinese employees to their respective workplaces and lodgings.
On 27 January, the first confirmed case of the virus was reported in Sri Lanka, a 44-year-old Chinese woman tourist from Hubei Province who had been screened at the Bandaranaike International Airport and was detected with a high fever. She was immediately isolated at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases. The lady recovered fully and returned home on 19 February.
Following the first case, the demand for face masks in the country soared. As a result, the country’s drug regulatory agency instituted price controls on face masks. 33 Sri Lankan students and families were also evacuated from Wuhan on 1 February and quarantined at a centre established at a military facility at Diyatalawa. They were released after two weeks quarantine period on 14 February.
With the situation in China deteriorating and signs of the virus spreading to other countries at a frightening speed, more stringent restrictions were adopted, curtailing the freedom of movement and speech. Individual freedoms were restricted, but the common good of the people and the limited ability of the country to cope with a widespread epidemic began to dominate thinking. Sri Lanka also began restricting entry into the country.
Since the first week of March, passengers coming from Italy, Iran, and South Korea were required to be quarantined for two weeks at one of two facilities. On 10 March, 186 people (164 Sri Lankan nationals, 20 Italian nationals, and 2 South Korean nationals) were placed under quarantine in Batticaloa. Following further developments, the country suspended on arrival visas for tourists on 11 March. A massive awareness-raising campaign was launched using the radio, TV and even private phones. The public reaction has been supportive.
The military had rapidly established more quarantine centres around the country and have been praised for their efficiency and the excellent facilities. As of 23 March, forty-five quarantine centres had been built in the country by the Sri Lanka Army. The private sector made available large but unoccupied hotels to house people being quarantined. Nearly 3,500 people have been isolated in the quarantine centres which number also includes 31 foreigners from 14 countries.
Schools, universities and workplaces were closed. Transport ground to a halt. The agricultural sector was affected by little or no collection of the harvest. The impact on the economy has been massive. Since Covid-19 was continuing to take a deadly toll in China, Sri Lankans even organised religious ceremonies to invoke the blessings of the Triple Gem on the Chinese victims of the virus.
In contrast to Sri Lanka, in the developed world, especially in the US and Europe, life continued gaily without a worry about the tidal wave of infections and deaths that would engulf them within weeks. Many went on with their lives, including making travel plans, lulled into a false sense of security encouraged by the leadership.
The media was focused on President Trump’s casual throwaway lines (hydroxychloroquine will cure the illness, the coming hot weather will eliminate it, it will disappear by April), or Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s flippant dismissal of Covid-19, until he himself was carted off to the ICU.
Riots have erupted in some parts of the world as Covid-19 exploded and politicians began to look for scapegoats while the ordinary people were beginning to be squeezed by massive unemployment and lack of access to food and services. Riots broke out in a Muslim neighbourhood north of Paris over the weekend.
The immediate cause was a traffic offence and a violation of the lockdown. The deeper cause was the popular belief that police were using the lockdown as an excuse to harass Muslims. In Berlin, more than 100 people were arrested after demonstrators protesting lockdown rules confronted police.
In Israel, ultra-Orthodox Jews clashed with police while protesting coronavirus restrictions. In Pakistan, there have been demonstrations sparked by fears that steps to tackle the outbreak will result in hunger. Lebanon has seen violent crowds protesting hunger, corruption and unemployment. Armed protesters gathered in front of government offices in Chicago.
Some countries have been lauded in the international media for their success in countering Covid-19. Time reported that South Korea’s widespread testing and contact tracing lead to the first day with no new cases. Hi-tech supported testing is at the heart of the country’s coronavirus strategy declared South Korean Foreign Minister, Kang Kyung-wha, at a virtual World Economic Forum COVID Task Force meeting.
On 15 April, some 29 million people turned up to vote in parliamentary elections, and no known infections have arisen, thanks to strict social distancing. Israel has circulated a video highlighting its Covid-19 achievements, including in Sinhala. The media has hailed Israel for its success. The highly regarded Conversation reports that New Zealand is planning to relax controls with the alert level 4 lockdown ending in one week. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the nation will shift into the lighter alert level 3. CNBC reported that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced plans to slowly ease restrictions introduced to combat the coronavirus pandemic. These have been meanwhile put into practice.
Social distancing rules will stay in place until an unspecified period, with Merkel also recommending the use of face masks in shops and on public transport. And schools will gradually start to reopen by the end of June. Women leaders have been particularly impressive in the face of the Covid-19 challenge. (E.g. Merkel, Ardern, and Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan) Denmark, Switzerland and Austria are among the European countries taking steps to end the lockdown. Schools and shops will reopen – but leaders acknowledge this is a delicate balancing act.
As of 28 April, around 700 confirmed cases had been reported in Sri Lanka with only 7 deaths. The statistics are impressive. Sri Lanka is planning to relax the restrictions by 11 May. Elections are scheduled for 20 June. It had not suffered too many deaths compared to many other countries in the world but many Sri Lankans feel that their achievement has not received the recognition that other countries have. [IDN-InDepthNews – 06 May 2020]
Photo: Children, highly vulnerable to COVID-19, look to the future with optimism. Credit: Dilrukshi Handunnetti.
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