Photo: U.S.-Sri Lanka month-long military training continued in March and April at Sri Lanka's strategic Trincomalee air and naval base despite travel sanctions and Covid-19 spread on the Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier based in the Indian Ocean - Guam. Credit: Sri Lanka Navy. - Photo: 2020

Time to End the COVID-19 Fear Psychosis & Militarized Curfews

Viewpoint by Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake

The writer is an anthropologist affiliated with the International Center for Ethnic Studies in Colombo.

“The claim that coronavirus would kill millions without shelter-in-place orders and quarantines is highly questionable .. there’s little evidence to confirm that premise ..and current estimates about the Covid-19 fatality rate may be too high by orders of magnitude’ – Dr. Eran Bendavid and Dr  Jay Bhattacharya, Professor of Medicine at Stanford University.

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA (IDN) – South Asia has nearly a quarter of the world’s population but less than 2 % of Covid-19 cases as at April 22., 2020. More than a month after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a ‘pandemic’ and called for lockdowns and “shelter in place” it is evident that the so-called ‘deadly’ Coronavirus has been slow to materialize in this most populous region of the world.

South Asia accounted for less than 35,000, or approximately 1.5 per cent, of the 2 million coronavirus cases worldwide on April 22, 2020.  India had 20,178 cases, Pakistan 9,749, Bangladesh 3,382, Afghanistan 1,092, Sri Lanka 321, Maldives 108, Nepal 42 and Bhutan 6.

While testing rates may be low in South Asian countries, there is no indication of hospitals and health systems being overwhelmed at this time, especially compared with North America and Europe. Indeed, it is increasingly clear that the Covid-19 flu may not be as ‘deadly’ as made out to be in the tropical regions of the world, despite wider incidence of poverty and poor health systems.

However, political economic policy decisions taken by several governments in the name of the Coronavirus following WHO ‘advice’ are having deadly consequences for the South Asian region’s peoples, economy and democratic way of life at this time.

India, a country with more than a billion people imposed an economically devastating country-wide curfew and many labour migrants died walking hundreds of kilometres to get home amid Narendra Modi’s unforgivable curfew. In India and Sri Lanka crippling country-wide curfews were imposed with just 4 hours of prior notice.

In Sri Lanka 40,000 “curfew violators” have been arrested over the past month and elections postponed precipitating a constitutional crisis. However, WHO head, Tedros called the President of the strategically located Indian Ocean island to congratulate him for the militarized and economically crippling lockdown that has seen the Lankan rupee in free fall.

Meanwhile the Government of Pakistan notably did not impose curfew, unlike India and Sri Lanka and may hence serve as a control group to assess the efficacy of curfews to counter the Covid-19 flu.  A control group may be defined as the group (or country) in an experiment or study that does not receive treatment (such as curfew), and hence is then used as a benchmark to measure how the other subjects that did receive treatment (curfew in this case) fare.

Pakistan as Control Group to assess efficacy of Curfew

Pakistan a country with 200 million people that shares borders with both China and Iran which were both hit hard by the Covid-19 flu very early did not impose the crippling curfews that neighbouring India and Sri Lanka did.

Prime Minister, Imran Khan, very sensibly pointed out that his was a poor country and hence more people would die of poverty and hunger caused by lockdowns in the long run. In fact, Pakistan is responding to the Covid-19 challenge in a similar way to Sweden which also refused to impose curfews and lockdowns that were imposed in other European countries.

Sweden plans to let the Coronavirus flu run its course with its economy open in a sustainable way to develop herd immunity, while citizens are advised to take all necessary precautions. Sweden recognizes that countries cannot be shut down with sealed borders indefinitely.

Pakistan may thus serve as a “control group” or comparison to test and assess the efficacy of curfew and quarantine for healthy people that neighbouring countries, India and Sri Lanka imposed on the advice of WHO. After all, quarantine is used to protect sick people, and as several doctors have argued quarantining healthy people only depletes their immune system.

On April 30, 2020, India had reported 33,000 cases with 1074 Covid-19 deaths, while Pakistan which did NOT impose harsh curfews had 15,500 cases with 343 deaths, indicating that the absence of curfew has not dramatically increased Covid-19 infections rates in Pakistan.

In fact, in the long run Pakistan’s relatively flexible approach to handling the Covid-19 panic would pay off as the flu would run its course without devastating the economy and livelihoods of people as has happened in India and Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka where a brutal curfew was imposed for six weeks there have been 703 Covid-19 cases with 7 deaths.

Clearly, in the South Asian region, the death rate relative to infection rate remains relatively low and is indicative of the fact that Covid-19 is not as virulent in the region since death to infection ratios are an indicator for assessing the severity of a disease outbreak.

Fear of Covid-19 after all is based on WHO’s high estimated case fatality rate—2% to 4% of people with confirmed Covid-19, compared to less than 1 percent for normal influenza. Hence, the current death to infection ratio in South Asia is certainly a cause for optimism at this time of general gloom. And we need more information on how many of the Coronavirus cases reported in South Asia were mild or asymptomatic? 

Theodore Roosevelt, militarization and Coronavirus in the Indian Ocean region

In the first week of May in Sri Lanka Covid-19 infections doubled just when the Rajapaksa regime was set to lift its 6 week-long militarized curfew, as there was a spike in cases, ironically, among some of armed custodians of the curfew – the Sri Lanka Navy and Army. Almost half of all infections in the strategically Indian Ocean island nation, 256 cases, were detected among sailors with several cases in the Army also reported at the end of April. About 4,000 navy troops are being quarantined inside the camp while 242 relatives have been taken to four quarantine centres run by the navy.

It appears that the Sri Lanka navy caught Covid-19 as part of a trend in the increasingly militarized Indian Ocean region: The U.S. Navy’s Aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt led the way with 900 plus Covid-19 cases on board in Guam, followed by France’s Charles de Gaulle Aircraft carrier. At this time Covid-19 has also spread to the Indian Navy camp in Mumbai and Sri Lanka’s Welisarra Navy camp and from there to many sailors and their families all over the country.

U.S.-Sri Lankan military training in Sri Lanka had continued despite travel sanctions due to Coronavirus spread globally, during March and April 2020 at the Navy’s Special Boat Squadron Training School in Trincomalee Sri Lanka. [1]

In fact, USAID funded the Sri Lanka Army to build a brand new Covid-19 Hospital in Iranawila and provided surveillance training and equipment while the WHO congratulated the Sri Lanka military for its Covid-19 work!

Clearly, with a majority of cases spreading through the Navy whereas previously, Muslim and Christian religious minorities had been mysteriously targeted by the virus in Sri Lanka and India, it is increasingly clear that the lockdown has not worked to limit the spread of the disease. Rather, the militarized curfew with the parliament in abeyance has devastated the national economy. Does Sri Lanka face a situation of double jeopardy at this time? 

This spike among sailors and soldiers was clearly the result of the militarization of the Covid-19 response and the marginalization of the national health system, also by the Rajapaksa regime affiliated GMOA (Government Medical Officers’ Association), indicating that the curfew had not worked. At this time curfew has been again extended for a week, with further militarization as the leave of all armed forces personnel has been cancelled in the island.

Throughout the Covid-19 panic in South Asia war metaphors have proliferated and on April 3, India, following the U.S. example, staged “fly-bys” and helicopter rose petal showers for its “Covid-19 soldiers”, as well as, lit up its war ships in the ports of Chennai and Mumbai supposedly to salute frontline health workers. Questions however, have been raised regarding the Modi government’s policies regarding funds spent on militarization rather than on better health care and support for migrant workers.

Coronavirus fear psychosis

While lack of testing may be cited as a reason for the relatively low numbers of Covid-19 cases in South Asia, by now – six weeks after Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic by WHO and months after the epidemic in neighbouring China – the region surely should have expected an explosion of cases similar to Italy and Spain.

Nor are the reports of hospitals being overwhelmed. Rather, in Sri Lanka hospitals are quite under-whelmed and whole wards and floors have been shut down as patients are not going to hospital because of the Covid-19 fear psychosis, despite the fact that the island’s health indicators and national healthcare system are ranked among the best in the region. Indeed, the Coronavirus curfew and lockdown has generated a fear psychosis, resulted in stigmatizing patients and attacks on doctors, and also paralyzed civil society and created a double calamity in the country where the right to information is increasingly observed in breach.

It is increasingly clear that rather than curfews, new thinking and better regional and in-country, evidence-based policy making is needed in South Asian countries, with multi-disciplinary teams of national experts rather than Robots whose software and algorithms have been programmed to ensure pre-determined outcomes

So too, South Asia needs better analysis of in-country and regional data, to ascertain whether the Covid-19 flu is as bad as WHO and John Hopkins University epidemiology models, and GMOA’s “hammer and dance” theories claim. After all, influenza affects a billion or one in seven people in the world annually and up to 750,000 may die of the flu according to the Centres for Disease Control. As of now the global figure for Covid-19 flu is: 3.5 million infections with, 240,000 deaths, a third of which is in the U.S., and a mere 2 percent in South Asia

Six weeks after a global panicdemic was declared by the WHO it is clear that the Covid- 19 data in much of South Asia does not support or warrant extended lockdowns and curfews since the ensuring economic and supply chain disruption, loss of livelihoods, and poverty have already killed and could kill more people than the Covid-19 flu in the long term.

It is also apparent that hot and humid tropical Asian countries that practice universal Bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG) vaccinations are relatively better positioned to fight Coronavirus, compared to temperate countries that do not have universal policies of BCG vaccination, such as Italy, the Netherlands, and the United States that have been hard hit by Covid-19. [IDN-InDepthNews – 04 May 2020]

Photo: U.S.-Sri Lanka month-long military training continued in March and April at Sri Lanka’s strategic Trincomalee air and naval base despite travel sanctions and Covid-19 spread on the Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier based in the Indian Ocean – Guam. Credit: Sri Lanka Navy.

DN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

 This article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International. Feel free to share, remix, tweak, and build upon it non-commercially. Please credit to the author and IDN-InDepthNews.


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