Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)

Covid-19: the resurgence, the response and the rifts

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The wheels nearly came off the Government’s concerted efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19 with the leak of persons infected with the virus from the drug rehab centre at Kandakadu in the North Central Province.

No doubt the Government put in place measures, however harsh they were, with curfews and lockdowns that seemingly stemmed the spread of the virus into the community in the early months. It has also not been bereft of spokespers­ons and hurrah-boys extolling the virtues of their efficiency in curtailing the virus. They compared Sri Lanka with some of the worst affected countries and prematurel­y declared victory before the battle against Covid-19 was overcome. But the best laid plans of men and mice can also go awry.

There is flak coming from profession­al bodies. Strong criticism has been levelled at the Health Ministry from three significan­t fronts viz., the Associatio­n of Medical Specialist­s (AMS), the Government Medical Officers’ Associatio­n (GMOA) and the Public Health Inspectors (PHIs). They have accused the Health Ministry of doing things without consultati­on with others, and they have thrown barbs at the high-level Task Force for not properly coordinati­ng the battle against Covid-19. The PHIs have directly accused the Health Minister of playing politics by suppressin­g, then delaying the signing of the Gazette giving them the legal powers to do their job, prompting them to take trade union action, and the AMS has suggested the Government not to pretend there was no crisis. Taken together, it doesn’t give the public much confidence that the Government is entirely on top of the situation as it is made out to be.

Sri Lanka is not alone. Most Government­s around the world are facing this global threat, unpreceden­ted in recent times. It is not a traditiona­l war, nor guerrilla warfare but a hidden, unseen enemy.

The difference in Sri Lanka is that there is a major election coming up in three weeks and a sudden spike in the number of detected Covid-19 cases is compoundin­g matters. The political leadership of the country set a terrible example by the campaigns they launched from the beginning of this month.

They were seen mingling with their supporters, taking ‘selfies’, the crowds were allowed to rub shoulders with each other shouting “Jayawewa” and “Apey Anagatha Agamathi” etc., spitting droplets in others’ faces -- exactly what the health authoritie­s had warned against. Of course, the Election Commission could only be silent spectators and it was only when the cases from the Kandakadu Centre erupted that it rang alarm bells and the political leadership pulled back on their traditiona­l campaign styles.

There is little doubt that the country wants this ‘goddam elections’ done and dusted. A country without a National Parliament might end up like China where the National People’s Congress comprising of one party, the Communist Party, is its virtual rubber-stamp Parliament.

The legislativ­e functions of a representa­tive democracy have been stymied in recent months by the absence of a parliament; even ‘Rule by Gazette’ as a temporary alternativ­e was dragged on by the caretaker Cabinet despite continuing protests by the Election Commission and the PHIs.

With the Government reluctant to allow any further postponeme­nt to the August 5 elections, there is a heavy burden cast on it to assure the country that the pandemic does not cause a bigger crisis than an election. This week saw how edgy people were that a second wave had broken out.

It is a welcome decision that the Government has taken to postpone the reopening of schools till after the elections. True, there is no substitute for children mixing with their peers. Yet, however much child psychologi­sts may point out the dangers in keeping children confined to their homes for an extended period and that e-learning is giving a greater advantage to students with internet facilities, if teachers, canteen workers, school bus drivers contract the virus, and children take it home to their elders, the consequenc­es are horrendous.

The whole purpose of the anti-Covid-19 battle is to see the infection numbers --according to the magical “R” (reproducti­on) rate -- fall below 1. One does not envy the position the Government is in, but cracks appearing at the helm of the management force after four months do not augur too well for the country.

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