Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)
COVID-19 second wave - a whole of country effort needed
The past week has been consumed by the question of whether a second wave of COVID-19 has hit Sri Lanka, or is it imminent in future. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa however has ruled out the possibility of a second wave with the remark that the second wave is only found on Opposition election platforms.
Whether a second wave has emerged or not, it is prudent to take all necessary steps to respond to any such situation if it does a r i s e. The World Health Organisation has repeatedly warned that a second wave of COVID- 19 in any country can be worse than the first. In such a context it would be wise for Sri Lanka to remain alert and pre- empt any possible second wave.
The country’s economy has taken a battering from which it will take a long time to recover. In the short run the poor and marginalised are badly impacted and struggling to make ends meet. Some estimates state that over 60 percent of the country comprise daily paid workers who were probably hardest hit when the country was under curfew. A repeat scenario is something the poorer sections of Sri Lankan society may find difficult to bear.
Sri Lanka has been credited with successfully managing the COVID-19 Pandemic. According to the WHO Country Representative in Sri Lanka Dr. Razia Pendse, Sri Lanka had been one of the few countries that has been able to control the epidemic more effectively than even more resourced countries.
Dr. Pendse attributed this success this to the well established public health system, especially the communicable disease surveillance and the proactive action taken by the Government.
Among the many factors contributing to the successful containment of COVID- 19 in Sri Lanka, she pointed out that community engagement had been critical because without involvement of communities it is difficult to control the spread of the virus.
“It requires all of us to play our role as public health workers and as the public to keep loved ones safe. There is no fast track back to normal. All of us have to work together. The way we behave determines how the virus behaves,” she said.
Pointing out that false news and misinformation on social media plus rumours could hamper the COVID- 19 response, Dr. Pendse urged for "the right information should be given to the people to end rumours and to defeat the virus. If we take all comprehensive measures that are required, we will be able to contain the spread of the virus."
While the Government has been able to contain the virus, its wrong public messaging both by word and deed has caused the public to drop their guard and create fears of the emergence of a second wave. In its anxiety to claim credit for containing the virus a counter productive relaxed mindset has spread among the people which in turn has resulted in a lax observance of health guidelines. This is evident when one sees that the wearing of masks, physical distancing and washing of hands have been considerably reduced in public spaces when compared to the early days of the pandemic when the public complied with the health guidelines more strictly.
Dr. Pendse’s remark “the way we behave determines how the virus behaves” gains added meaning when one observes what has been happening in the past few weeks.
When the health guidelines were strictly enforced even the crowd at a funeral was confined to a strictly defined number. The funeral of the late Arumugam Thondaman wh i ch t ook place under Government patronage saw all the health guidelines being violated. Not surprisingly the public too began to follow suit. Last week there were reports that a funeral at Rajanganaya had attracted a large crowd which was attended by one of those who had been diagnosed with COVID-19.
Another area of public life from which the public gets wrong messages is the conduct of election meetings. According to the public health guidelines gazetted on Friday, election rallies are governed by all the health guidelines including wearing of face masks, washing of hands and physical distancing which those who attend such rallies are required to observe. The maximum number who are permitted to attend such rallies is 300 which can be increased to 500 if the leader of a political party attends such rally. Although this guideline took legal effect only with the gazetting it was still applicable as a guideline even before such gazetting.
However such health guidelines have been openly flouted as evidenced from TV footage. Both the Government and the Opposition have been guilty of not conforming to such guidelines and it is therefore not surprising that people began to think that the situation had returned to normal.
The emergence of a cluster originating in the Kandakadu Drug Rehabilitation Centre has come as a reality check for both the Government and the people. The identification of several COVID-19 patients in different parts of the country who have had contacts with the Kandakadu Drug Rehabilitation Centre have accentuated fears in the minds of the public about a second wave.
It is vital therefore that the public is made to understand that the danger from COVID-19 is not over and all precautions have to be taken to prevent the resurgence of the virus. The impending parliamentary election has queered the pitch in formulating the national response to a possible second wave of the pandemic.
Although it may have been more prudent to have recalled the previous Parliament and let it run for its full term up to September 2020 when the COVID-19 virus was first detected in Sri Lanka, that option is now not available. With only a little more than two weeks left for the elections it is best that the election is held on schedule. A considerable amount of time and money has been spent in the run up to the election and the country cannot afford such expenditure again if the election is postponed.
What is more important is that country will have to function without a Parliament for a further period of time if the election is postponed. This is highly detrimental for democratic governance.
However it is necessary to ensure that health guidelines are strictly followed so there is no disruption in the run up to the election. It will be wise for the Government to enlist the participation of all sections of society in this effort. A multi party national committee to oversee the COVID19 response will bring the country together to realise this objective. The Government’s efforts in this regard can be strengthened if the other political parties are also called upon to share the burden at this time of national need. A whole of country effort is undoubte d l y better than only a Government effort. (javidyusuf@ gmail.com)