The Colombo International Book Fair (CIBF) has become the latest public display of COVID-19 complacency to catch the attention of Sri Lankan health authorities, as the Chief Epidemiologist at the Health Promotion Bureau this week strongly advised against holding the annual exhibition this year.
His concerns primarily stem from the doubts surrounding attendees’ ability, and indeed willingness, to comply with the necessary health and safety guidelines – concerns that, suffice to say, are far from unfounded.
Over the past month or so it has been unsurprising, if a little worrying, to see business return to its ‘as usual’ state. All the barometers for gauging normality have gradually been satisfied – traffic, crowded public spaces, packed public transport – but with a dash of the public health and safety version of security theatre thrown in.
Security theatre is the practice of investing in countermeasures intended to provide the feeling of improved security, while doing little or nothing to achieve it, and a lot of the health and safety measures being utilised in Sri Lanka at present firmly falls under that definition.
While many restaurants and stores have hand-washing or hand sanitisation stations placed near entrances, once inside, there’s an increasingly lax attitude towards social distancing and proper mask usage.
Nevertheless, these measures are still at the very least notionally in place in Colombo and its suburbs, but venture a little further out, and even that little public health theatre has been gradually done away with.
Many private sector companies meanwhile have almost completely forgone the pretence of making permanent the work-from-home arrangements that had been so painstakingly accommodated during the curfew period of just a few months back.
The dichotomy present within the way things stand is that, for all the perceived safety within Sri Lanka from COVID-19, the country’s main airport remains closed with a reopening date unclear. The reason for this is clear, in that most of the countries that Sri Lanka depends on for its tourism are finding it much harder to control the spread of coronavirus. This, more than anything else, highlights just how fragile a public health and safety foundation the country is currently standing on.
In fact, just as planning for the CIBF has kicked into gear, Sri Lanka Cricket was delicately trying to balance the needs of the Bangladesh cricket team and the COVID taskforce’s requirements for a 14-day quarantine period for new arrivals into the country - something the Bangladesh Cricket Board felt was unduly stringent.
What can be gathered from all this is that there is a veritable chasm of disconnect between public health guidelines and public compliance. To most casual observers, Sri Lanka has done as well as any other nation in containing COVID-19, but it would seem that the combination of public health theatre, and a desire to return to some level or normality, has resulted in the public at large growing increasingly complacent surrounding the ground reality of the situation.
For the Government, the challenge will be in keeping the public constantly vigilant, while at the same time ensuring that organisational heads keep providing the necessary facilities to ensure health and safety guidelines are met – lest all the good work of the past few months be undone.