It seems that with every passing week the praise for Sri Lanka’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic grows – and rightfully so. As of writing, Sri Lanka’s cases stand at 2,995 with 12 deaths; numbers that are exemplary not only when compared with the country’s South Asian neighbours but also some of the world’s most developed nations.
However, as highlighted by countries such as Australia, even when cases are under control it doesn’t take much for the situation to spiral out of control. New Zealand is of course the benchmark for proactive decision-making at the slightest hint of trouble – the country earlier this month went back into lockdown temporarily after a handful of new cases were discovered following weeks of no new reports.
While in the case of New Zealand, such stringent measures have been swiftly and efficiently put in place from the very onset of the pandemic, not all countries are willing, or indeed, able to follow suit; for countries such as Sri Lanka striking the right balance between public safety and a functioning economy is a much trickier task.
As such, it has been unsurprising, if a little worrying, to see business return to its ‘as usual’ state over the past month. All the barometers 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.
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 seemingly done away with 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.
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 – something that will only become more apparent in the months to come.