President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Monday said the focus of the Government was to contain COVID-19 but also allow the economy to function. Many would agree that this is the most practical stance to take, but it also creates a difficult balancing act that requires far more resources be allocated by the Government for a sustained period of time. It also means the Government has to fix gaps in its COVID-19 response and adapt fast to protect citizens.
It also does not help to criticise the public, including the media, and accuse them of mismanaging what is an increasingly complex and difficult situation. Recently the Central Bank projected an optimistic 1.5% growth contraction for 2020 and 5% growth for 2021 but COVID-19 could put a severe dent in these estimates, which the country cannot afford. Therefore it is critical that the Government sets in place the right policies to deal with the repercussions of the current wave of COVID-19 infections and ensure its socioeconomic impacts are limited as much as possible.
In this backdrop it is therefore surprising to see that so many basic things are still under debate. For many industries, including media, the risk could have been substantially reduced if the Government had proactively shared information, kept communication lines to key officials open, made testing available sooner and decentralised it as well as provided guidelines with a strong accountability mechanism. It also took key Government ministries and departments months to shift to online platforms for sharing information and provide services, with many of these still failing to accommodate public needs. The COVID-19 task force and Health Minister are among those who have routinely sidestepped being questioned at critical points.
Instead the Government allowed election rallies and other public gatherings at very sensitive times, failed to use its powers to upgrade outdated laws, militarised the COVID response to an unnecessary degree and left thousands of migrant workers to fend for themselves. Perhaps one of the most hurtful things the Government has done is deprive the Muslim community the right to bury COVID-19 fatalities. Even six months after the initial decision and following the deaths of about 15 Muslims the debate is still ongoing, with the Government yet to clearly state if their Cabinet decision on Monday to allow for select burials will proceed.
Experts have also recommended that daily testing in Sri Lanka should expand to about 40,000-50,000 but capacity is still far below this level. If the country is to avoid another lockdown and people are to continue working to keep the economy ticking over then testing has to be amped up to five times the current level. These are genuine measures that require Government support. For people to work, they need to be given the right environment and their protection needs to be assured. The Government cannot simply take credit when things are positive and blame the public when they go wrong.
There are reports that people under self-quarantine cannot get access to PCR tests and concerns have been voiced about asymptomatic patients being sent home without PCR tests. There are transparency concerns about the import of antigen tests and selection process for a vaccine provided by the World Health Organisation (WHO) when it becomes available. If these and many other issues are handled by the Government, the President will find he has no shortage of public support.