“To most casual observers Sri Lanka has done as well as any other nation in containing COVID-19, but… a desire to return to some level of 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.”
This was written in this very column a little over nine months ago, and now as Western society starts to slowly but surely rehabilitate itself from its COVID coma – thanks in large part to streamlined vaccination drives – here in Sri Lanka, the numbers just keep rising. The daily average in COVID cases is now beyond the 2,500 mark, while deaths are regularly into double digits daily.
What is particularly terrifying though is the revelation that these are not up-to-date numbers, as the Government struggles to cope with a backlog of PCR tests – which means the numbers are almost certainly higher than what is being reported, while tracking second-level contacts in time has become near impossible.
To mitigate this burgeoning crisis, the Government over the weekend implemented travel restrictions between and within provinces to stem the spread of the virus. While the move was welcome, it does beg the question, why wasn’t it done sooner? While hindsight is certainly 20/20, even at the time, allowing free movement during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year seemed like a particularly bad idea.
Further to this, questions must also be raised surrounding the attitude towards safety on public transport and work from home measures prior to the latest uptick in cases.
During last year’s lockdown, private bus drivers threatened strike action after they deemed social distancing guidelines too costly. The Government eventually caved to these demands, while seemingly nothing was done between now and then to improve health and hygiene in public transport.
In terms of work from home, there was brief optimism following the lockdown last year that both the public and private sector would work towards making such arrangements more permanent; a plan, that if put in place, would not only improve worker satisfaction (as highlighted by several studies) but also make a company better prepared for similar pandemics in the future. Nevertheless, the work from home movement came to an all-too-early demise.
While it is unfair to lay the blame squarely at the feet of the Government for these things, it’s hard not to think that it was their laidback attitude in recent months that gave rise to sentiment amongst the population that it was okay to go back to “pre-COVID” life.
The first move in solving this current crisis has to be clearing the backlog of tests - increasing testing capacity goes without saying – so as to get more effective contact-tracing. To do this restrictions on public gatherings must be implemented stringently. Concurrent to this, there must be clear and consistent communication with regard to directives and the reasoning behind them.
The major concern now is that, with the country’s healthcare system at breaking point, Sri Lanka is on the verge of a full-blown public health catastrophe, similar to that of India. Already the deaths from non-COVID-related illnesses, ones that were previously treatable, are beginning to rise because there is simply not enough room in hospitals. While in India a solution does not seem forthcoming, it is still not too late for Sri Lanka – provided the Government acts quickly and decisively.