Consistent messaging needed

Saturday, 7 November 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

As the days tick down, Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 situation is increasing in complexity. Even though top officials of the Government have spoken of curfew being lifted in the Western Province, paving the way for economic activities to increase, there are concerns about easing restrictions amidst an ever-increasing number of cases. 

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa this week said it was unrealistic to expect the country to lockdown till a vaccine for COVID-19 is found and given the serious impact on the economy, pointed out it was more practical for quarantine curfew to be eased so people could return to work at a modified level. His statements were followed by a new level-based alert system released by the Health Ministry. 

The four level system titled ‘DREAM’ calls for social distancing, respiratory etiquette, aseptic practices, and proper use of a mask to be practiced at all times. Level One is for no internal clusters, Level Two denotes one cluster, Level Three several clusters and Level Four full-blown community spread. Even by the Health Ministry’s own guidelines Sri Lanka’s current scenario is Level Three with recent indications pointing at a transition to Level Four. 

In addition to the existing Minuwangoda and Peliyagoda clusters, there were worrying reports of at least two other clusters being created by over 100 workers at a toy factory testing positive for COVID-19 and close to 200 policemen testing positive for the virus. These two groups are likely to grow in the coming days. Adding to the worry is the observation by medical professionals that the last 16 deaths from the virus can be linked to the Minuwangoda-Peliyagoda clusters and these have occurred during just two weeks, giving an indication of how fast the fatality rate can increase as more cases are diagnosed. 

The Government will decide over the weekend whether to lift curfew in the Western Province or maintain the status quo but there are some points that should be adhered to no matter what course of action is taken. The most important is definitely following advice of epistemologists and even top military officials should refrain from making announcements on the fate of the curfew whilst hundreds of new cases are being found every day. This is both irresponsible and misleading as it leads to confusion. 

Whatever decision is made must be done collectively by the most competent medical professionals together with other stakeholders and that must be communicated to the public in a timely manner. Obviously messages can change but what is important is credibility, quickness and an understanding that the right people are making these challenging decisions.  

The latest level-based guidelines issued by the Health Ministry are positive but the public needs to be made aware of what these really mean. The formula outlines restrictions applicable to 54 activities and widespread understanding, especially outside of the Western Province, is needed so that when the Government uses this system it is easily recognised and followed by the public. 

Thirdly, even if quarantine restrictions are eased, it must be done with the utmost vigilance. This means that supply chains for goods and services need to be more widely established and maintained for a prolonged period of time. The Government has to galvanise bigger systems to provide PCR testing, monitoring and other types of assistance to economically important areas so employees are not putting their health in danger by coming to work. All these require greater Government support as Sri Lanka tries to balance COVID-19 and the economy.