COVID-19 is steadily expanding its grip on Sri Lanka and it is now imperative that the public adapt, and adapt fast, to living with this pandemic as a constant presence in their lives. Understandably, there is a multitude of legitimate fears, as the public attempts to grapple with this new reality, and for that reason it is essential that the Government increase its support and transparency at this point.
For many members of the public the initial coming to grips with COVID-19 was during the curfew, which had its own challenges, but was different from the situation they are faced with now. Then there was the gradual easing of restrictions and a period, spanning several weeks, when complacency set in and there was a sentiment that the worst was behind Sri Lanka when it came to COVID-19.
Now it is clear that this was not the case and this was a serious error in judgement. Therefore it is imperative that everyone steps forward to formulate a comprehensive response and ensure consistency in its adaption and implementation. For the public, this is a new in-between that, much like the rest of the world, they have to adapt to. And there is much that can be done.
One key step that the Government should be focused on is updating the quarantine law in Sri Lanka, which is primarily governed under the Quarantine and Prevention of Diseases Ordinance No.03 of 1897. According to reports, the last time this key piece of legislation was updated was in 1952, and legal experts have pointed out that it does not have sufficient provisions to hold private companies and other non-public stakeholders responsible.
The Government has said the Health Ministry is preparing a new set of regulations to be gazetted by Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi but there is limited information available in the public domain about what this would include. Therefore it is imperative that the Government engage in a broad discussion on what would be the best steps to take under the present circumstances, and establish a proper legal foundation to implement them. This would be made easier by the fact that the Government holds more than enough seats in parliament to prioritise such legislation. This would then empower healthcare workers and others including Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) to take quick steps when they see regulations being ignored.
Now that the number of infections has escalated it is clear that more testing and tracing is essential. It is clear that Government facilities cannot handle this ever-increasing demand. Therefore it is necessary for the Government to work with private hospitals to ensure fair prices of PCR tests and the highest credibility of test results. Even during the time when there was strict Government monitoring of the tests there were claims of false positives and false negatives, with testing now taking place at numbers higher than ever before – and likely to continue for some time – it is even more essential that these tests render results that are as accurate as possible.
To do this and much more the Government has to empower public officials, including having a permanent Health Ministry Secretary, so there is a clear and reliable chain of command. There must be a regular forum where top officials can be questioned by journalists and concerns cleared up. The system must be strong yet flexible, and it must be long term. Because COVID-19 has demanded it be so.