The Government has confirmed there will be no large scale lockdowns or new measures introduced to contain the UK variant found in several parts of Sri Lanka. This means that the responsibility of ensuring low infections falls on the public. So what are some of the practical steps that average people can take?
Firstly, experts have pointed out that doubling down on the precautions that have already been repeated ad-infinitum is the best. This means mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing will remain key weapons against the variants as well as the original COVID-19 strain. The public could consider upgrading their mask and if N95 masks are hard to come by they can always wear cloth and surgical masks together to improve protection, especially in closed environments such as public transport.
In a positive move the Government has reduced the number of people who can attend weddings from 150 to just 50 and pushed funerals to be conducted within 24 hours. Unfortunately, this also means there should be a corresponding improvement in services available to grieving family members and support for low income households. Without improved logistics and other support many citizens will find adhering to these requirements additionally painful.
If anyone tests positive for the coronavirus, the standard PCR test can’t definitively determine if the patient has the variant or the original strain. While some PCR test results can signal if a person is likely to be infected with a variant, that information probably won’t be shared with patients. The only way to know for sure which variant is circulating is to use gene sequencing technology, but that technology is not used to alert individuals of their status. While some public health and university laboratories are using genomic surveillance to track the prevalence of variants in a community, Sri Lanka doesn’t yet have a large-scale, nationwide system for checking coronavirus genomes for new mutations.
Fortunately the treatment for variants is the same and Oxford AstraZeneca has shown itself to be responsive to the UK strain. Even if other variants are found in Sri Lanka the vaccine is thought to provide some level of protection and reduce the seriousness of the illness making vaccines still the best weapon in this fight.
Children appear to get infected with the variant at about the same rate as the original strain. A large study by health officials in Britain found that young children are only about half as likely as adults to transmit the variant to others. While that’s good news, the highly contagious nature of the variant means more children will get the virus, even if they are still proportionately less contagious and less prone to getting infected than adults. This is where the social distancing guidelines come into play for the old and young alike.
Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) have already warned that the official infection and death numbers released by the Government do not reflect the ground reality. This points to a crucial information gap, which can have serious impact on the national COVID-19 response. For the sake of citizens and to improve the chances of tackling the pandemic as efficiently as possible the Government has to take steps to bridge these information gaps and promote transparency.