As COVID-19 infection rates continue to climb, key Government and health officials gathered on Friday to ring an oft-heard warning to the people: stay home and stay safe. However, they stopped short of instituting a lockdown, choosing to rely on people following health guidelines. But there are concerns that taking this laid back approach could have serious consequences as many worry Sri Lanka is on the cusp of a third wave it is ill-prepared for.
The full-blown humanitarian crisis in parts of India should be a frightening lesson to Sri Lankan politicians and key officials. The Indian Government allowed complacency to creep in, rolled back restrictions and conducted political campaigns on the assumption that the country was turning the corner on the pandemic.
These turned out to be false, and with a new variant entering the mix, thousands of people are dying – many of them below the age of 40 – collapsing the healthcare system and making India the worst COVID-19-hit country in the world.
The multiple errors by the Indian Government should be a severe warning to their counterparts in Colombo. Sri Lankan politicians are fond of avoiding their responsibilities and then blaming the public when things go wrong. Health officials, including Public Health Inspectors (PHIs), were issuing warnings of Avurudu travels increasing the spread of the virus weeks ago and appealing for travel restrictions to be imposed. They also appealed for PCR tests to be scaled up and work from home requirements to be extended.
The Government, keen to show that the pandemic was rapidly becoming a thing of the past, loosened restrictions and created the false hope that vaccinations were enough to bring the virus under control. Now local medical experts are warning that a new COVID-19 variant is also spreading in Sri Lanka and – infinitely worse – the virus could be airborne. There are reports that even people who have been vaccinated have tested COVID-19 positive, giving an indication of how serious the situation has become.
Over the last few days, officials have been scrambling to get COVID-19 responses back online but there is still no information publically available on how many ICU beds have been added and what steps have been taken to increase oxygen and drug supplies. The Government may prefer to think its earlier strategy of isolating specific areas will yield positive results but if the events unfolding in New Delhi are anything to go by, this measure may not be sufficient to contain the virus this time around.
The Sri Lankan Government needs to be careful in playing from the same playbook it used during the last wave because the virus has proven it can break outdated measures quickly. While no one is disputing that the economic costs of a lockdown would be significant, the human fallout from a severe breakout would be far worse. A sharp increase in infections will definitely lead to higher deaths and spiral into economic impact that would last longer than a limited lockdown.
The Government should re-impose work from home protocols for the public and private sectors and consider proactive measures for other key segments, such as educational institutions. They should also vaccinate and equip private healthcare stakeholders as fast as possible so they can be deployed if Government resources are overrun. The Government will need to act fast in the next few days, and if they are ever in doubt of the best measures to take, they should simply err on the side of caution.