Resolve PHI standoff

Monday, 20 July 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

After delaying over a month, the Health Ministry finally gazetted the health guidelines needed to minimise the threat of spreading COVID-19 at election rallies last Friday but it has changed little since earlier the same day the Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) launched a work stoppage on all virus-related work. This is an issue that the Government has to resolve quickly so that there is an additional layer of protection against a second wave of COVID-19 emerging in the country.

The PHI’s union has accused the Government of issuing eyewash gazettes, pointing out that even though the document is finally in the public domain, it does not specify who will implement the regulations and does not confer authority on the PHIs.

The union has also vehemently disagreed with a statement they allege Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi said, which essentially outlines the Government’s thinking that giving powers to PHIs to monitor large public gatherings including political rallies would raise undue worries among the public. If this statement is true, then it is irresponsible and unfair and the public are more likely to be worried if they feel the Government is not giving the right among of attention to concerns that have been raised multiple times by State authorities, including the Election Commission Chairman.

While the 2,400 odd PHIs may not be the absolute be all and end all of COVID-19 mitigation measures in Sri Lanka, they are nonetheless an important and indispensable layer in the public sector’s response, and the Government has an indisputable responsibility to ensure that they use all means at their disposal to ensure there is no danger of the virus spreading. 

Around the world, such as in the US and Brazil, there are multiple and alarming examples of what has happened when the central or federal Government has dropped the ball on coordinating and implementing strict COVID-19 guidelines. On Saturday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported a record increase in global coronavirus cases for the second day in a row, with the total rising by 259,848 in 24 hours.

The biggest increases reported on Saturday were from the United States, Brazil, India and South Africa, according to a daily report. The previous WHO record for new cases was 237,743 on Friday. Deaths rose by 7,360, the biggest one-day increase since 10 May.

Total global COVID-19 cases surpassed 14 million on Friday, according to a Reuters tally, marking another milestone in the spread of the disease that has killed nearly 600,000 people in seven months. The surge means that one million cases were reported in under 100 hours. 

The WHO reported 71,484 new cases in the United States, 45,403 in Brazil, 34,884 in India and 13,373 in South Africa. Showing that the battle is by no means over. India on Friday became the third country in the world to record more than one million cases of the new coronavirus. Epidemiologists say India is still likely months from hitting its peak and as one of its closest neighbours, Sri Lanka needs to remain highly vigilant. 

Rallies held over the weekend indicate that the gazetted guidelines are sparingly implemented if not largely ignored, and with nearly three more weeks of campaigning to go this remains the biggest challenge and concern. Given what is at stake, the Government needs to step up and do everything possible to protect the public, rather than focusing on their own political expediency.