Staying alert

Friday, 16 July 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

As news arrived that over 300,000 people had been vaccinated on Tuesday – Sri Lanka’s most in a single day since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic – it would be wrong not to acknowledge, that on the vaccination front at least, the Government, albeit belatedly, seems to be getting its act together.

However, alongside this news was the slightly more alarming report of the Government planning to completely reopen the country by September. The concern here, to be clear, is not on the suggestion of reopening – it is understood by all that the country needs to be open, and its economy functional, if its people are to survive – rather, it’s what reopening might constitute for the wider public; lest we forget, how it was that the second wave began.

While acknowledging the freedom being fully vaccinated provides, it’s important to look around the world for clues as to how the months ahead might play out. The Delta variant has decimated Indonesia’s healthcare system, with many fully vaccinated individuals being reported to have contracted the virus. Even in the US, where just a few months ago fully vaccinated individuals were being allowed to congregate sans face mask, the Delta variant has got health officials scrambling in fear of a COVID resurgence.

All this is to say, that despite the vaccination drive going full throttle, Sri Lankans cannot let their guard down. Indeed, Sri Lanka need not look much further than their neighbours; 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 when a new variant entered the mix, the death toll skyrocketed – many below the age of 40 – the healthcare system collapsed and India become one of the worst COVID-19-hit countries 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 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. In the months that followed, Sri Lanka’s COVID death toll tripled as cases soared. 

This oversight by the Government would be vexing enough as a standalone error, however it was even more infuriating considering a similar lackadaisical attitude was what led to the onset of the second wave late last year. 

At the time, despite calls by health professionals to continue with stringent safety measures despite the lockdown being eased, the Government allowed the public to go back to business as usual.

With the latest studies highlighting an increased likelihood of more variants – ones resistant to the presently available vaccines – popping up in the years ahead, it would be prudent that even with an opening up of the country, sustainable measures such as work-from-home and proper hygiene be retained for the long haul.