Govt machinery in full force to curb pandemic | Daily News

Govt machinery in full force to curb pandemic

Days after successfully negotiating the passage of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution in to law, the Government’s attention has now been drawn to curbing a deadly second wave of the Coronavirus pandemic engulfing the country and threatening to become a health hazard of deadly proportions.

It is now about a month since the second wave of the pandemic hit the country. Until then, Sri Lanka had been hailed as a model for other countries to follow where free and efficient health services and strict Government control had helped curb widespread infection and a higher death toll.

In response to the initial pandemic in March, the Government did not hesitate to impose a strict lockdown, despite crippling economic consequences. Curfews were imposed and the movements of the public were curtailed in a bid to avert a health disaster of epic proportions.

These measures came at an apparent cost to the government. Following President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Presidential Election victory in December last year, he dissolved Parliament in early March with a view to conducting a General Election as soon as possible to consolidate power.

It was believed that an early General Election would have a snowballing effect and help the fledgling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), until then unrepresented in Parliament as a political entity of its own, gain a comfortable victory, possibly obtaining the two-thirds majority it asked for.

A General Election at the earliest available opportunity would have also been advantageous to the SLPP because, at the time, the major Opposition party, the United National Party (UNP) was in the throes of a leadership crisis, with UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe refusing to step down.

At the same time, the breakaway faction of the UNP, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) was still in its infancy and was getting its act together to function as a political party in its own right and seeking recognition. It was also embroiled in a series of legal disputes with its parent party, the UNP.

Therefore, an early election would have been distinctly advantageous to President Rajapaksa and the SLPP on several fronts. However, with the opposition also canvassing the courts on this issue, the matter was ultimately left for the Elections Commission to decide. Polls were scheduled for August.

Election victory

Cleaning the Pettah bus stand with disinfectant. Picture by Wasitha Patabendige

It turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the ruling party. By this time, the threat posed by the first wave of the pandemic had been successfully negotiated and the Government was being commended not only by the public but by international authorities for its active role in controlling the pandemic.

As a result, by the time the General Election was eventually conducted in early August, there was enormous goodwill for the Government’s handling of the crisis. This would have contributed in no small measure to the SLPP’s convincing near two-thirds majority victory at the general election.

The second wave however has now dampened that euphoria to some extent. It began in early October and is widely attributed to the outbreak of the infection at a garment factory owned by apparel manufacturer Brandix at Minuwangoda. From there, it has spread far and wide to many areas.

At the time of writing, the statistics portray a worrying picture. There were over 11,600 positive cases with 272 cases being identified in the preceding 24 hours. There have been a series of recent deaths, bringing the death toll to 23. Over 400 persons remain hospitalised with active infection.

What is worrying the authorities is the rapid spread of the disease. Outbreaks have been reported in areas as diverse as Kalutara, Kandy, Anuradhapura, Puttalam and Jaffna, sparking fears that undetected cases may be circulating in the community, spreading the infection to a greater number of people.

The Colombo and Gampaha districts continue to report the highest number of cases on a daily basis. Worryingly, employees of key government institutions are being detected with the infection almost every day, resulting in the closure of these institutions for several days as a precautionary measure.

A key factor health authorities have identified in the second wave is that those infected in the ‘Minuwangoda cluster’ were undetected for a significant period of time. This allowed them to unwittingly spread the infection far and wide and contact tracing for these infections is ongoing.

The Government has reverted to its strategy of imposing curfews in selected regions as a means of curbing the epidemic. While this causes significant disruption to normal life and leads to economic hardships to daily wage earners, it was also highly successful in curbing the first wave of infection.

Earlier this week, The Presidential Task Force on Covid-19, headed by Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa decided to cancel the two days allocated for people to visit supermarkets and grocery stores in these curfew areas in order to minimise the risk of a possible spread of the infection.

Previously, the Government had announced that essential goods outlets and pharmacies will be allowed to operate on Mondays and Thursdays in the Gampaha and Kalutara districts and on Tuesdays and Fridays in the Colombo and Kurunegala districts to meet the needs of the public.

The head of the National Operations Centre for the Prevention of Covid-19 (NOCPC), Army Commander Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva also confirmed that the previously announced system was cancelled in order to prevent people from stepping outdoors as it was considered risky.

Essential supplies and food rations

Instead, the Government has now made arrangements for essential supplies and food rations to be supplied to people’s homes. This is expected to prevent people from leaving their homes. Selected outlets will be allowed to operate delivery services using cars, vans, motorcycles, and three-wheelers.

With the emergence of clusters of infections in many regions of the country, there has been considerable debate as to whether there is a community spread of the infection in Sri Lanka. Health authorities have however maintained that the current infections do not constitute a community spread.

The Ministry of Health has maintained that contact tracing has established that infections that have been detected can be traced to the two main clusters, the garment factory at Minuwangoda and another at the wholesale fish market at Peliyagoda. Hence, there is no community spread, they explain.

Health authorities were also appealing to the public to cooperate with the Government to curb the spread of the second wave. Imposing measures such as curfews, while helpful, will not succeed if there is no cooperation from the public, Chief Epidemiologist, Dr. Sudath Samaraweera said.

“The efforts of health and security officials alone are not sufficient to combat Covid-19. The support of people is equally vital in the endeavour to control the virus,” Dr. Samaraweera said. This followed reports that many persons had actively attempted to evade the curfew restrictions imposed on them.

Some Government ministers, including Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi also came in for criticism on social media after observing rituals as a means of curbing the pandemic. However, Minister Wanniarachchi told Parliament that the government never neglected medical advice.

“Various comments have been made on social media on the religious observances which I was engaged in. Those in the Opposition said that I should leap into the sea as an offering. I am willing to do so, if such an act will end the pandemic in our country,” Wanniarachchi told Parliament.

Medical advice

“We followed medical advice on controlling the first wave of the pandemic. We are in a positive position in dealing with the second wave. We carried out only 250 tests daily during the first wave but now we are conducting more than 1,000 tests per day,” Minister Wanniarachchi explained.

The Opposition has also raised in Parliament the issue of burying persons of the Muslim faith who die following the illness. This became a controversy during the first wave of the pandemic after Muslim leaders protested against the practice, saying that it hurt religious sensibilities and offended Muslims.

Responding to this query, both Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi and Justice Minister Ali Sabry assured Parliament that these grievances would be addressed by a committee of experts that will be appointed to study and report on the issue as a matter of priority.

Minister Sabry said the bodies of everyone who died of the disease were cremated as a precaution, as the properties of the virus was unknown at the time. “We had to cremate as the virus was relatively unknown. However, this committee will come up with a solution to the issue shortly,” he said.

The preceding months were critical for the ruling party, the SLPP, as it attempted to establish its stranglehold on government by repealing the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and substituting most of its provisions with the 20th Amendment. The Government has been successful in its attempts.

It now has to contend with the deadly menace of the Coronavirus pandemic raising its head again with a second wave of infections. The Government is reverting to a strategy of curfews and controls, hoping it would be as successful as it was in dealing with the first wave of infections early in the year.