Beneficial outcome expected from countrywide lockdown | Daily News

Beneficial outcome expected from countrywide lockdown

The Rs.2,000 allowance is being given islandwide
The Rs.2,000 allowance is being given islandwide

The escalating COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging the Government for many weeks now, despite the imposition of a countrywide lockdown last week that has limited economic activity but failed to reduce the health impact of the deadly disease that continues to claim hundreds of lives.

The number of daily deaths in Sri Lanka due to the pandemic now averages around 200. The total number of deaths due to the Coronavirus in the country now stands at over 9,000. Worryingly, a significant proportion of those have occurred in recent weeks due to the rampaging ‘Delta’ variant.

In the lead up to the lockdown, there was a robust debate in the country as to whether such measures would be useful. Many health experts argue that a lockdown was imperative to minimise the health impact and reduce the number of deaths and infections due to the virus in the coming months.

However, there was a counter argument that a lockdown would cripple the country’s economy which has already been dealt a severe blow by the pandemic, completely ruining the tourism industry and curtailing the activities in several manufacturing sector industries over the past one and a half years.

Economic and health needs

Another factor that weighed on the minds of decision makers at the highest levels of the Government was that a considerable proportion of Sri Lanka’s workforce comprises daily wage earners and not salaried workers. For this segment of the population, in effect, a lockdown means no income at all.

Despite this debate, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last week initially acquiesced to a ten-day lockdown. As a preamble to this, he addressed the Nation on TV and explained the challenges he faced in balancing the economic and health needs of the people and outlined in detail the rationale for the lockdown.

This week, the Government announced that the lockdown will be extended until 4 a.m. on September 6. The decision was taken by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the COVID-19 Task Force meeting earlier in the week, following a review of the lockdown measures that are already in place.

The Task Force observed that many Sri Lankan citizens have not taken the curfew seriously. “In order for this lockdown to be effective I implore again to refrain from unnecessary travel, Work From Home (WFH) and abide by the curfew,” new Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella appealed to the public.

The announcement of the extension of the lockdown also came after health authorities were alerted to the presence of what has been termed the ‘most mutated strain’ of the Delta variant in other countries. This strain has sparked fears that it has the potential to evade the presently used COVID-19 vaccines.

This variant, which has been named the ‘C.1.2 variant’, was first detected in South Africa and may be more infectious than all other variants found so far, experts warn. It has been seen in China, England, New Zealand, Portugal, Switzerland, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mauritius.

Despite the imposition of the lockdown, the Government ensured that its vaccination effort did not suffer. It maintained over 500 vaccination centres throughout the country during this period to sustain the momentum of the national vaccination drive that will be the key to restoring normal activity.

The Government was using both the Ministry of Health and the Sri Lanka Army to ramp up the vaccination drive, which suffered from an initial lack of adequate supplies due to increasing global demand for all vaccines. At present, the Chinese-made Sinopharm is the vaccine most commonly used in Sri Lanka.

In an attempt to streamline vaccines and provide the public unfettered access to vaccines, the Government engaged the Sri Lanka Army in this effort. The ease with vaccines could be accessed without waiting in queues for long periods at centres run by the military has been widely commended.

The Government is also considering whether to administer ‘booster’ vaccines to individuals who have already received two doses of the vaccine. This is because immunity to COVID-19 is known to decline after a period of several months. Some countries such as Israel are already delivering booster doses.

If the Government decides to go ahead with a plan to administer booster doses, it will be after most of the two-dose vaccination programme is completed. This is expected to occur in October. However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has not yet approved a third booster dose for COVID-19.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had requested medical experts to study if priority should be given to administer booster doses for those above 60 years of age or to administer the first and second dose for those below 30. The former is considered more vulnerable to complications of COVID-19 infection.

The Government has also studied deaths occurring as a result of COVID-19 infections and has concluded that those at the highest risk of death are those with other significant medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic kidney disease and long-term heart ailments.

Health Ministry officials said that 85 per cent of the 6,985 COVID-19 deaths reported up to August 13 were among people who were suffering from chronic diseases and under medical treatment previously. This is consistent with findings in other countries where such deaths have been studied.

Relief for needy groups

Health Promotion Bureau Director Dr. Ranjith Batuwanthudawa told a news conference that 53 per cent of the deaths were among people who suffered from diabetes, while 52 per cent had high blood pressure. He said 24 per cent of the deceased had heart ailments and 18 per cent of them suffered from chronic kidney diseases.

Apart from dealing with the health aspects of the pandemic, the Government was also busy putting in place measures that would help the public cope with the lockdown. Relief measures aimed at the needy groups in the population were being formulated by several ministries working together.

The Government is now paying a Rs.2,000 allowance to those who have lost their livelihood due to the lockdown. The allowance is being disbursed through Grama Niladhari officials. It is similar to the Rs.5,000 allowance that was distributed to the needy during the lockdown imposed last year, the only difference being that Rs.2,000 is for 10 days as opposed to one month.

The Home Affairs Ministry has requested people who have not yet received the allowance of Rs. 2,000 to appeal through the Grama Niladhari in charge of their area of residence. People who have completely lost their earnings due to the lockdown qualify for the payment, the Ministry said.

About 50% of those who are eligible for the allowance have already been paid Rs. 2,000, Secretary to the Ministry of Home Affairs N.H.M. Chithrananda said. The Ministry was taking all possible measures to ensure that the allowance was distributed in an efficient manner, officials said. The payment has already been completed in many areas.

Essential food items

In another similar measure, the Government also cracked down on traders who are engaged in escalating the prices of essential food items. Such tactics have led to high retail prices and could lead to an increase in the Cost of Living to the public at a time when incomes are lower for some segments due to the prevailing lockdown.

In response, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Monday imposed Emergency Regulations on the provision of essential foods. The decision has been taken to prevent essential commodities such as rice, paddy and sugar being sold at exorbitant prices, Presidential Media Division (PMD) said. Moreover, some agency news reports had incorrectly described this as a “food emergency”, leading some Government figures to clarify the situation.

These regulations have been made under the powers vested in the President under the Public Security Ordinance. In addition, Major General M.D.S.P Niwunhella was appointed as the Commissioner General of Essential Services to coordinate the distribution of consumer goods, the President’s Media Division said by tweet and communiqué.

In another move aimed at cushioning the economic impact of the pandemic, the Government is also considering reducing State expenses. This is because of the financial impact of the pandemic which has resulted in the government having to bear the massive costs involved in containing COVID-19, believed to be as high as Rs.700 billion.

The Ministry of Finance has noted that the costs of essential measures undertaken by the Government such as the expenses incurred in the vaccination drive, providing additional healthcare facilities for COVID-19 infected persons and the provision of the relief allowance for those in need have been very high.

Among the measures being contemplated by the Ministry to offset these expenses are the suspension of new construction and the renovation of existing buildings and curtailing new recruitment to the Public Service. Other ministries will be directed to identify cost saving measures, Finance Ministry officials said.

Public cooperation

With the lockdown extended for another week, the Government is hopeful that it would be able to contain the spread of the Delta variant of the Coronavirus within reasonable limits, so as to allow some degree of economic activity to resume. However, public cooperation is essential for this to happen.

Health experts point out that, if the public adheres strictly to lockdown regulations for a reasonable period of time, this will see a reduction in the number of daily infections, hospitalisations due to complications of the Coronavirus and deaths. This in turn would allow the easing of restrictions.

This is what the Government is ultimately aiming for. However, for these objectives to be realised, public co-operation with the current restrictions is essential. Therefore, the coming few weeks will be vital in determining the next phase of the Coronavirus in Sri Lanka and its eventual outcome in the country.


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