COVID battle continues amid diplomatic moves | Daily News

COVID battle continues amid diplomatic moves

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe

The harrowing scenes full of loud cries and silent sighs of the people in the pandemic-hit neighbouring country have laden the air causing grim feelings and ominous thoughts on how disastrous COVID-19 could be if its shackles were loosened.

Locally, alarm bells have sounded due to a fresh wave of COVID-19 in the post-Sinhala and Tamil New Year season, for which the fingers have been pointed, in hindsight, on the people’s unrestricted behaviour and the authorities’ lack of timely actions.

It has now been confirmed that the highly infectious UK variant (B.1.1.7), which also has a high mortality rate, is responsible for the current spike of COVID-19 cases in the country, leading to the isolation of over 60 Grama Niladari Divisions and Police areas. For the week ended last Sunday, an average of 1,450 new infections of the Coronavirus had been reported daily, consecutively breaking the records of the highest number of daily cases, with an average of about 20,900 daily PCR tests, according to the statistics.

The new cases have been grouped under ‘New Year COVID-19 cluster’, a name that does not associate with any location but an event celebrated countrywide, giving an impression that the long-denied community transmission has befallen. Having said that, it is no time to hit the panic button as it will only complicate the situation further.


Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe in a hand gesture of solidarity

Even in the global context, there is no sign of easing the pandemic with new potent mutations hitting one after the other in different parts of the world. Many countries are seeking solace in COVID-19 vaccines to build herd immunization against this infectious disease, but supply shortfalls compared to the global demand and the emergence of apparently vaccine-resistant virus variants have acted as setbacks.

Vaccines

The Government has faced a challenging environment when confronting the more virulent Coronavirus wave in the country. Last week, it decided to add more hospital beds, especially the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds, as many Government hospitals were stretched to the limit with the number of COVID-19 in-patients passing the 10,000 mark. It also assessed the oxygen supplies available for the future use of needy patients.

Weighing its options on how best to tackle the current epidemic situation, the Government last week issued revised restrictions under ‘Alert Level 3’ and the public have been asked to postpone all functions and events at least for two weeks starting from last Monday. Schools islandwide have been closed and workplaces have been requested to call the minimum staff required for duty, while implementing the ‘Work from Home’ (WFH) concept as far as possible once again. Many offices duly complied with these directives.

The country’s COVID-19 inoculation drive, which was started in late January with 500,000 Covishield jabs received as a donation from India under its ‘Vaccine Maitri’ programme, has run in to a snag as the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine maker, is not in a position to deliver the ordered stocks of vaccine on time for the second dose. This is understandable as India has to give priority to vaccinate their population given the dire situation in that country. In a recent interview, the SII Chief Adar Poonawalla detailed the immense pressure he is facing from Indian politicians over vaccine supplies.

As a result, the Sri Lankan Government has been forced to look for sources outside India to meet a shortage of 600,000 AstraZeneca shots for the second dose before the effectiveness of the first dose fades. The roll-out of the second dose for the frontline workers of the military and health sector started last Wednesday with the remaining 300,000 dose stock of the vaccine.


Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay calling on Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa

Health authorities are awaiting the World Health Organization’s (WHO) approval to go ahead and administer the Sinopharm vaccine, a donation from China, to the locals. At the same time, Cabinet has approved the import of 13 million doses of the Russian-made Sputnik V, which is said to have a high efficacy rate (92 percent), and the first batch of 15,000 doses arrived in the country yesterday. Made by the famous Gamaleya Institute in Moscow, the vaccine is marketed by the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF). It has now been approved for Emergency Use in nearly 50 countries. In addition, the Government also intends to procure the mRNA-based Pfizer/BioNTech COVID vaccine as soon as possible. Pfizer was incidentally the first vaccine to be introduced to fight COVID.

Common enemy

“To overcome this challenge, the people must strictly follow all the rules and regulations recommended by the health authorities, as they did in the first wave of the COVID-19 epidemic. Developing countries such as Sri Lanka cannot take lockdown measures or impose curfews that obstruct economic activities. The majority of our country’s income earners depend on informal livelihoods. Only a vaccine can end the COVID-19 pandemic. The Government has a systematic programme in place for that. While the Government is fulfilling its responsibilities, the people must fulfil their respective responsibilities for the betterment of the country as well as themselves,” reiterated President Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently.

Meanwhile, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has decided to call for a cessation of political hostilities to work together to fight the common enemy. He might have realized that constant criticisms of the Government actions to fight the deadly disease would only depict the Opposition in a bad light in the eyes of the public. In a video statement on Sunday, he expressed the Opposition’s support to the Government’s efforts to save the lives of 21 million Sri Lankans from the Coronavirus pandemic.

“I personally phoned the Ambassadors in several key foreign countries requesting their support to secure enough COVID-19 vaccines. I have also requested the diplomats of the United States (US), Australia and the United Kingdom (UK) to help us to obtain mobile hospital units. This is not a time for political power rivalry,” he commented.

Several diplomats called on the Opposition Leader, hours before Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe’s visit to Sri Lanka last Tuesday. The Opposition Leader had two meetings, the first with a delegation comprising countries of the European Union (EU) including the Ambassadors of France, Germany, Italy and Romania and the second with another group of diplomatic heads representing the UK, Canada, the US, Switzerland, Norway and Australia.

Interestingly, all those countries were co-sponsors of the Resolution on Sri Lanka at the recently concluded session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The Opposition Leader told the media that a broad range of topics was discussed at the two meetings, but little has come out on the specifics. In an apparent move to balance his foreign relations and thereby to ward off any unfavourable comments, he also met the Russian Ambassador on Monday. Premadasa told the media that he requested health supplies needed for the country from all the envoys.

Diplomatic talks


Second dose of COVID-19 vaccine for frontline health workers

Sri Lanka saw another high-profile visit from China last week led by Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe, in the background of the Government finalizing and going ahead with the ‘Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill’ to pronounce the legal framework of the China-funded Colombo Port City. Again, there were not much detail of the talks between the Chinese delegation and the leaders of the Government. It was reported that the two countries agreed to enhance pragmatic cooperation in all sectors including defence. Many foreign policy analysts observed this visit as a further consolidation of already flourishing ties between Sri Lanka and China.

“Noting that Sri Lanka has prioritised developing the relations with China and firmly supported China’s positions on issues concerning its core interests, President Rajapaksa said his country has been pursuing an independent foreign policy and would never bend to pressure from major powers outside the region as well as never forge an alliance with any country,” China’s Xinhua news agency reported following the meeting.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa flanked by several ministers holding key portfolios, including Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, also met the Chinese delegation for a round-table discussion.

Hot on the heels of this visit of a high-level Chinese delegation, Indian High Commissioner in Colombo Gopal Baglay called on Prime Minister Rajapaksa last Thursday. The particulars of this meeting were also not expressly stated to the media.

“The Indian High Commissioner met me to brief me regarding the COVID-19 humanitarian crisis that is ongoing in India. I conveyed our sentiments of solidarity to PM Narendra Modi. The Government and people of India are in our prayers. We wish them a rapid recovery from this crisis,” PM Rajapaksa tweeted after the meeting.

Moreover, President Rajapaksa wrote to PM Narendra Modi last Wednesday expressing concern about the COVID-19 surge in India. “I am confident that under your able leadership and with the resolute support of dedicated experts and professionals, India will soon thwart the current havoc of the pathogen,” he said in the letter.

The President added that Sri Lanka’s Buddhist clergy would recite the ‘Rathana Suthra' to invoke blessings on the leaders and people of India. According to Buddhist chronicles, the Buddha first delivered the ‘Rathana Suthra’ to ease the fears and agony of the people hit by famine and plague in India’s ancient city known as ‘Vaishali’. Several religious ceremonies were thus held at a number of cities in Sri Lanka to invoke blessings on the leaders and people of India, where the monks chanted the Rathana Suthra.

In fact, the time demands words and actions of solidarity among the nations in the name of humanity, surpassing the man-made geographical boundaries. After all, COVID-19 has taught us the important lesson that “nobody is safe until everybody is safe”.


Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa meeting envoys of the West