Just like the song ‘Do Re Mi’ in the famous movie ‘Sound of Music’, let’s start at the very beginning (of the new coronavirus pandemic)… a very good place to start. Though that song has an ending, in the case of COVID-19, no one clearly knows when this would end, except that the disease may [...]

Business Times

World stops travelling


Just like the song ‘Do Re Mi’ in the famous movie ‘Sound of Music’, let’s start at the very beginning (of the new coronavirus pandemic)… a very good place to start.

Though that song has an ending, in the case of COVID-19, no one clearly knows when this would end, except that the disease may peter out when the European summer arrives since there is a fleeting chance that the virus is unable to spread on hot days.

As for the headline of today’s column, it was borrowed from an article by  Rafat Ali, Founder & CEO of Skift – a travel research and intelligence platform – where he said on March 14: “This day we will always remember from here on as ‘The Day the World Stopped Travelling’. One by one, every major country in the world affected by coronavirus is closing down its borders, and this weekend it seems to have accelerated across almost every section of the world map.”

As we return to the national and global issues confronted by COVID-19, I can see Kussi Amma Sera, Mabel Rasthiyadu and Serapina seated in the garden under the margosa tree wearing face masks and discussing a key issue – the agony of daily wage earners.

“Apita maase mudal labena nisa api vasanavantai. Dawase vatupak hamba karana ayata monawada wenna yanne (We are lucky because we get paid monthly. What about the daily wage earners, how will they survive when they are unable to come to work)?” asked Kussi Amma Sera.

“Eh gollo weda karana geval walin saha anith than walin egollanta gewai kiyala mama prarthana karanawa (I hope households and other places where they work will still pay them even if they are unable to come to work),” said Serapina. According to social media posts, already some households are empathising with those who come to their households on a daily or weekly basis and promising to pay them even if they don’t come to work with the shutdown in force.

“Karmanthasala saha venath seva sthanavala meya siduvenawa athei kiyala mama balaporottu venawa (I hope this happens in factories and other workplaces),” noted Mabel Rasthiyadu. The trio’s hometowns are spread across Sri Lanka covering paddy fields, tea plantations and vegetable gardens.

Tourism, small businesses and daily wage earners are the worst affected.

In the case of tourism, this is the second shock faced by the industry in a year after the April 2019 bombings of three luxury hotels and three churches, saw a drastic drop in tourist arrivals.

When speaking to a few hoteliers and small guesthouse owners, this is what they said.

“Once the present few tourists leave, we would be zero occupied,” said one. “We didn’t even face a situation like this during the 30-year conflict,” said another. “Aiyo, all our rooms are empty,” wailed a small resort owner.

The tragedy of the situation is that while in most crises, there is a beginning and an end, there is still a ‘not so sure when this would end’ scenario in the case of COVID-19 with one exception – China – the epicenter of the disease, where it appears to have plateaued and the numbers are coming down in the graph.

Last week, the Business Times reported that the economic and financial loss, according to provisional estimates, was around 0.1 or 0.2 of the gross domestic product and in the range of US$9.1 billion (more than Rs.1.7 trillion) and $18.2 billion.

This is a phenomenal loss and as I struggled to come to grips with this projected loss which would rise as the days and weeks pass by, the phone rang. It was ‘human resource’ pundit H.R. Perera, popularly known as HR, on the line.

“I say……I am finding it difficult to manage the staff with the government decision to ask people to work from home for the next week. What about essential industries and workplaces?” he asked.

“Well, this is a crisis which we have never faced before. Even at the worst of times during the 1983-2009 conflict, we didn’t have a near two-week countrywide closure,” I said, adding: “You need to come up with a plan to ensure a limited number of workers do come to work and that is if you are in an industry or workplace where it involves the provision of essential services required for the welfare of the community.”

We then discussed many other issues pertaining to the crisis with one issue emerging at the tail-end of our conversation – the water crisis. The country is experiencing a water shortage in most areas. With the focus on washing one’s hands for a minimum 20 seconds per wash, as many times as possible to prevent transmitting the infection if any, the depleted water resources will run out soon. This is an area that needs urgent government attention – on one hand, hand-washing is a priority while on the flipside, wasting this precious resource is also an issue.

While the priority of the government, rightly so, is to ensure the people stay healthy and prevent them from contracting the disease, the economic fallout and the crisis particularly facing small businesses (SMEs etc), which represent a large segment of the country’s economy, will be the next big thing to handle for the policymakers.

So far, the IMF and the World Bank have announced emergency funding across the world to countries, particularly at the bottom end of the economic ladder, while in the case of Sri Lanka, the country is dipping into its meagre resources (which has become an issue since there hasn’t been a budget plan for 2020) and using contingency funds to pay for essential services. Thankfully, as many people urged, the national election scheduled for April 25 has been postponed.

Tea auctions were held during the week, while the stock market took a break and resumed on Friday for a short session. No decision has been taken as to whether the stock market will be open or not next week after the government decision for everyone to ‘work from home’.

At the very core of the issue is ensuring that more people stay at home than on the streets or at work. Strict compliance is sometimes difficult to administer unless a curfew is imposed and as I was preparing this column on Friday, the government announced a weekend curfew starting from 6 p.m. on Friday.

While the health of the people takes precedence over a fallout from the economy and business, it is extremely important that the government invites the chambers of commerce and industry and other industrial and business bodies to its task force and uses their skillset and expertise to chart the future path of the country as it grapples with COVID-19 and its aftermath. It should be ‘all hands on deck’ in these times of crisis and uncertainty.

As I was winding up the column discussing yet another week of uneasiness, Kussi Amma Sera walked into the room with a second cup of tea, asking: “Sir, me arbudaya ikmanin evaraveida (Sir, will this crisis end soon)?”

That is the hope of the whole of Sri Lanka and in these times of uncertainty, everyone should support the national effort to ensure a minimal number of infections. Staying safe is the first priority.


Share This Post


Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.