Just when it seemed the dreaded COVID cloud had rained its last droplet of plague and misery on the Lankan landscape and had drifted away far beyond the horizon; just when life was starting to totter back to a new normalcy and the nation’s economic hive had begun to buzz again with activity; just when [...]


Govt.’s stark choice: Hold polls or dam COVID’s second wave?


Just when it seemed the dreaded COVID cloud had rained its last droplet of plague and misery on the Lankan landscape and had drifted away far beyond the horizon; just when life was starting to totter back to a new normalcy and the nation’s economic hive had begun to buzz again with activity; just when the rainbow had lit the island skyline with hope and promise, signaling the worst was over and happy days were here again, now comes the terrifying news: ‘The worse is yet to come.’

Ever since Lanka reported the first indigenous COVID case on Lankan soil on March 11, the world had watched with admiration and taken note of how well the Government had acted to combat the coronavirus. Ably assisted by a dedicated medical service working tirelessly round the clock and supported by the tri-forces and the police to track down and isolate the potentially infected, the singlemindedness of the Government to triumph over the COVID invasion at all cost, certainly paid off to contain the coronavirus from transforming to a full blown pandemic.

The Government’s decision to don the blinkers at an early stage and its determination not to let anything else despoil its vision or blur its focus, not even heed the SOS messages the crumbling economy was transmitting feverishly from its death bed, succeeded in keeping COVID in its encircled place and prevented it from sneaking through the dragnet to infiltrate the community and spark off an uncontrollable spread through every strata of Lankan life.

The islandwide 24-hour curfew first imposed on March 20 and re-imposed on March  24 after a six-hour breather for people to stock up before retiring to hibernation, was relaxed only on April 6 in the country except the Colombo and Gampaha districts and a few other affected districts. In the capital district and its neighouring district Gampaha, it continued for nearly seven weeks and relaxed on May 11.

The mission to lay siege on the coronavirus and starve it of its prey was indeed successful. But when the public had been given the freedom of the streets and advised to follow thehealth guidelines given of social distancing with faces masked, fears were expressed that the inevitable mingling of the masses would trigger an outbreak. But even after the two week incubation period had passed there was no significant increase in the daily number of cases reported.

On the contrary, on May 24, Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Sudath Samaraweera announced to the nation and the world that Sri Lanka was COVID free. He said that not a single Covid-19 patient had been reported in society within the last 24 days.

In fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) Country Representative Dr. Razia Pendse on Thursday praised Lanka, saying the country has been able to control the COVID-19 epidemic more effectively even with modest means than more resourced countries. She said: “The response in Sri Lanka has been guided by public health and science and this has helped in setting up all that was required very early on.”

If eternal vigilance over the unseen yet omnipresent enemy had been the price Lanka had to pay for her unblemished track record in handling the COVID pandemic effectively, barricading its advance and narrowing its ambit to curb it running amok, it has now become clear that somewhere down the line complacency, perhaps, spawned of smugness in the excess of victory’s joy, had set in to rot the fruit of success.

In a frightening turn of events that portended the fall from grace, the Kandakadu incident occurred last Tuesday where a female counsellor and a male instructor attached to the Drug Rehabilitation Centre at Kandakadu, in the Polonnaruwa district, left the Centre unaware they had contracted the coronavirus to their hometowns of Nattandiya and Rajanganaye respectively. Back home they both tested positive for COVID.

This was the first known instance where the coronavirus had escaped from a confined cluster of people to inhabit and infect the social domain; and, having untrammelled freedom of movement, to treat the country’s broadacres as its playing field to do its worst.

And a horrified medical staff awoke to the horror that Lanka was standing on the brink of a COVID second wave, the dreaded second coming bound to end more calamitously than the first advent which had never really taken root but had been miraculously confined to identified clusters, naval personnel and returnees from abroad. A second wave would mean a return to base camp, with the virus embedded in the soil and rooting it out with the limited resources available would tax the resilience of the health system to the extreme limit.

How was this allowed to happen? Just when life was limping back to a ‘controlled’ normalcy and the economy was still slowly opening its shutters, when schools and universities were   just waking to academic life, when the COVID sirens were still shrilling and warning lights flashed to signal the COVID alert was still in force, what was the madding rush to have counsellors, instructors and visiting lecturers deliver pep talks on the benefits of giving up drugs to group of drug addicts when, given the exigencies and circumstances, a taped video shown on television screens would have done the trick?

Even presuming their presence was vital, were the counsellors, instructors and lecturers ever subjected to COVID tests to prevent them from possibly bringing the coronavirus into the centre and infecting the inmates en masse? And were those counsellors, instructors and lecturers subjected to PCR testing before exiting the enclosed camp to ensure they had not been turned to COVID hosts to infect society indiscriminately?

As a result of letting the guard down, the nation’s improving corona health as shown on the bed card has changed dramatically for the worse. According to the Epidemiology Unit’s daily update, on July 8, the total number of active COVID patients was 103. The number quarantined from the local community were 78. Nine days later, 17 Friday, the number of active cases had soared to 664 and the number quarantined as a result of Kandakadu had risen to 506.

But according to the Public Health Inspectors Union President Upul Rohana, at least 3,000 people in 16 districts had been sent for quarantine as a result of the Kandakadu cluster.

Speaking to the Daily Mirror this Wednesday, he said: ’The cases related to Kandakadu had been reported from Gampaha, Puttalam, Kalutara, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Galle, Matara, Hambantota, Ratnapura, Kandy, Matale, Kegalle, Jaffna, Kurunegala and Moneragala. Those who are on self-quarantine and those sent to quarantine centers are among the 3,000 people. Sri Lanka is not out of the woods yet in terms of Covid-19 situation and therefore it was vital to adhere to health guidelines.’

In one fell swoop, the second wave would wash away all the credit gained by the government and the medical team for making Lanka with her effective strategies a role model for other countries to follow.  And all efforts, all the sacrifices, all the heartbreak and tears would have been in vain. Purely because the Rehabilitation Centre for Drug Addicts set opposite a COVID quarantine centre in Kandakadu for those returning from abroad, was never identified as a possible breeding ground for the coronavirus; and thus the precautions to prevent its entry in or its flight out from the camp were never taken.

Today, as Lanka finds herself poised perilously on the brink of facing a catastrophic second COVID invasion, the question on the nation’s lips is whether the Government will pull out all the stops to prevent the pandemic’s resurgence or soft peddle the corona calamity and downplay its ominous threat to create the spurious air that conditions are ideal to host a general election two weeks hence on 5 August?

While former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe last Sunday called for the postponement of the general election, stating that the country is facing a dangerous situation in the wake of COVID-19 raising its head once again, the present Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, disagreed.

He told newspaper editors and media heads on Thursday, that there was no need to get unnecessarily scared or panic about the spread of Covid-19 in Sri Lanka as things were under control.  “There is no need for any lockdown of the country. Some politicians are saying various things as it is an election time. That is how it is in politics.”

But the Association of Medical Specialists, an independent body with over 1,300 senior specialists serving in the government sector, warned on Thursday that if the current spread of COVID-19 is ignored Sri Lankan could end up becoming another Brazil or India.

One can understand the President’s pain and frustration not to host the long overdue and much delayed general election which he is under a constitutional duty to discharge. In  the manner of the old adage, there had been many a slip between the cup and the lip when it had come to holding this year’s twice scheduled and twice delayed election and its with fingers crossed and hoping against hope, all will await to see whether it will be third time lucky.

But none can predict the unchartered course, the erratic COVID may take. For the moment all seems calm, eerily calm, like the lull before the storm. Lanka’s COVID Czar Dr. Jasinghe has assured the nation that ‘there is no need to impose a lockdown in the country since the virus is confined to only some areas.’

With this blank cheque in hand, all that the public asks is that if the virus gets out of hand and drastic measures need to be taken to control its spread, the Government places the public health of the nation far above the need to hold elections on August 5. If the policy is followed in a transparent manner and it is demonstrably shown that the decision — whether or not to hold polls in two weeks on August 5 – is taken after a genuine evaluation of the COVID crisis with public health held paramount and not the petty interest of politicians, then it will be appreciated and creditable. If not, it will be appalling and unforgivable.

None should forget that there are less than 500 ICU beds in Lanka. That’s the bottom line.


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