Many were the voices of caution that came to the fore with strong calls not to forget the all-important health measures that are essential to keep COVID-19 from beginning a rampage through the people of this country. These cautionary notes rose to a shrill crescendo as more people viewed COVID-19 with lethargy and complacency. Many [...]


Serious concerns over non-compliance of all-important health measures

Organisers of public gatherings and those who attend them must resort to hand hygiene, face-mask wearing & social distancing, urge officials

Celebrating the International Day of Patient Safety on Thursday by illuminating the Lotus Tower in orange. Pic by Gayan Amarasekera

Many were the voices of caution that came to the fore with strong calls not to forget the all-important health measures that are essential to keep COVID-19 from beginning a rampage through the people of this country.

These cautionary notes rose to a shrill crescendo as more people viewed COVID-19 with lethargy and complacency. Many of those using public places can now be seen without face-masks or even if they have a face-mask, wearing it wrong.

Sri Lanka has no community transmission of the virus and the last Kandakadu-Senapura cluster is on the wane, while those being diagnosed as positive are mostly returnees from abroad.

Mass gatherings were also being planned, giving serious headaches to the authorities including the health staff who along with the security forces have put in a major effort to prevent the new coronavirus creating havoc in the community up to now.

Unlike many powerful countries including our neighbour India, the United States of America (USA), the United Kingdom (UK) and more, tiny Sri Lanka with its strong and well-established public health system has managed to keep the virus at bay.

So far, Sri Lanka with a population of 21.6 million has had 3,276 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Friday morning (September 18), with 13 deaths. There are 220 patients in hospital, while 3,043 have recovered. Forty-four people suspected of having the virus are under observation in hospital.

In a disturbing contrast, India has had 5.21 million COVID-19 cases and 84,372 deaths from among their 1.3 billion population with no end in sight and Maldives has had 9,427 cases and 33 deaths from among a population of 515,696.

When asked by the Sunday Times, the Health Ministry’s Chief Epidemiologist, Dr. Sudath Samaraweera stressed that mass gatherings could pose a real danger, as the virus could leak into the community.

“It is essential to adhere to the health measures of hand-hygiene, proper face-mask wearing and keeping a one-metre distance. Otherwise, the consequences could be disastrous,” he said, urging people not to go to public places unnecessarily as the danger of COVID-19 is still very real.

Adding his voice, the Head of the Centre for the Prevention of COVID-19 and Army Commander, Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva told a media briefing on Thursday that even though Sri Lanka does not have any infected cases in society, “we must remember that there are infected expatriates still in hospitals” having been confirmed as positive through RT-PCR tests while in quarantine.

There is a risk of transmission of the infection from them while in hospital too. So keep those health precautions intact and help eradicate the threat, he said, stressing that organisers of public gatherings should adhere to the health guidelines although they have obtained permission to hold those events.

This was as Sri Lanka celebrated the International Day of Patient Safety on Thursday (September 17) by illuminating the Lotus Tower as well as the Health Ministry environs in orange and the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the safety of health staff a priority in view of the pandemic.

The Colombo International Book Fair, meanwhile, was expected to draw 500,000 people, while other gatherings such as the ‘Endgame Competition’ along with food stalls and a musical extravaganza at the Royal MAS arena, Colombo 7, organised by the Rotaract Club of Pearl Island on September 20; Daddy and BnS live concert at the Royal Institute (RI), Colombo 5, on October 9; and the tour of the Bangladesh cricket team are on the cards.

An Endgame organiser said that they have taken all health precautions. “It is a show where there is seating. We have got the advice of the Public Health Inspector (PHI) and we will only accommodate the number approved by him which is fewer than 500,” the organiser added.

The Sunday Times got a similar response from the organisers of the RI concert who refused to give the numbers who would attend it. All health guidelines will be followed, they assured.

The Bangladesh tour of Sri Lanka has not been finalised, a source said, pointing out that the Health Ministry was insistent that the cricketers be quarantined for 14 days in Sri Lanka, but the Bangladesh Cricket Board has not agreed.

Commenting on the book fair, Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Samaraweera said that safety measures should be given priority both by the organisers and the people who are attending it.

“We must be careful not to open up the country too fast and also hold mass gatherings because that may lead to disaster,” he said, taking as examples polio and diphtheria. With vaccinations preventing children from falling victim to them, people have forgotten what terrible diseases these are. Bayanaka kama amathaka wela. It seems to be similar to COVID-19, because Sri Lanka has not suffered badly unlike other countries where lots of people have fallen ill and also died.

Dr. Samaraweera said that “we have basically got off lightly with many of those affected by COVID-19 being asymptomatic and getting mild disease. That may be the reason why we don’t understand the gravity of this disease, making people move away from health measures”.

He said that on the other hand the authorities understand the barapathala kama of the impact on the economy which has kadang wetila (collapsed). Livelihoods are affected and income-generation is hit badly. This is why there is a push to open up, but it has to be done in a balanced and systematic manner while ensuring that community transmission is not set off with a virus-leak among the people.

“Don’t go about unless you have some really urgent business to attend to or have to go to work. Try to stay at home and away from public places,” said Dr. Samaraweera, adding that the COVID-19 Task Force at Thursday’s meeting discussed in-depth how public awareness on the dangers of the virus and the health measures needed can be injected with new life along with the invaluable support of the PHIs.

Airport opening & repatriation flights

A tentative date for the opening of the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), Katunayake, cannot be given as the situation around the world is getting worse, said Airport & Aviation Services Limited (AASL) Chairman (Retd.) Major-General G.A. Chandrasiri, assuring that they are ready “but we must look at the world”.

With regard to returnee flights, he said a decision was taken at discussions with Foreign Ministry and other officials on Wednesday to limit repatriation flights to one per day to the BIA and Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA). Each flight would bring back no more than 350 people as they had to consider the capacity in the quarantine centres.

Don’t use a Third Party

Explaining that the government has made arrangements to bring back Sri Lankans who wish to return home, Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Samaraweera urged people not to turn to Third Parties who were cashing in on the situation to earn a quick buck.

“You can buy your ticket directly from the airline and when you land in Sri Lanka, measures such as RT-PCR testing and quarantining have been arranged by the authorities. So there is no need to pay a Third Party. These Third Parties are advertising on social media and charging what they call ‘handling fees’ which are an exorbitant Rs. 1,000 for each day in quarantine. This amounts to Rs. 14,000 for the quarantine period. Don’t get exploited by unscrupulous people,” he said.

Whereas earlier there were two-to-three flights with returnees coming in per day, now there is only one, taking into consideration the quarantine capacity, RT-PCR testing capacity and also the number of hospital beds available when these returnees need admission on being diagnosed with COVID-19, it is understood.

13th death and funeral arrangements

When asked about the 13th death, Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Samaraweera said that the person had symptoms of fever and sore throat. However, the early RT-PCR tests had been negative and could be due to the virus being “intermittent”. This could result in tests becoming negative even though the person may be having the virus.

“This is why we keep people in quarantine centres for the first 14 days and insist on home-quarantine for another 14 days. So even if the person has not tested positive in the first 14 days, the home quarantine would ensure that if he/she has the virus, its strength would be reduced and the chances of transmission becomes less. It will not spread in the community. This is also why the Health Ministry is very specific about how funeral arrangements should be carried out of those who are found to be positive,” he said.

“We understand the thinking of loved ones, but for the greater good, we continue our COVID-19 funeral guidelines, whatever the other countries are doing. We must take steps for the benefit of our people,” he added.

The 13th death was of a 60-year-old who had returned from Bahrain on September 2 and was admitted to the Chilaw District General Hospital with a respiratory ailment on September 9. He died on September 14.

Diplomats who come
back from abroad

When asked about foreign diplomats who are reporting to their missions here, Dr. Samaraweera said that they are expected to abide by the quarantine requirements laid down for them.

“If a diplomat gets COVID-19, he/she has to get admitted to a state hospital dedicated to treating such patients as no private hospitals have been designated for such treatment,” he said, adding that PHIs are keeping tabs on hotels which have been turned into quarantine centres.

It is learnt that there had been one incident when a person related to a diplomat had gone to a shopping mall during the quarantine period and the matter had been handled by the Foreign Ministry.

Vaccination plan a must
Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Sudath Samaraweera said that Sri Lanka needs to give thought to how the country would handle a vaccination programme against COVID-19.

This would be done by the Health Ministry under the guidance of the Epidemiology Unit which is armed with the technical know-how.

Dr. Samaraweera said: “We would have to carry out a technical evaluation of any vaccine which is pre-registered to check for efficacy and whether suitable for us, etc. Thereafter, we have to decide whether we will carry out a mass vaccination programme or if a small stock is available prioritise who should get it – the target population. A good management plan has to be drawn up, as otherwise there could be mismanagement and misuse.

“Then we should consider the cold-chain network which is the logistical part, how we will transport the vaccine etc., and staff mobilisation in giving the shots. A water-tight ground plan will be vital.”

Meanwhile, in the UK, the final trials of the potential vaccine AZD1222 produced by the University of Oxford’s Vaccine Group and the British-Swedish company, AstraZeneca, put on hold on September 8 after concerns over severe side-effects was deemed safe to continue after an investigation.


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