Year long reign and unimaginable terror of the virus that locked down cities and closed Houses of God and left mankind Godless Never in the chequered history of mankind has one spectre so authoritatively commanded the undivided attention of the entire world for an entire year and brought every other pursuit of human activity in [...]


The Mask: The Face of COVID Year 2020


Year long reign and unimaginable terror of the virus that locked down cities and closed Houses of God and left mankind Godless

Never in the chequered history of mankind has one spectre so authoritatively commanded the undivided attention of the entire world for an entire year and brought every other pursuit of human activity in its path to a halt to let its flaming chariot of pestilence pass with its long train of scalps bagged during its siege trailing behind, than the awesome spectre that is the coronavirus-19, in the year of the Lord 2020.

From the wind swept East Cape of New Zealand which first sees the sun rise and to the South Pacific Samoa island on which the sun sets last, the demon virus has stamped its footprint on almost every land and shore on earth and patently sealed every beating, breathing human breast on it with the foreboding dread of death. There had been many viruses and many pandemics that had raged before but none had so overwhelmingly engulfed the whole world as the coronavirus-19 had done in one year and looks intent to continue to do in the next without pause or stint.

And never has one fashion accessory, the much maligned ‘burka’, used for centuries by women in the Sahara dunes as protective wear against blinding sandstorms and later condemned by western feminist groups as a symbol of chauvinistic male oppression and by Sinhala Buddhist monks as security risks, become the mandatory No 1 fashion icon to dominate the face not only of every woman but of every man, with a government warning: never leave home without it.

THE MANDATORY FASHION STATEMENT OF THE YEAR: How the much maligned ‘burka’ worn by Muslim women became a must wear item on every man and woman’s face the world over

So what spurred the viral attack that brought the world so dangerously close to Armageddon? Was it spawned from an accursed bat that had slipped through the mist wrapped mounts surrounding fabled Shangri-La, set in China? Was the eating of this forbidden bat the original sin that had brought mass death to the world and caused our present woe? Or, as conspiracy theorists have it, was it demonically created in a secret Wuhan lab and released to begin the end of western domination and, in its ashes, see the rise of the Orient with China at the helm, without a grapeshot been fired?

Last year when church bells pealed at the midnight hour heralding the dawn of another Christmas and the world celebrated the birth anniversary of Jesus Christ, the birth of a virus that year and the subsequent havoc it was wreaking in Hubei Province’s capital city Wuhan    remained a top secret in China. It was also continuing to baffle Chinese scientists who hadn’t the foggiest what it was and what it portended.

Except for an eye surgeon in Wuhan, Li Wenliangwho, who blew the whistle when he alerted a chat group December 30 with the message, ‘A new coronavirus infection has been confirmed and its type is being identified. Inform all family and relatives to be on guard.’

The secret was out, much to the distaste of the Chinese authorities who reprimanded him for “making untrue comments” and “severely disturbing social order.” Sadly, on February 7, Li himself fell victim to the virus he had revealed to the world. He was only 33.

On February 11, the WHO officially baptised the disease that was causing the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak as the coronavirus disease 2019, shortened form COVID-19. But it would take exactly another month for the frightening magnitude of the disease to sink in to the WHO officials.

By that time Lanka had already reported her first case. It was a Chinese tourist who was detected on January 27 when she tested positive for the virus. The 44-year-old woman took three weeks to recover and, on February 19, was discharged from the IDH with a hug and a kiss from Health Minister Pavithra.

With over 118,000 cases of the coronavirus illness in over 110 countries, the World Health Organisation could tarry no more and declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11.

Just the day before COVID’s upgrade to pandemic status by WHO, a 52-year-old Lankan tour guide who had taken a group of Italian tourists became the first Lankan on Lankan soil to test positive for COVID. Since then, the number of those who joined the queue behind him at hospital had risen to over 38,000, with nearly 30,000 leaving the recoveries gate having received the all clear and 181 who failed to make it to the exit door.

The tourist driver’s detection seemed to have opened the floodgates. Within ten days, the tally had raced to 72 forcing the Government to impose a nationwide curfew on March 20. COVID was beginning to make its ghastly presence felt in a most dramatic manner.

The sudden curfew imposed on Friday was lifted on Tuesday for a few hours to give the citizenry a welcome breather to stock up on the bare necessities to weather the approaching hibernation. The curfew would continue without break till May 11 in Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara with a few hours of relief granted at certain intervals.

While the rest of the island saw the curfew gradually relaxed after April, the Western Province remained under a 24-hour curfew till May 11 with only a nighttime curfew prevailing thereafter. On June 28, the curfew was completely lifted.

The slang on the street was that the Government had done a splendid job. It was indeed an incredible achievement for not a single community case had been reported since June 1. At that time there were only 361 active cases and, best of all, only 11 deaths.

But had the authorities spoken too soon? Had the evil eye cast by the envious worked its black magic to turn its initial triumph to its ensuing tragedy? Had victory dulled vigilance and turned all it touched complacent?

But the lull was only beguiling: the storm was about to return with a vengeance. Thankfully for the Government it had been able to successfully hold the twice delayed election during the respite on August 5 and be returned to the seat of power, just five seats short of a two-thirds majority.

The winds of COVID blew again in the last week of September; and swirled within the Brandix garment factory. Though all the signs were present, the sneezing, the coughing and even the fevers reported by 33 employees there, it failed to rouse the attention of the management staff to the possibility of a COVID infection raging within its enclosed premises. As Lanka’s Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Samaraweera reported, some of them who sought help from the company’s in-house doctor, had been told to take a Panadol and carry on working.

Didn’t the rigorous Brandix protocol — which the company said was in force — insist on the simple non-contact forehead thermometers now employed throughout the country even in small establishments to check the temperature of all employees and visitors entering the premises daily? SUNDAY PUNCH asked the question on October 11, the Sunday following the Brandix COVID explosion, as to how people with fevers could have slipped through the ‘Brandix protocol’ had it been in force. But it remains unanswered.

When the first blighted flower — who had on her own volition sought treatment at Gampaha — had tested positive at the Gampaha General Hospital on October 4, a whole cluster of COVID blighted blooms were discovered at the Brandix factory which appeared as a blooming corona bud breeding nursery with none of the management staff wising up to the COVID horror curdling inside its own house.

On October 4, the corona total cases in the country were 3,396, the number of active COVID patients were 125 and 13 deaths. With these reassuring figures showing the situation was under control, the Government saw no valid reason to sound the alarm or wave red flags, its intent more bent on getting its main item on the legislative agenda, the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, into the statute books. On October 22, it achieved its goal of padding even more power to the presidential elbow, gaining the required two-thirds majority with a little help from political turncoats in the opposition who betrayed party and electorate in casting their lot with the Government.

Not even a week passed after its royal flush in parliament for the Government to realise that the coronavirus had not remained cocooned in idleness throughout the countdown to 20A but had been running riot with no bars erected to contain its mischief.  Within three weeks the reassuring figures of October 4 had changed dramatically and showed a most disturbing rise that spelt bedlam.

On the brink of an economic collapse beyond revival, the Government could no longer afford to order a lockdown and wish the virus would die a natural death denied a human host to piggyback and multiply. Instead it struck a stiff upper lip and ordered the masses to play dice with the virus and brave the corona gauntlet to keep the economic wheels turning and prevent it grinding to a halt.

Rather than being impaled on the horns of a dilemma and be accused of doing nothing but sit on it, the Government’s most imaginative course of action, instead, has been to swing to and fro to the COVID tune, caught in the noose of a Catch-22 situation. No wonder some of its ministers are throwing enchanted pots to rivers invoking occult spirits to combat COVID and wipe it out for good, and promoting ‘paniyas’ brewed in celestial abodes as the quick fire answer to Pfizer’s COVID buster.

But if it’s of any consolation, not only this tiny island but the rest of the world is in despair. The coronavirus has draped a black veil of poignant sadness over the face of the earth blocking even a single ray of cheer to sneak through its coarse canvas and light with momentary joy this godless existence.

With the world turned wasteland, with temple bells silenced, with kovil lamps unlit, with the House of God shut with sacramental bread and wine flowing no more from the altar, with prayers that once rang high to heavens from turret tops now stilled, has man’s sojourn in this spiritual desert brought him any closer to behold the reality of life? That the trappings of material riches are but tinsel and bauble and the meaning of life and true lasting wealth are found elsewhere, far away from this madding strife?

And even as this miserable, wretched year ends, the streaks of silver lining in its dark clouds must also be noted, of instances of kindness, of generosity, of sacrifice, of courage, of fortitude displayed in the most trying circumstances. And for uniting the world as never before in hope and in prayer that a vaccine for the virus will soon be found.

Now that one has been found, let’s touch wood and hope it will, for God’s sake, work. And hope, pray and wish all a very happy, COVID free, healthy New Year.


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