Public warned of impending COVID storm, while Minister plans to promote Lanka as COVID safe As health officials warned the coronavirus has fled beyond the ambit of clusters and has cast its imprint on the entire island, Cabinet spokesman Minister Udaya Gammanpila declared on Wednesday that even if the Government desired to impose a lockdown [...]


Is the Tourism Ministry living in a ‘Fantasy Island’ bubble?


  • Public warned of impending COVID storm, while
  • Minister plans to promote Lanka as COVID safe

As health officials warned the coronavirus has fled beyond the ambit of clusters and has cast its imprint on the entire island, Cabinet spokesman Minister Udaya Gammanpila declared on Wednesday that even if the Government desired to impose a lockdown to check the rising tide, it was unable to do so, since the nation’s weakened economy wouldn’t be able to withstand the crippling impact.

Addressing a COVID dictated virtual press briefing on cabinet decisions, Gammanpila said that while it is true that countries like Australia have enforced a lockdown again for the fourth time, Sri Lanka’s economy collapsed, and hundreds of people lost their jobs after last year’s lockdown, and today, “Sri Lanka does not have the economic strength to manage if there is a lockdown. Even if we want to do it, we cannot do it.’’

Earlier on Monday, COVID Minister Sudharshani Fernandopulle announced that a new variant of the coronavirus has been identified in the country but said that restrictions will not be placed on public movements. “The Epidemiology Unit is monitoring these new cases very closely,’’ she said, and emphasised that, ‘‘the measures that we have been taking would be implemented when the number of cases increases but there won’t be extra restrictions,”

COVID ISLAND: One nation with two health regimens, one for the tourists and one for the natives Pic by Thusitha Kumara

Last Sunday the Army Chief Commander Shavendra Silva told the media that there was news that the country was to be placed under lockdown. He said that they were currently studying the situation and that discussions were underway to decide on the course of action in the future. However, as of now, we don’t intend to go for a lockdown,” the Army Chief added.

PHI Union Chief Upul Rohana announced last Sunday the revision of health guidelines to holding weddings and funerals where the maximum number of attendees has now been reduced from 150 to 50. He said the virus has now spread beyond clusters and has engulfed the entire land, and warned, “The spreading of the coronavirus is on the rise again with the detection of the new variant from our country. Legal action will be taken against those violating health guidelines and quarantine laws. ”

Even the Prime Minister alerted the nation to the threat facing the country when he told a newspaper on Tuesday when asked about the Weerawansa row, ’I am not thinking of that, my whole focus is how to save the country from the coronavirus.’’

So with the health authorities warning of a new virulent COVID variant raging in town, and with the Government deciding that come what may, lockdowns to curb its rampant spread are luxuries the deteriorating economy can ill afford to boast at this desolate hour, surely the need to march in unison to a singular drum beating a common COVID code of health guidelines as prescribed by the health chiefs becomes manifestly imperative, does it not? Especially when, with mass lockdowns ruled out, the only hope left to thwart COVID’s riotous spree is to religiously adhere to the health commandments as laid out by the nation’s COVID Czar, the Director General of Health Services.

But isn’t there one sector in the Government’s outfit, following its own bugle call, out of step with the rest? Namely, the Tourism Ministry, which appears to be living in its own warped ‘fantasy island’ bubble, endowed, by a government desperate for dollars, with a licence to transport its human cargo of tourists from COVID-rife lands hither and thither in Lanka as it wishes, under a set of laws it devises and forwards for the Health Czar’s rubber stamp of approval.

Within this ’fantasy island’ bubble, fun starved tourists fleeing the COVID nightmare in their own lands can find their own corona-free corner of a demi paradise, where the virus that has swathed the world in gloom has been exiled by government fiat. Here, lounging on pristine sandy beaches, they can worship the sun praying for tan, sipping pina coladas served with cocktail umbrellas by COVID sterile natives — or to use the ‘with it’ hospitality jargon — ‘service providers’ waiting on hand. The price of admission to this exclusive bubble set? Two PCR tests, reduced from the earlier figure of three PCRs.

Then on to the mini Grande Tour of the land. First to see Lanka’s domesticated wildlife at Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage and watch the elephants led to bathe in the nearby river. Then to Kandy to see the Temple of the Tooth, with the sacred site cleared of local devotees before and during the visit. Then to scale the Lion’s Rock or Sigiriya and see atop the wind swept ruins of Kashyapa’s palace walls. Then to other designated tourist sites on the itinerary before finally returning to their hotels to enjoy the local evening entertainment awaiting them. But had they left, unbeknown to themselves, their COVID print not by sneeze or cough but by touch on some climbing railing for the unsuspecting local to make contact?

While billions writhe in absolute fear of contracting the dreaded virus, and governments over the world have introduced strict regimens of health guidelines to beat its siege and slow its spread; no such anxiety, no such fear or trepidation of coming into contact with the serial killer, is allowed to penetrate the protected circle of these fortunate foreigners jaunting through Lanka’s broad acres.

For they have been cocooned in a COVID proof ironclad travel bubble — the sort of new clothes Hans Christian Anderson’s Emperor wore when he went on a walk about amongst his subjects — which, like the Emperor’s designer weavers guarantying the style and cut of the suit, would be sartorially elegant to all but the grossly stupid, the Tourism Ministry officially warrants would make it absolutely safe for them to meander through Lanka’s sacred and ancient sites without having a brush with the coronavirus threat.

But what if the unthinkable happened and the bubble should burst?

On December 26, last year, minutes before the first flock of Ukrainian tourists arrived in the island, Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga gave his guarantee that the bubble will not burst and endanger not only the tourists travelling in it but also the unsuspecting Lankans outside of it.

He declared: ‘The Lankan people have nothing to be scared of. All the government health guidelines will be followed strictly to the letter. We have done this after taking the responsibility of ensuring that the Ukrainian tourists will not get COVID from Lankans; nor will Lankans get it from the Ukrainians. In fact, the tourists will visit the designated sites and will not come into contact with any Lankans. The tourists will be travelling in the government health guidelines’ ‘Bio Bubble’.

But the unexpected can occur, accidents do happen and moments after the tourists had landed, the much vaunted bubble burst. It showed the flawed assumptions opportunists have made about its durability and revealed that, in the first and final analysis, it is nothing but a work of fiction, an artificial imaginary contrivance devised to create the hype that in its world all will be safe and well. The facade was blown.

As the Sunday Punch of January 3 commented, ‘The tourists may have been duly protected in the imaginary travel bubble the thoughtful minister had cocooned them in, but the local dance troupe giving a performance was certainly not. They lay exposed to any cough or sneeze, to any fluttering virus still floating in that air conditioned terminal building.

‘Young girls, clad as hill country tea pluckers performed a song and dance act for the delectation of the visitors not on an elevated platform with the required social distancing kept but on the same level as the Ukraine tourists and danced past them with less than a yard’s distance. Worse. None of them wore the mandatory face mask. In the officials’ eagerness, perhaps, to ensure the tourists enjoyed the entertainment fare to the limit, none had thought of the safety of this young bevy of local dancing damsels.

‘If this major puncture in the bio bubble could occur just minutes after the minister had guaranteed no risk of virus transmission would be allowed to take place between the foreigners and the locals since all precautions against it had been taken, who can vouch for future bursts when the guard is lowered and the mask slips and, unwittingly, contact is made between the forbidden parties?’

Three days later it also came to light that despite the health guidelines specifying a 14-day quarantine period for the tourists they were out and about doing a spot of whale watching in Mirissa by the 7th day.

Even though his guarantee was blown to smithereens, the unrepentant Minister merely said, ‘We expected this eventuality and we are prepared to handle it’. Perhaps, he had forgotten that one lapse had been enough to trigger off the second COVID wave as COVID Minister Sudharshani Fernandopulle announced in Parliament on December 7 revealing the origins of the Brandix cluster.

On Wednesday the Health Services Director General, Dr. Asela Gunawardene, pointed a finger of blame at the public for their supposed lack of cooperation to bring the pandemic under control.  He said it was left to the people to decide whether they would hold wedding receptions, parties, public functions and enjoy as in the past, or reduce merry making events to the barest minimum to pave way for the reopening of schools and universities.

His Deputy, Dr. Hemantha Herath, warned the public on Tuesday to stay away from tourists after the country was placed on heightened alert for the new variant of the coronavirus. Dr. Herath said, “A number of tourists are currently in Sri Lanka and are visiting certain sites in the country. We urge locals not to have any contact with them and if anyone comes into contact with the tourists it could result in them contracting the virus.’

The Chief Medical Officer of the Colombo Municipality, Dr. Ruwan Wijeyamuni urged the public on Wednesday to restrict travel due to the highly transmissible COVID variant being detected in the country. He said people should refrain visiting public places with large crowds and warned of a possible third COVID wave if the health guidelines are not followed.

On Wednesday, the Tourism Ministry announced plans to launch a global campaign to draw tourists to the country with a high-level committee to steer the entire process appointed by its Minister Ranatunga. The same day it was also announced that all restrictions placed on flights from London following the detection of the English variant last month have been lifted with immediate effect.

It was revealed by Minister Ranatunga this week that since the reopening of the airports on January 21 more than 3,800 tourists had arrived in the country.  Most of them had arrived from Ukraine followed by Kazakhstan and from India and that 1 percent of the tourists had tested positive for COVID. Minister Ranatunga also said: “We also need to start a global marketing campaign to attract tourists here. We must highlight that Sri Lanka is a COVID-19 safe country as well,”

But with the people being warned this week to brace themselves for a greater resurgence of the virus with its new English variant traversing the land, and talk of nationwide lockdowns surfacing though officially denied, doesn’t it seem out of step with the rest for the Tourism Ministry to remain cocooned in a fantasy bubble of its own, announcing bold new plans to launch a global campaign to bring in tourists in their hordes from a COVID infested world while Lanka is on high alert for a possible third  COVID outbreak?

Isn’t there something out of joint in the way Lanka handles the COVID crisis, with medical experts gravely warning locals of the impending approach of a more violent COVID storm whilst the Tourism Minister nonchalantly plans to bring more tourists by highlighting that ‘’Lanka is a COVID safe country.’’

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