It was the unmistakable shrill tune of the choon-paan karaya in his modified tuk-tuk on Thursday morning that alerted the neighbourhood that their much-looked-forward-to ‘mobile breakfast’ had arrived. “Oya kohomada ave? Rata wahala ne thiyenne (How did you come? The country is closed noh?)” asked Kussi Amma Sera, as she went through the offerings, looking [...]

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It was the unmistakable shrill tune of the choon-paan karaya in his modified tuk-tuk on Thursday morning that alerted the neighbourhood that their much-looked-forward-to ‘mobile breakfast’ had arrived.

Oya kohomada ave? Rata wahala ne thiyenne (How did you come? The country is closed noh?)” asked Kussi Amma Sera, as she went through the offerings, looking for ‘maalu paan’.

Mata prashnayak thibbe ne (I didn’t have a problem),” said Aldoris, the choon-paan karaya, adding: “Mama polis kattiyawa dekka, eth egollo mava navath-thuve ne (I saw some policemen but they didn’t stop me).”

Banis thiyena-wada (Do you have any buns?)” asked Serapina, while Mabel Rasthiyadu offered her views on the lockdown: “Mokakda saha monawada kiyanne kiyala therenne-ne (There is a lot of confusion).”

My thoughts this morning were on the confused messages from government spokespersons and the police on the 77-hour travel restrictions (11 p.m. on Thursday to 4 a.m. on Monday). Is it a lockdown? Is it a curfew? Or is it both?

Social media was replete this morning with contributors asking why the government was shy in announcing a curfew or lockdown instead of the use of the words “travel restrictions”.  “Be honest,” exhorted one commentator.

Just as Aldoris was making his sales pitch and the trio was into a long conversation with him, the phone rang. It was my jolly-mood economist friend, Sammiya (short for Samson) on the line: And he was not in a jolly mood!

“I say… what is this nonsense that the government is talking about? They say ‘travel restrictions’ while the police spokesperson says people cannot get out of their homes. Isn’t that a curfew? Why can’t the government say so instead of hiding behind vague definitions,” he asked, in an angry tone.

“I agree… ‘travel restrictions’ is too vague for people to understand,” I said. “While the initial response to the pandemic was commendable, the government seems to have lost the plot and is all over the place without a clear plan,” he said, adding that “in a proper information flow where the public gets clear messages, maybe they should have invited the private sector to help with less complicated messages being disseminated”.

“On that point, I totally agree,” I said and continued the conversation lasting 16 minutes, while we discussed many issues other than the pandemic.

Sammiya makes a good point which is also the focus of today’s conversation with my readers: Is the government engaging the private sector particularly in areas in which the latter has more expertise in dealing with an emergency and its related issues?

Yes… private sector assistance was sought in some hotels being converted to intermediate care centres for COVID-19 patients, while at least three to four garment factories were converted into hospitals. Private hospitals are also offering the PCR tests, while at the beginning of the epidemic last year there was a flood of support from the private sector contributing cash and other requirements such as PPE, face masks and hospital equipment.

But why didn’t the government respond positively when the private sector offered to purchase two million doses of the vaccine – through state channels – for inoculation of one million private sector workers, with the balance 1 million doses being donated to the government? There was no positive response from the government.

Today, the government is struggling to get another 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, while supplies have run out at India’s Serum Institute.

According to a statement from the President’s Office earlier this week, Sri Lanka received 500,000 doses of AstraZeneca free of charge from India and the Government purchased another 500,000 doses. Sri Lanka also received another consignment of 265,000 doses of AstraZeneca from the global vaccine initiative, COVAX, making it a total of 1,265,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine. Under the first phase of the COVID-19 vaccination drive, around 925,000 people were given the first jab of the vaccine.

“However, the recent developments in India obstructed getting down vaccines required for the second dose. The health authorities have pointed out that around 600,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine are required to complete the second dose of the vaccination,” it said, adding that the Government is currently in discussions with various parties to obtain the required AstraZeneca vaccine doses.

Sri Lanka has received a donation of 600,000 doses of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine and 15,000 doses of the Sputnik vaccine and will get 85,000 more Sputnik vaccines for the second phase of this vaccination drive, it said.

If the previous offer by the private sector to purchase vaccines was accepted by the government, we won’t be in this supply mess today as the private sector would have helped the government to improve the supply streams since all the vaccines are produced by private companies and often private-to-private sector engagement and contact work better.

The government information mechanism also shows there are too many ‘cooks’. Mixed messages to the public are the order of the day. For example, a post-Cabinet media briefing was told (by one minister) that the vaccines will be mixed and matched if there is a shortage of one particular vaccine. Moments later, a more knowledgeable minister said studies are still continuing on whether mix-and-match has or hasn’t any side-effects.

With 80 per cent or more of the economic activity being undertaken by the organised private sector and small and medium scale entrepreneurs, it is a necessity for the government to consult the private sector in areas where it has the expertise.

For example, private sector hospitals can also inoculate the people at cost (without making any profit), since this is a calamity. The private sector can help in using its contacts abroad in getting the balance 600,000 AstraZeneca vaccines from countries that have an oversupply.

And it’s important that the government treats vital export sectors like garments, tea and also migrant workers whose contribution to foreign exchange earnings is well known, as priority in receiving the jab. The private sector is far better organised than the government, one example is how it speedily responded in organising a chain of online deliveries of food, medicines and other essentials. Talk to the chambers and get their support in areas they have expertise in.

As I typed my final words for today’s column, in walked Kussi Amma Sera with my second mug of tea. “Sir, eliyata yanna be neda (Sir, can’t go out, noh?)” she asked.

I nodded in agreement, hoping that this column will catch the eye of a high public official or an influential minister in starting a conversation with the private sector to seek its assistance in a crisis that would continue for months, perhaps years.

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