After twice trying to get something accomplished, it would be expected that the third time would be lucky: Unfortunately, it was not to be. The Chamber of Commerce (CCC), acting on behalf of dozens of its member firms and the business community, failed in a third attempt this week to secure vaccines for private sector [...]

Business Times

Lockdown blues


After twice trying to get something accomplished, it would be expected that the third time would be lucky: Unfortunately, it was not to be.

The Chamber of Commerce (CCC), acting on behalf of dozens of its member firms and the business community, failed in a third attempt this week to secure vaccines for private sector workers from the government in a separate arrangement with vaccines being paid for.

It was in the middle of last year that the chamber offered to buy 2 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the government to vaccinate workers, particularly those from the garment sector. Half the quantity was to be donated to the government, while the balance 1 million doses were for workers. There was no positive response from the government.

Earlier this year, a similar appeal was made and turned down. Then this week the chamber requested the State Pharmaceuticals Corporation for a separate allocation of the AstraZeneca vaccine at Rs. 5,000 per dose – on an informal understanding that this would be possible – and there was an overwhelming response from member firms keen to purchase the vaccine. But later in the week, the chamber was informed that no separate allocation can be made and the private sector’s requirements would be incorporated in the national vaccination programme. There are allegations that through this method, the rich will benefit from vaccines but on the flip side it also allows the government to receive funds for vaccines for categories that can pay for it.

This news came as the pandemic reached a tipping point this week, with hundreds of infections expected in the coming weeks, forcing the government to declare lockdowns (“travel restrictions” as defined by the authorities) and shut down the airport for a 10-day period for inbound passengers including tourists. All these measures were aimed at curbing a sharp rise in infections which saw a new high of over 3,500 cases on Wednesday.

It’s also a tipping point for the economy as the fresh lockdowns and a temporary halt to tourist arrivals would be a severe blow in terms of revenue collection by the government and foreign exchange earnings from the trickle of tourist arrivals.

As I prepared to write my column, the phone rang. It was Kalabala Silva, the often agitated academic, on the line…..…and at this point it was a conversation I was not looking forward to, as Kalabala loves to talk while others are at work!

“Hello…hello,” he said. “Yes, what’s happening,” I asked.

“Well, the COVID-19 pandemic is getting out of control and the government doesn’t seem to be on top of the situation, which is a bad sign,” he said.

“You may be right. The number of cases is astronomically high and the only way to tackle the crisis is by vaccinating a large percentage of the population,” I said.

“Yes, but where are the vaccines? We are still short by about 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine for the second dose, while sufficient quantities of Sinopharm and Sputnik will in total be available (for the targeted population) only by the last quarter of this year, I am told,” he said.

“That’s true, but vaccines are not the only problem. There is evidence that the crisis has been mismanaged with medical expert views not being considered, in particular a plea to enforce a 2-week lockdown as the only way to curb the spread,” I said and then told Kalabala that I had to attend to some other work and ended the conversation.

Lockdowns, though necessary from a health perspective, have a huge negative impact on the economy with losses amounting to billions of rupees per day from lost tax revenue to the exchequer. And for an economy that is striving to recover this year with growth projections in place, compared to negative growth last year, these ‘disturbances’ can set the clock back.

As I sipped my mug of tea, I heard noises in the kitchen. On a rainy day like this Thursday morning, the trio was enjoying a cup of tea in the kitchen. “Apita hari prashna neda, me COVID wasangathaya hinda (We are having serious problems with the COVID-19 pandemic),” said Serapina.

“Mama hari wasana-wanthai, mokada mata Sinopharmennatha MOH officiyen lebuna (I was lucky because I got the Sinopharm vaccination from the MOH office),” noted Mabel Rasthiyadu.

Oyata lebunada (Did you)?” asked Kussi Amma Sera, adding: “Mama, ena sumane ennatha ganna balanna one, istock evara wenna issalla (I must try and get it next week before stocks run out).”

Here are some issues to worry about:

Surging number of COVID-19 cases, with some officials saying it would hit a million in three months’ time from over 151,000 on Wednesday

While the government repeatedly says it has enough funds to purchase vaccines, why then is an appeal being made for donations from overseas and requests to INGOs and NGOs to channel their unutilised funds to the government?

Tourism is unlikely to recover from the latest lockdown and the stoppage of tourist arrivals for a 10-day period – May 21 to 31. There were expectations that the industry would recover during the September-October winter season traffic, but that won’t happen now amidst regular disruptions through travel restrictions imposed on-and-off when there is a surge in infections.

Whether the economy can recover from this latest blow remains to be seen. The redeeming factor is that worker remittances are rising and showed an increase in January-April 2021 compared to last year, despite a drop in the number of workers going abroad for work last year.

Also on the positive side, is the success of large corporates like the Hayleys Group and Expolanka which have excelled in export earnings and logistics, enjoying a surfeit of pandemic-related work.

According to a Central Bank statement on Thursday, the economy, which rebounded during the second half of 2020 and early 2021 as per available indicators, is experiencing renewed disruption due to the emergence of the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and related preventive measures, including isolations.

“While its adverse effects on economic activity are expected to be lesser than during the first two waves due to the selective nature of mobility restrictions and the ongoing vaccination drive, the third wave has once again highlighted the disruptive nature of the pandemic and the challenges faced in sustaining the economic recovery amidst the pandemic,” it said. As stated earlier, while the economy will suffer, lockdowns are inevitable as health needs must take priority over the economy and business.

As I wound up my column, Kussi Amma Sera walked into the room, this time with a mug of coffee that I had requested earlier.

“Sir, rate prashna godak neda (Sir, many problems in the country),” she said.

I nodded and wondered when the COVID-19 pandemic would end. When we would be able to return to normal life is anybody’s guess.

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