Finally the Government announced a lockdown in the country on Friday. This decision of the Government followed two to three weeks of expectations in the minds of people, that a lockdown would be enforced sooner rather than later. Despite strong appeals from health specialists, members of health sector trade unions, including Public Health Inspectors, other [...]


Lockdown at last; thecountry heaves a sigh of relief


Finally the Government announced a lockdown in the country on Friday. This decision of the Government followed two to three weeks of expectations in the minds of people, that a lockdown would be enforced sooner rather than later.

Despite strong appeals from health specialists, members of health sector trade unions, including Public Health Inspectors, other stakeholders and concerned citizens as well as Opposition politicians, in the wake of an alarming rise in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths, the Government stood its ground and refused to impose a lockdown.

Last week an unprecedented trend emerged in the country with trade organisations in different parts of the countrytaking the lead to lockdown their respective towns and villages for several days. These trade organisations were clearly subordinating the economic interests of their members, in preference to the larger health interests of the people.

At the rate these self-lockdowns were taking place, the country was fast approaching a situation where the whole or major part of the country would have shut down despite the Government not doing so.

While trade unions were threatening to stay away from work from Monday onwards, the constituent parties of the Sri Lanka PodujanaPeramuna(SLPP) led Government alliance added their voices to the chorus demanding a lockdown.

Finally, the Mahanayakes of the Malwatte and Asgiriya chapters too made a strong plea to the Government for a lockdown.

What made the Government finally take the decision to lockdown is not clear, although Prof. ChannaJayasumana,State Minister of Production, Supply and Regulation of Pharmaceuticals, did say that it was due to the appeal made by the Mahanayakes.

The announcement of the lockdown by the Government was accompanied by an address to the nation by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who outlined some of the challenges faced by the Government while managing the pandemic.

Some of these were outlined by the President:

“The lowest economic growth of the country since Independence was seen during the first wave of COVID-19 as a result of placing the country under a lockdown. Especially, the apparel sector that brought in revenue of about US$ five billion to Sri Lanka was gravely affected. Their orders stopped. Many lost their jobs. Export earnings fell.”

“Our tourism industry, which generated over US$ 4.5 billion and provided a livelihood to over three million people, completely collapsed. Hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost.”

“Small and medium enterprises are another important sector of our local economy. The COVID-19 pandemic was a major obstacle for these businesses that contribute more than 50% of the GDP. Due to the continuous disruption of their business activities, these companies lost revenue and faced grave issues without being able to repay their loans or pay salaries.”

“Addition to this, close to 4.5 million self-employed personnel and daily wage earners became helpless since they lost their sources of income completely.”

“Amidst all these obstacles, we also had the responsibility to keep the people alive. We did not abdicate that responsibility. Each time the country was placed under a lockdown due to COVID-19 risks, we spend around Rs. 30 billion in each round to provide an allowance of Rs. 5,000 to the people who have become helpless without a daily income. The Government has borne this cost on a number of occasions.”

“We had to pay a colossal loan installment of about US$four billion a year as a result of the loans obtained by various governments in the past. All these loan installments were settled on time.”

“A large number of orders have been received by the apparel industry in the export sector.If we are not able to deliver these orders on time, we may lose a large amount offoreign exchange.”

“We are also making great efforts to rebuild the collapsed tourism industry. At the moment, nearly 200 tourists enter the country on daily basis. If we close down the country, we will have to restart attracting tourists from the very beginning. Moreover, by having to provide relief to the daily income earners, small and medium enterprises and companies once again due to a lockdown, the country’s economy will be gravely affected.”

“Although the health sector looks at this issue from one angle, as a Government we will have to manage the small economy in our country if we are to continue to pay off foreign debts, pay salaries, and provide subsidies without any interruption.”

It is clear from the President’s address that he is banking on the apparel industry and the tourism sector to play a big role in the revival of the economy. This explains why apparel manufacturing companies are allowed to function during the lockdown and why the airport is not closed despite the lockdown.

However the Government needs to take stringent measures in both these sectors to ensure that they do not contribute to the spread of the virus.

With regard to the apparel industry it may be easier than the tourism industry to keep a tab on all the safety measures that health authorities prescribe. While ensuring that production goes on it is paramount that the workers in these units, who even in normal times undergo great difficulties while working away from home and living in abysmal conditions, are looked after and  their health is not compromised.

The President, in his address to the nation, made the welcome announcement that he had advised the health sector to conduct Rapid Antigen Tests at least once a week targeting people over 60 years who are suffering from chronic diseases. It would be prudent to conduct similar tests weekly for apparel workers as well.

The tourism industry is of course a different kettle of fish.

The President’s announcement that nearly 200 tourists enter the country on a daily basis is worrying. Whatever precautions are taken, all it takes is one tourist to bring the virus into the country. For instance the delta variant did not originate in Sri Lanka and has clearly been brought into this country by someone entering the country, and it is wreaking havoc all round.

Dr. ChandimaJeewandara, the Director of the Allergy, Immunology and Cell Biology Unit of Sri Jayewardenepura University has said that three unique mutations of the delta variant have been found in the country. According to him, one of the mutations originated in Sri Lanka, and another has been found in different parts of the world and the third mutation has been detected in Malaysia.

Thus bringing in tourists at this point of time is fraught with danger and can place the country’s COVID management plan in jeopardy. Besides, since the tourists are expected to travel in a bubble within the country, the amount of income generated will be minimal. On the other hand any entry of a virus through a tourist and its spread within the country thereafter can eventually add to the economic burden on the health sector, apart from posing a threat to the country’s people.

It would be wise therefor to reconsider the decision to allow tourists to enter the country while the pandemic still rages.

With regard to the vaccination drive, the President said the Government’s target was to ensure that by August 31 more than 81% of the population above the age of 30 would receive the second dose, while by September 10 100% of this segment of the population would receive both the doses. The expectation is that, with this development, the number of patients and the number of deaths will decrease.



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