The Government’s lockdown this week was neither here nor there, and now it has been extended by another week. It was clear from the very beginning that it was clamped due to sheer pressure from the general public. Shops in major towns declared a voluntary shutdown akin to a hartal on top of all the [...]


From sham lockdowns to smart lockdowns


The Government’s lockdown this week was neither here nor there, and now it has been extended by another week. It was clear from the very beginning that it was clamped due to sheer pressure from the general public. Shops in major towns declared a voluntary shutdown akin to a hartal on top of all the requests and even demands from the medical sector, whose voices were deftly ignored. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and others, have in fact, recommended the lockdown be extended right through September if it is to have any impact on the soaring fatalities from the COVID-19 virus.

The Government seemingly feared the shutdowns were taking on a political flavour with trade unions getting into the act and taking the upper hand due to the Government’s stubborn refusal to listen to the demands of what was becoming a not so silent majority of the populace. The orders to the new Health Minister appointed last week appeared to be not to allow the unions “dance” too much.

These unions, however, were not all working class outfits. Some are professionals’ unions. One of them, the GMOA (Government Medical Officers Association), criticised in recent times for their deafening silence on events directly impacting their members when by contrast they were super-charged during the previous Government, found their voice again.

Riddled with dissension due to their overtly political stance and with their leadership challenged in court, they claimed they were silent recently on legal advice. Now, they are asking the politicians not to make COVID-19 a political issue.

In recent statements and at press conferences over the week, they have slammed the Government for its early mishandling of the vaccination programme (which the Government relies on heavily to control the spread of the raging virus). In a letter to the new Health Minister, they accused the Government Epidemiology Unit of working to derail what were scientifically based WHO guidelines on the vaccination protocol they and others in the health sector had recommended. By this initial mistake, the Government is responsible for a huge percentage of deaths of the elderly, they say.

They go on to state that the programme was hijacked by others — without having the courage to name the Army — setting up makeshift camps to inoculate the citizenry thereby causing a greater spread of the virus without allowing the established health institutions to carry out the task. These are strong indictments on the Government coming from a union that was originally perceived to be sympathetic to it.

There is little benefit, however, now in crying over the lapses of the Government on this score. The immediate concern would be to accelerate the ongoing vaccination campaign and arrest the unacceptable number of fatalities and positive cases due to the virus. Countries and cities that recorded high numbers in the recent past, in Europe and even India, have managed to bring the numbers down, while in Sri Lanka, the official figures, which are themselves questioned as being too conservative, are on the rise.

The lockdown that was imposed some 10 days ago has been a sham. It is only the fears of the citizenry themselves of stepping out that has made it partially successful. The announcement that this was only a “quarantine curfew” and nothing more gave the signal that the Government was not going to be tough on its implementation. It also exposed the fact that the decision-making process on these matters at the highest levels was split on how much weightage ought to be given to public health versus the economy being kept open.

Each wave of the virus and new variant has seen its mutation to an even more virulent form. Only the northern and southern insurgencies and the 2004 tsunami have caused more deaths than the present virus in this country, but the numbers are still mounting alarmingly. The daily death toll is reaching the death toll of the 2019 Easter Sunday massacre. Estimated fatality figures from the virus are frightening.

The GMOA has warned that the daily number of frontline health workers succumbing to the virus is not to be taken lightly and the breakdown of that sector will be catastrophic.

The current ‘loose lockdown’ is not enough to hope for any tangible results. What is required is a ‘smart lockdown’ — only keeping vital sectors of the economy open. The Government, no doubt, has a genuine concern for the livelihood of millions and the state of the economy, but economic recovery will be faster the sooner this scourge is brought under control.

The other war: Rising food prices

 The last time the people faced two parallel ‘wars’ was in 1989 when the entire country was gripped with fear and chaos. Today, the people are facing a not too different situation. On the one hand, it is the COVID-19 virus, on the other, the Cost of Living.

In this part of the world, Sri Lanka is only second to Pakistan in food prices shooting up. Inflation in food prices has rocketed to over 11 per cent compared to the corresponding prices last year while some items, especially imported items like milk foods and pharmaceuticals have not only risen in price but are not available ‘for love or money’. The price of sugar has doubled this week.

Just last week, the Government approved the increase in prices of pharmaceutical drugs and medical equipment. Food importers are demanding price increases due to the value of the Rupee falling and the shortage of foreign currency causing restricted outflows triggering shortages. With locally grown rice stocks going ‘underground’ in anticipation of future shortages, Flying Squads are raiding small-time millers’ stores, but the ‘Big Boys’ remain untouched due to their political clout.

Even prices of locally produced food items have gone up due to marketing deficiencies never really remedied by successive governments. Inter-provincial transport restrictions due to the spread of the virus are complicating the situation with middle-men exploiting the crisis. Like with the virus, the people are fearful that in the case of food supplies, the worst is yet to come.


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