Health Minister makes gesture of inclusivity | Sunday Observer
Chinese COVID-19 patient leaves hospital :

Health Minister makes gesture of inclusivity

The Chinese national with doctors and Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi.                                                         Pix: Saman Sri Wedage
The Chinese national with doctors and Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi. Pix: Saman Sri Wedage

The event seemed scripted. Clad in a skin-coloured dress and clutching two bouquets of flowers, she walked out of the hospital. Its staff were at her heels, and so was the Minister of Health Pavithra Wanniarachchi.

At one point Wanniarachchi held the woman’s head in her hands and placed a kiss on her forehead, a gesture that let lose a media frenzy, given the context of the event. It all looked perfect but for the mask she wore which brought everyone back to stark reality.

Health officials on Wednesday, February 19, were bidding goodbye to Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 patient, actually the only confirmed case thus far.

The Chinese national, a 47-year-old tourist who visited the country fell ill in late January and was admitted to the Infectious Disease Hospital (IDH) where she was isolated and treated.

On Wednesday, as she left the hospital after recovery. Wanniarachchi expressed her happiness as the health minister to see the tourist returning to China in good health.

As of Friday, novel Coronavirus dubbed COVID-19, has infected 76,775 and killed 2,248. Most of the confirmed cases are reported from the epicenter - Hubei Province. The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared China was at a very high risk and elsewhere at high risk. Earlier WHO declared the outbreak an international public health emergency

Sri Lanka was among the 26 countries that had confirmed cases of COVID-19. Several suspected cases have been isolated and are being monitored at designated hospitals across the island.

As the deadly virus started to spread, so did xenophobia and racism. Sri Lanka was not immune to this, which makes the Health Minister’s picture-perfect kiss a sign of inclusivity.

“Before, when we walked into a supermarket locals were very friendly and helpful, but after the outbreak we saw a stark difference in the way they treated us,” a Chinese national working in Sri Lanka said. She claimed misinformation was a major trigger for such treatment.

Since the outbreak of the deadly virus, Chinese nationals or those remotely resembling a Chinese faced racism or scapegoating across the globe. Their fate was not dissimilar in Sri Lanka.

Some super markets sported boards stating ‘No Chinese allowed’. A person working with Chinese nationals said the management of the building where her office was housed has advised Chinese nationals to use a separate elevator and locald to use another.

A Chinese national said taxis refused to take them, and another said they were refused access to supermarkets. All these sources spoke under condition of anonymity. The Chinese nationals said they understand the fear the locals have towards the mystery virus. “We will have to tolerate this xenophobia till the situation improves,” one Chinese national said.

In a statement, Chinese Ambassador Cheng said it was worrisome that some taxis, hotels and restaurants were refusing to entertain Chinese citizens in Sri Lanka.

Resonating the claim made by a Chinese national, Director of Confucius Institute at the University of Colombo, a key institute that promotes Chinese language and culture in Sri Lanka, Dr. Wimal Hewamanage also said interpretation of information has led to fear of Chinese.

Referring to several images and videos depicting Chinese nationals consuming bat meat soup, Dr. Hewamanage said, “We all eat meat. One may prefer chicken and not even touch pork. This is all depends on how familiar one is with the dish. Then how can we find fault in what another person eat?”

The misinformation has affected all sectors that rely on Chinese trade. Chinese speaking local tour guide Kushan Kanchuka from Homagama said some restaurants refused to cater to his Chinese clients.

Restaurant manager of Grand Beijing, Jaya A. Godage said business at his restaurant has dropped by about 80 per cent. Mostly because the Chinese, who make up the majority of his clients, are not traveling due to the outbreak and also because locals have stopped eating at Chinese restaurants in fear of contracting the virus.

According to the former Director General of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) Upali Ratnayake said not only Chinese nationals but those from countries like Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand are subjected to ill treatment as a result of the new outbreak.

“Asia Pacific is the fastest growing economy of the world. This outbreak will affect overall economies of this region,” he added.

China is the second largest economy in the World, and one of the biggest trading partners of Sri Lanka. Secretary General of the National Chamber of Commerce of Sri Lanka, Bandula Dissanayake said the outbreak of Covid19 would have a considerable impact on the Sri Lankan economy.

Chinese tourists comprise the second largest tourist market in the country. According to statistics of the SLTDA China was second to India with 22,363 or 10 per cent of the total arrivals in January this year. In January last year, 26,414 Chinese tourists visited Sri Lanka.

Approximately 37 per cent of the tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka last year were from China, if this situation continues Dissanayake predicts that the Sri Lankan tourism sector would experience difficulties in the near future.

“There are many infrastructure development projects that Chinese nationals are engaged in Sri Lanka,” he said, adding “Many of these people returned to their homeland for New Year celebrations and are yet to return to Sri Lanka. There could be delays in these people returning which will affect deliveries of such projects. Production and manufacturing processes in China would be disrupted under this situation and it may affect the trading business in Sri Lanka, as well as supply chain value added businesses at large,” he said.

Dissanayake stressed that it is vital for the Sri Lankan business community to commence discussions on identifying business issues that they face in each sector and arrive at possible solutions.

Sri Lanka is among the countries that has not slapped sanctions against Chinese travellers. The Quarantine Unit at the Ministry of Health is taking necessary precautions to ensure Chinese visitors are not infected with COVID-19 before they enter the country. The Health Ministry has also set up a unit to fight misinformation that is circulating on social media platforms.

Stating that these steps are vital to maintain good relationships between China and Sri Lanka, Chairman of the Committee for Silk Road Research and Tourism Development Affairs under the Association of Sri Lanka-China Social and Cultural Corporation, Prof. Suranga Silva said, COVID-19 effects socio-economic development of the island that depends highly on Chinese assistance.

“I request all Sri Lankans to be there for the Chinese people without isolating them,” he said, adding China stood by Sri Lanka during vital times.

The Sri Lanka-China Buddhist Friendship Association (SLCBFA) conducted a pirith ceremony to invoke blessing on China to overcome the outbreak.