Surmounting the COVID-19 challenge | Sunday Observer

Surmounting the COVID-19 challenge

Even as the number of new coronavirus cases in China has recorded a decline, other countries are experiencing a spike. Italy, South Korea and Iran are the worst affected, though nearly 120 countries including Sri Lanka have recorded coronavirus or COVID-19 cases. Taking into consideration the rapid spread of the viral infection, the World Health Organisation is now officially calling it a Pandemic after avoiding that usage for nearly two months.

Countries have reacted to the virus in different ways. China locked down most of the affected cities while the whole of Italy is still under lockdown. Many world leaders have taken a grim view, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel who has warned that COVID-19 could eventually affect 80 percent of the German population. Some others, including US President Donald Trump, have warned against gloom and pessimism, saying that the impact of the disease would diminish over time.

But there is no question that COVID-19 is an existential threat to mankind. Viral diseases do have the potential to cause havoc on a mass scale. The Black Death of the Middle Ages wiped out millions. In more recent times, Ebola, SARS, MERS and H1N1 have all affected various countries to some degree. Incidentally, both SARS and MERS were also caused by coronaviruses. The problem with viruses is that they mutate rapidly, making vaccine formulation a laborious and complex process. There is also no cure or treatment for any viral disease.

It is in this context that Sri Lankan authorities too have taken several drastic measures to contain the infection. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa have led from the front, giving relevant instructions virtually on a 24/7 basis ever since the first coronavirus patient, a Chinese national, was detected. These efforts have been intensified after the detection of two COVID-19 positive locals with no overseas travel history.

Among these measures are an early vacation for all Government schools, Pirivenas and Dhamma schools, the opening of four quarantine centres for all travellers from Italy, South Korea and Iran, increasing the number of hospitals that can cope with COVID-19 cases, a temporary halt to any flights from the above three countries, a temporary halt to the on-arrival free visa program for citizens of 40 countries (all other nationalities have to anyway obtain visas), stoppage of all Dambadiva (Indian Buddhist pilgrimage) tours and Public Service Announcements (PSAs) on TV and Radio.

It is the Security Forces that have always sprung to the defence of Mother Lanka in case of any threat to its citizens. It is, therefore no surprise that they are in the forefront battling this ‘invasion,’ albeit by invisible microbes. The Sri Lanka Army, under the dynamic leadership of Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva, has shouldered most of the burden with the unstinted support of the Navy, Air Force, Police/STF and the Civil Defence Department. The Forces have received plaudits for their adroit handling of the crisis.

The Army Commander has rightly made an impassioned appeal to the public to cooperate fully with the Army and all other authorities in combating COVID-19. There have been disturbing reports that some have resisted the Army’s efforts to transport them to quarantine centres and even posted fabricated pictures critical of the Army. What everyone should remember at this stage is that these steps are being taken for the greatest good of the greatest number. Quarantines work, period. It is in everyone’s interest to support the Government, Security Forces and Police at this hour. In an encouraging sign, several Opposition politicians have made statements to the effect that they will extend all possible assistance to the Government to tide over the crisis. This is the correct spirit that should prevail.

It is also equally important not be misled by rumours, fake news, alternative facts, etc that are being circulated on social media about COVID-19. Many fake posts were shared on the first local coronavirus patient and his family. While the authorities have since warned of stern action against all those who spread false information on the contagion, the Health Ministry on its part has established two hotlines for giving out correct information on the disease. It will also issue a daily bulletin to counter any misinformation. It is thus vital for the public to follow only the official COVID-19 news sanctioned by the authorities.

It is also vital to avoid fear mongering and panic at this stage, when the health authorities are in control of the situation. If any further measures, such as restricting large-scale gatherings (social distancing), are required they will do so after extensive deliberations. But there is absolutely no need or reason for the public to empty the shelves of supermarkets and boutiques right now. These irresponsible acts could create an unnecessary and adverse impact on supply chains and the entire economy. A strong economy is a sine quo non to tackling any health emergency.

This is a fight that the Government alone cannot win. Public cooperation is vital. This also includes seemingly little things such as washing one’s hands frequently. Experts say that washing hands with soap or handwash at frequent intervals is still the best defence against all viruses, because soap actually destroys them. It is also best to avoid touching one’s eyes and ears with unwashed hands. And if you experience fever, cold, sore throat, difficulty in breathing etc, it is recommended to visit a medical centre. If each of us behave with responsibility, it will not be easy for the coronavirus to conquer us.