Cluster management, a precision job | Sunday Observer

Cluster management, a precision job

11 October, 2020

At the time of writing, nothing is certain about culpability for the so-called Minuwangoda cluster, which is the largest such agglomeration of Covid-19 patients recorded so far in the country since the pandemic began.

With facts unknown, apportioning blame is unfair, but that does not mean that the private enterprise concerned should not be subject to a thorough investigation.

The company concerned has issued a release stating that its staff that was repatriated from India were all Sri Lankan and that none of the returnees had been to the Minuwangoda factory belonging to the same concern. If that’s true, it’s a wide open question as to how the Minuwangoda cluster originated?

This private company also seems to be somewhat matter of fact in its explanation that a cleaning company employer had released a video about a sub-contracted worker being asked to report for work at the factory that was the epicenter of the outbreak. That explanation seems to infer on the face of it, that the said concern is eager to pass the buck.

It’s correct that the company is not responsible for any work-related instructions issued by a cleaning concern to which it had contracted work. However, shouldn’t the company have immediately informed all sub-contractors to suspend their services forthwith due to the developing situation?

On the flip side, there can be no premature conclusions made. That’s unfair by almost everybody, and it will cause heartache where none is necessary. The first woman to be identified for instance was not the super spreader or the first spreader in the cluster. This should have been obvious because the mere fact that she was the first person to fall sick from the disease, does not infer that she started the cluster.

The societal finger-pointing in this regard was relentless though, and this sort of patient shaming is wholly unnecessary and is pure evil, as one person is being singled out for no fault of her own. Even if she was indeed the first spreader in the cluster, she cannot be blamed because this is a contagion, and anybody can catch the bug from a source that is positive for the virus. Any individual can be blamed only if such a person is willfully negligent, and the likelihood of such egregious conduct is remote especially in a context in which even the authorities do not know yet where the cluster first originated, how and from whom.

All of the above indicates one thing — there is enough confusion to warrant a thorough investigation which nobody should evade. All involved parties should come clean on their commissions and omissions if any, regarding the emergence of the cluster and its sudden spread, apparently so far from no known epidemiological source.

No organisation should be inured from blame no matter how effective, efficient or useful such a concern would have been in the past. Covid prevention is different from day to day administration and if the protocols were not followed, and if PCR tests were not administered where they should have been — there are lessons to be learnt, blame and recriminations notwithstanding.

There is no alternative to halting all reparations of Sri Lankans meanwhile, under the circumstances. PHIs are not super human in the midst of super spreaders. When a cluster is raging, even in an incipient stage, there is nothing a PHI could do if there is a case that somehow gets past the protective guardrail.

Ending all reparations will stanch all risk at least while there is a fight on the hands of the authorities to end the spread of a cluster that’s difficult to control. There can be no vagueness about it — it is the military that can enforce the discipline of contact tracing and containment especially when some of the patients, it is said, have been less than cooperative.

But cluster containment is possible, which does not mean that private companies etc. should relax their strict prevention policies. From all accounts the Free Trade Zone environment of migrant workers from villagers reporting for work from packed worker hostels — ‘boarding rooms’ as they are known here — is a powder keg in terms of the possibilities these environs present for an outbreak.

How long will this situation continue, and until when can reparations be halted, are all questions that are academic in the face of the immediate wrath of the cluster. Long-term considerations are irrelevant when there is a contingency that threatens to undo all the gains that were made in the past few months with arduous lockdowns and other measures that required tremendous sacrifice on the part of the people.

So far the Government has avoided blanket lockdowns. It means that the authorities have full confidence in the contract tracing mechanism at its disposal, after several close brushes with rapidly spreading clusters in Kandakadu and Welisara.

The contacts in this instance, have reportedly been traced to areas outside the police divisions that have been hit with curfews, but such discovery of victims has been few and far between.

But a cluster cannot give way to a secondary cluster, and that’s imperative. Persons and institutions have to pro-actively cooperate and what seems to have been the rather relaxed attitude in some of the Free Trade Zone factories is absolutely not an option.