A noteworthy development | Sunday Observer

A noteworthy development

18 July, 2021

Judging by recent developments, Sri Lanka could well be on its way to a full re-opening of the country by September, as envisaged by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in his recent Address to the Nation.

The same sentiment was recently expressed by Army Commander General Shavendra Silva, who heads the anti-Covid drive.

There are several developments that can indeed make this a reality. Vaccination is the key to re-opening and Sri Lanka has been extremely lucky in terms of procuring vaccines as early as March this year.

This is impressive in a situation where some developing countries have not even vaccinated a single individual. It is targeted to vaccinate everyone above 18 by September, which could lead to herd immunity, that comes when around 70 percent of a given population is inoculated.

Up to yesterday, Sri Lanka has received more than 10 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, according to State Minister of Production, Supply and Regulation of Pharmaceuticals Prof. Channa Jayasumana. “With 1.5 million doses of Moderna vaccines received on Friday through COVAX, the number of vaccine doses of all five types which include AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Sputnik V, Sinopharm, and Moderna received by the country so far has been increased to 10,098,100,” said the State Minister.

Accordingly, 7.1 million doses of China-made Sinopharm vaccine, 180,000 doses of Russia-made Sputnik V vaccine, 53,820 doses of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine from Belgium, 1,264,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and 1,500,100 doses of the USA-made Moderna vaccine have already been received in the country so far. Around 1.45 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine are to be received by July 19 as a donation from Japan.

The National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA) has already granted its approval for AstraZeneca/Covishield, Pfizer BioNTech, Sputnik V, Sinopharm, and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines and the approval for India-made Bharat Biotech Covaxin vaccine and the China-made Sinovac vaccine is pending.

The NMRA is also closely following developments with regard to the (single shot) Johnson and Johnson vaccine and vaccines from Novavax, CanSino and several others. A single shot vaccine will of course, be logistically much easier to manage.

By all accounts, the vaccination drive is progressing smoothly, especially with the entry of the Tri-Forces to the scene. Vaccination is now being done practically all over the island and the incoming vaccines are distributed to the provinces in accordance with a methodical, transparent, feasible plan.

This way no province or district will be left behind, in line with the mantra “no one is safe until everyone us safe”.

According to the statistics available so far, around 925,000 persons have received the first dose of the AstraZeneca/Covishield vaccine, whose second round has been given to 385,000 persons.

Four million have received the first dose of the Sinopharm vaccine, while 1.2 million have received the second dose. Around 157,000 have received the first dose of the Sputnik V vaccine, while 14,000 have got its second dose. As for Pfizer, around 40,000 people have received the first dose. This means that nearly seven million Sri Lankans have received Covid-19 jabs.

There is still some way to go to 18 million (excluding the youngest children), but this goal can easily be attained due to the speed with which we are getting the vaccines. Education and health authorities are already exploring the possibility of giving the jab to students aged 12-17, which, in tandem with inoculating the teachers, will help open the schools sooner.

In fact, in a circular issued on Friday, Director General of Health Services (DGHS) Dr. Asela Gunawardena has further relaxed many of the restrictions, leading to a semblance of normality in most respects.

This shows that we are well on way to complete recovery and re-opening in a couple of months as envisaged by many. Still, it will be a “new normal” situation where one has to strictly adhere to all health guidelines such as social distancing, wearing masks and washing or sanitising hands regularly.

Besides, several countries including the UK and Singapore are experimenting with “living with the virus” once vaccinations take effect and the disease becomes a more manageable epidemic like dengue. Our health authorities should keep an eye on these developments.

The biggest beneficiary of re-opening the country fully would be the tourism industry and the one million people who depend directly or indirectly on it.

The global tourism industry was decimated by the pandemic, with airlines and hotels taking a nosedive.

However, there are encouraging signs that tourism is picking up and could be in full swing at least by this time next year. Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga has expressed optimism that the industry could rebound after September when Sri Lanka achieves herd immunity.

Sri Lanka already welcomes double vaccinated tourists with relaxed entry requirements and several thousand tourists have already come here despite the pandemic. One can only imagine the potential if the country re-opens fully for tourism, even if only double vaccinated tourists are welcome.

It is vital that we get tourism going as soon as possible as it is one way of addressing the present foreign exchange crunch.

Tourism used to generate around US$ 4-5 billion a year for our coffers and in line with plans to attract around three million tourists a year by 2025, there is a huge potential for increasing forex earnings through tourism. In this regard, it is heartening to note that airlines such as Air France have already announced new flights to Sri Lanka, from as early as November this year. This is a sign of confidence that Sri Lanka must capitalise on at this crucial hour.