A new phase in the Covid-19 battle | Sunday Observer

A new phase in the Covid-19 battle

25 April, 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic is not over yet. That is the simple message that should be drilled into the mind of every Sri Lankan. Yet, the vast majority of people in the country behaved as if we had seen an end to the contagion, over the past few months and especially this month.

Despite the acute and frequent warnings of the Government and health authorities, the people celebrated the Sinhala and Tamil New Year as if it was a normal year sans a pandemic. They went shopping, travelled en masse to villages, organised mostly maskless leisure trips and Avurudu festivals and generally disregarded all health precautions and guidelines issued by authorities.

Now it looks like we are reaping the whirlwind, with a spike in Covid-19 cases in most areas. There is no doubt that asymptomatic travellers from Colombo had spread the disease in outstation areas such as Kurunegala and Nuwara Eliya, which were relatively unscathed by the earlier waves of the disease.

The Government did randomly subject some of these travellers to Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) and Lateral Flow Tests (LFTs) such as Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs), but many infected persons would have slipped through this net as not all vehicles could be stopped.

The people could not celebrate the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, Vesak and Ramadan on a grand scale under the very strict lockdown that prevailed in 2020, as they were confined to their homes. Thus the Government did not seek to impose the same harsh conditions this year as well.

Nevertheless, it did warn that the battle against Covid-19 was not over yet by any means and advised people to follow all guidelines including social (physical) distancing, avoiding large crowds, wearing face masks, washing hands frequently with soap and water or sanitiser and being at home if Coronavirus symptoms are apparent.

To cite just one example, the teeming crowds at Pamunuwa, Maharagama, a suburb of Colombo, that had converged from all parts of the country to buy textiles and garments for Avurudu, were enough to convince anyone that the people had thrown caution to the winds.

There was absolutely no social distancing – leave alone one metre, there was not even one centimeter between two shoppers in Pamunuwa. Many did not even have masks on and no one bothered with washing hands. Overwhelmed by the crowds, the Police and PHIs could not control the situation. Much the same happened with leisure trips - half the vehicles in Colombo were seen in Nuwara Eliya over the Avurudu holidays.

Needless to say, many Covid-19 cases have now been reported from among the Pamunuwa shoppers and Nuwara Eliya trippers. This was the inevitable result of carelessness. As one eminent doctor said “You have to choose what is more important – clothes for your family or your very lives”. It seems that many had chosen the former. There is no medicine for foolishness and carelessness.

However, none of this would have happened if the people looked beyond our border to neighbouring India, which is now grappling with a ferocious third wave of the disease. Just like here, the people in India were overcome by a triumphalist attitude that they had somehow overcome the virus.

This proved to be their undoing. There were massive religious gatherings, election rallies and even sports events (attendance at one cricket match exceeded 130,000 mostly maskless fans) where health guidelines were simply ignored. The result is that India is now experiencing around 300,000 cases daily with around 2,000 fatalities per day on average, with the entire health system on the verge of breakdown.

It took just a few weeks for this tragedy to unfold.

One striking fact about what is happening in India and even in Sri Lanka, is that younger persons (those below 50) are catching Covid-19 whereas earlier it was mostly the elderly (those above 60) who fell prey to the virus. It is a dangerous trend as this age group is economically active and significant.

The proliferation of double mutant and other highly transmissible variants of the Coronavirus could be one reason for this new status quo. It is therefore important that young people give up any sentiments to the effect that they are “immune” to Covid-19. They should follow the health precautions like everyone else.

Yet, the situation in Sri Lanka is not beyond salvation. While there certainly is a surge in positive cases, it can still be controlled without facing a “third wave” per se if we collectively follow the relevant heath guidelines outlined above.

This is exactly why the Government has not opted to go for full lockdown this time around even in the midst of an increase in cases. Instead, certain areas could be isolated depending on the severity of the spread. As experienced in 2020, lockdowns can be economically devastating, especially to the underprivileged sections of society and also to segments of the economy such as transport. It is not a long-term solution in any case.

Instead, we should redouble our efforts to restrict unnecessary movements and follow the health guidelines, develop our free healthcare system further (with more ICU beds and ventilators, for instance), vaccinate all eligible Sri Lankans against Covid-19 as soon as possible and seek access to the latest medical treatments for Covid-19.

Our universities such as the Sri Jayewardenepura University should enhance their research capabilities vis-à-vis the Coronavirus and its multiple variants and join global efforts to stop the contagion in its tracks. Only a whole-of-society approach can defeat this once-in-a-century pathogen that has virtually held the entire globe hostage for more than one year.