The state minister had stated that ‘they would be considering that the inoculation would be for Kurunagala and Ratnapura after the completion of the Western Province’. The minister has failed to explain why the government is prioritizing these two districts when there are 20 other districts, some of which are equally if not worse affected.
Would the Minister agree if the WHO stated or the management of AstraZeneca stated that they would be considering issue of vaccines to Sri Lanka after ‘US, Brazil, India and UK’ as they have a higher case load? People argue that we need to concentrate on the high risk areas. But what is the use of statistics saying your chance of the disease is one in a million if you die of it!
This reflects the failure of the centripetal policies which concentrate on itself than the rest, which is its weakness. Many elderly people would have been alive today in the 24 other districts if we had administered the vaccine to them when it was being done for Colombo. It is the defect in policy that contributed to their untimely deaths. Is this rational, fair, legal or arbitrary? Will they be compensated like being proposed by the courts in India?
Disasters, especially epidemics are very difficult to manage as they lead to emotional and often irrational responses such as occurred in Sri Lanka when ministers took to pouring sacred water blessed by charlatans into rivers and imbibed honey concoctions of other charlatans. But it is essential that handling of any crisis, and not just a pandemic, is rational and consistent.
We need to have fresh look at the management of COVID in the country. Centralized management may not work for it and we need to rationalize the action that we take. Even closing the borders between provinces makes no sense as one may not be able to go from Kurunagala to Gampaha as it is across provinces but be able to travel from Ampara to Trincomalee, as they are within the same province, though the distance and difference in socio-cultural context is greater. It just makes no sense.
Instead of decision makers in Colombo, who are clearly insensitive to regional differences in the districts calling the shots, let the districts make their choices and make it known to the others. Even vaccines, issue it to the districts proportionally or on request subject to availability and send some guidelines for better operations. Few understand that each person who had been infected and returned is immune themselves and need not be vaccinated. This makes the ‘vaccinated number’ higher than the number of vaccines injected, especially for the Western Province where the infection had been higher.
The RDHS of each district could make their decisions based on national policy and local need to distribute the vaccines. Vaccinating the fishermen and fish market may be important for Trincomalee but would not be as important for Nuwara Eliya and thus a national policy may not be useful. But vaccinating elders above 60 as they are prone to infection may be the same for all districts. This will make the officers of the district to share responsibility of their decisions that they make which is power devolution. ‘Decide and be responsible’ is a trait that we need to develop. There is no basis for the belief that those in the provinces and districts are unable to decide and only those in Colombo could decide. Dealing with the Covid pandemic is new to both sets of decision makers and there is no reason to believe that those administrators in Colombo are better equipped to decide for those in the provinces or districts than those who are stationed there.
Lessons of the Past
We have the experience of ignoring this rationale at great cost to the country and its people. We failed miserably in harnessing the post-Tsunami assistance from the world which poured into the country. We centralized everything even to decide on the coastal reservation belt. Needs were decided from the center and delays experienced for the decision were unacceptably long. The District Secretaries (GAs) in the Kacheri were downgraded to being mere conduits of communication. The result was we lost billions of dollars which came as assistance as many donors left disappointed. Had we given the GAs the authority to look after their districts and to keep the center informed those people who needed assistance would have really gained from it, as what they would have received would have been appropriate to their needs in the regions.
Let us not make the same mistake. This is another disaster and devolved power is surely the best course of action to overcome the impacts of the COVID successfully. The central authorities would have a role to play, but it would be for sharing information and international coordination rather than for making decisions applicable to local situations. We need to TRUST the people on the ground as they are on the ground.
*The author is a retired Professor of Botany and former Vice Chancellor of the Eastern University, Sri Lanka.