By Shanika Somatilake –
The coronavirus COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). It has rapidly spread worldwide in less than just three months, since it was first reported in China.
As it stands, Italy, France, Iran and South Korea have been the most-affected countries with many countries, such as Italy and US declaring an emergency lock-down to contain the epidemic. The number of confirmed cases across the globe stands at 145,857 with 5,436 deaths with the numbers expected to rise.
There have been varied responses to coronavirus COVID-19 in each country and here in New Zealand, with the sixth person having tested positive, the government has revealed the latest steps in its plan to beat the virus by: subjecting all travelers to the country (including citizens and residents) to a 14-day self-isolation period. A travel ban has been implemented prohibiting cruise ships from entering New Zealand until late June. The government has advised its citizens to avoid all non-urgent overseas travel. As part of a range of measures being considered to slow down the spread of the virus, restrictions on mass gatherings have been imposed and the government has stated that it would also consider school closures, if necessary. Good hygiene practice and self-isolation if showing symptoms are amongst the advice to the public. So far, there have been no recorded deaths from COVID-19 in New Zealand.
For many Sri Lankans living abroad who have family and friends back home, the news of COVID-19 gaining a foothold in Sri Lanka have been hard to bear. The global pandemic is pushing every healthcare system to its limits, with many countries facing shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitary supplies. The fear of the unknown has driven people to empty out supermarket shelves across the globe, leaving many without essential goods.
The general perception that Sri Lanka’s healthcare system would not be able to handle a major internal outbreak is the root cause of fear for many of our friends and family, as they prepare for the worst back home. Data from WHO shows that people at high risk for serious COVID-19 infection are mainly the elderly. People receiving cancer treatments and those who have chronic diseases, such as Cardiovascular disease, Diabetes, Lung disease have also shown to be at high risk for developing serious illness if infected.
The travel measures and the school lock-down rolled out by the new government in Sri Lanka may aid in slowing down the spread of the coronavirus, but many of us believe that due to the shortcomings of the country’s healthcare facilities, extreme measures are needed at the borders, such as: a mandatory quarantine for all travelers to Sri Lanka regardless of nationality; a shut down of international airports; or restricting foreign ships from entering the country.
Another concern is the economic disruption stemming from the COVID-19 for countries around the globe. Large economies, such as the US have already unveiled their plans to provide financial assistance to those who are most vulnerable in the community, such as the elderly, pregnant mothers with young children, single parent-households and those who have lost jobs. A few days ago, New Zealand also announced its plans to support workers and businesses affected by coronavirus in the tourism and fisheries sector through tax reductions and income assistance.
For a small country such as Sri Lanka, a coronavirus outbreak would bring the economy to its knees. Being famous for its pristine coastlines, the country leans heavily on tourism and foreign trade. Extreme measures at the airports to combat the COVID-19 would deter tourists and foreign investment away from the country. With agricultural food production having taken a nose dive due to recent droughts, any ban imposed on shipping vessels would directly affect food supplies and may cause a famine amidst a serious epidemic.
World health experts are still unable to predict when the coronavirus may end or how long it might linger. Tough times are ahead for Sri Lanka to balance the control of COVID-19 while keeping the economy afloat. It goes to show that in these dire times, countries with self-sufficient economies would have a better chance at tackling such a global crisis. As a Sri Lankan living abroad, there is one thought that plays over and over in my mind. We may have different views about politics in Sri Lanka, but we all have one commonality and that is to see our families safe and for Sri Lanka to prosper. So, let’s set our petty political squabbles aside and focus on giving our full cooperation and the necessary support for the new leaders of Sri Lanka in mitigating the effects of this pandemic in our homeland.
*Shanika Somatilake is a Sri Lankan Kiwi residing in New Zealand. She is an Electrical Engineer by profession with a passion for political cartooning and world music