It is well acknowledged that Governments must be transparent and accurate in their public communications, to the maximum extent possible, as part of their response to a global health pandemic. During a pandemic citizens and civil societies cannot be passive consumers of information that is put out by Governments. Questions must be asked and asking questions must not be considered as burdensome by the Government. In the interests of bettering our response to COVID-19 the Tamil Civil Society Forum puts forward the following eight questions and seeks an early response from the Government to the same.
1. Governments world over have been guided by science in deciding their exit strategy to lockdown measures. The main criteria used has been the rate at which the virus is transmitted and as to whether the resources of the public heath sector in the State is able to cope with the rate at which the virus is spreading. What is the current rate of transmission in Sri Lanka? Where does that rate stand when compared with the resources that we have in our public health sector? What data was used by the Government in relaxing the curfew on 20 April 2020?
2. To determine the real rate of transmission it is suggested that testing must be expanded. Has the number of tests being performed on a daily basis progressively increased in Sri Lanka? Have sufficient funds been allocated for the purchase of testing kits? Are we in a position now where tests are being performed on those not exhibiting symptoms of COVID19 as well? If not, how does the Government calculate the real rate of transmission?
3. On what basis was the curfew lifted on 19.04.2020 for most districts? Was the date decided to impact on the meeting of the Election Commission on 20.04.2020 to determine the date of elections? Why did the Government ignore the suggestion made by the Provincial Director of Health Services of Jaffna not to relax the curfew for at least one further week?
4. What are the Government’s plans of returning to normalcy in a phased manner while making sure that there is no second spike in infections? Why did the Government even before the curfew was lifted announce that schools and universities will recommence on 11 May 2020 (subsequently withdrawn). When schools and universities recommence what is the Government’s plans for ensuring social distancing? Has adequate funding been allocated to these institutions to put in place infrastructure that facilitates social distancing?
5. What standards are used in the maintenance of quarantine centres operated by the army? Who decides where these quarantine centres are set up? Do public health officials have a role in the selection? Why cannot the running of these centres be left to public health officials? Without restricting themselves to emergency work why is the military leading what is essentially a public health problem? What competence or training does the armed forces have to carry out these functions?
6. In case there is a spike in infections again and the need for a curfew what plans are in place to ensure that daily age earners and those under the poverty line are not adversely affected? Beyond cash transfers to Samurdhi beneficiaries what plans does the Government have in place to deal with hunger?
7. What is the economic fall out of the lockdown/curfew thus far? What is the impact in the short and long term? What plans does the Government have to deal with the issues brought forth by them?
8. What justification does the Government have to offer for not providing a legal basis for the curfew? What justification does the Government have to offer for using public funds without parliamentary approval? Would these actions not create a dangerous precedent for the future?
9. We fear that politics precedes science and the public good in the Government’s response to COVID 19. We demand concrete answers to these questions from the Government. The Government must release in public a white paper on its handling of the crisis thus far and its plans for the future.
Fr. V. Yogeswaran and Dr. K. Guruparan
Co-Spokespersons, Tamil Civil Society Forum