By Omar Saqib Khan –
I’ve been consulting for leaders around the world for just under 30 years, and for 10 rewarding, challenging, years in Sri Lanka from 1993 to 2003, and intermittently since then.
The current “hysteria industry” which has had us in Lanka panic-stricken into a virtually unique (among 195 countries), multi-week, 24 hour a day curfew in key economic epicenters is without parallel from what I know of Sri Lanka’s recent history. This indeed was clearly affirmed as such in His Excellency’s own statement (March 18th) 48 hours roughly before the unexpected, never justified, island-wide curfew, that is increasingly crippling the economy, while having no demonstrable objective impact on the trajectory of Covid here.
This is not an argument for laissez-faire. Border controls, targeted lockdowns, social distancing, testing, contact tracing, hygiene and phased measures as exemplified by the most successful regional and global responders is precisely what the statement suggested, and aspects of which, we have done very well.
An Unusual Choice
The President rightly stated, that in 30 years of war, never was a complete lockdown of the country and economy needed or exercised. And in my time here, dealing with trauma relief sessions for KLM and Ceylinco right after the Central Bank bombing, being here days after the Galidari bombing, serving clients in the midst of the gas shortage (due to another terrorist incident), the airport attack and much more…life went on, and I marveled at Sri Lanka’s heroism and resilience.
So, what has spooked us to this extent now? Life is a risky business, and we have to manage risks. At the time of the shutdown, “forecasters” decided we should take our lead from Italy’s situation at the time things went completely out of control there and were running amok. No argument was ever made why the experience of Vietnam, or Cambodia, or Singapore, or Hong Kong, or Taiwan, where economic activity while necessarily pulled back was still very much underway, and where the outbreaks have been relatively modest and/or fairly effectively contained since action was taken, should not instead be our benchmark?
I say, “life is a risky business.” I am not making light of the pandemic. But by a simple comparison, in 2017 Sri Lanka had 186,101 cases of dengue! We had 440 deaths. We have 2 deaths at present from Covid-19, both elderly, one patient with a kidney transplant, one with a prior heart attack… and genuinely sad as that is, this cannot be what kindles what must by now, by sheer mathematics, be at least a $4.5 billion impact to an $80 billion per annum economy. And given our debt load here, this is not something to shrug off.
As noted, we have 143 cases of Covid-19 as of March 31st vs 186,101 dengue cases in that 2017 season. Okay, that’s Sri Lanka, what about the rest of the world?
The 2017-18 flu/influenza season was one of the most virulent globally. 45 million (not a typo) were infected worldwide. US States declared states of emergency, hospitals were over-run, tents were set up as makeshift medical treatment centers, and in the US alone, 61,000 people died. I am not daft enough to want to predict what the Covid numbers will be, but surely we need to allow there to be “milestones” and “gates” that are evidence based, rather than acting reflexively on “models” that have yet no firm underwriting in evidence. Imagine if there had been “hour by hour” breaking news on that influenza/flu season then, or dengue here!
As I write, researchers are seeking data on representative sampling of populations, to see which models are actually applicable. This may either confirm that indeed, we must go to severe lockdown, or instead that the infection and fatality rate are actually much closer to severe influenza, or as the recent Oxford study states and is testing, that as up to half of those infected (based on testing done in Iceland and the Italian town of Vo) are asymptomatic, the much touted “herd immunity” may already have been built for many and millions may have had the infection and like Senator Rand Paul and Prince Charles either had no symptoms or extremely mild symptoms, and shrugged it off.
Surely, surely, we need more of this data before the “possibility” of a geometrically multiplying contagion is taken as our non-negotiable fallback perspective versus the “definite reality” of economies, industrial sectors, emerging markets, businesses and lives, children’s educations and futures, in the literal billions being potentially rent asunder and perhaps irreparably damaged.
Protecting the Future
Lanka’s seeming over-reaction, the bungee jump without the economic bungee is particularly perplexing now. Were Lanka to later suddenly be adding hundreds of cases a day, a harsher lockdown (still not a curfew as per the demonstrated experience of about 195 countries) would be merited. But to do this now, well before that is the case, inflicts extreme economic damage, and erodes people’s forbearance and ability to absorb these shocks ahead of a time when we might actually need them to – unlike now!
Life is “risky business.” We know at a construction site, there will be a certain number of deaths. We allow farmers to work barefoot in the midst of pesticides leading to illness and death There are tens of thousands of driving fatalities each year, as there are from crossing the street (more than by any single terrorist incident in recent memory). There are a certain number of flying fatalities, deaths from boating and swimming, skiing, climbing peaks, pilgrimages even. While there are safety measures and best practice mitigation is in evidence, these casualties still take place. Life would freeze, and there could be no economic or social activity, no civilizational progress even without some tolerance for this, otherwise.
Even when we unfortunately wage war, we decide what acceptable casualties are. And while one should not be casual with even a single human life, we are left with no choice but to balance relative impact in all kinds of human processes.
And so, by comparison, when under curfew most of the workforce cannot ply their trades at all for an extended, indefinite time, it is akin to mass destruction on one crucial front. Moreover, there are other ripple effects. Domestic violence spikes, people cannot get medical treatment for other ailments which can shorten their life span or may precipitate degenerative illness or fatality, how do we measure and rationalize that? How might rates of suicide from depression or economic hopelessness be impacted and accounted for?
Why is this one source of death, so special, so unique, so incomparable? We have 12,428 deaths in Italy from Covid-19 as of March 31st. Annual deaths there are 640,000, 1,753 per day! Admittedly, there have been days where it has been asserted there was a 20% daily death rate spike, 2/3rds of which though has been from Lombardy, due to a rather distinctive confluence of circumstances.
Currently from Covid-19, there are, as of March 31st, 3,424 deaths in the US. Sad and tragic certainly. For perspective though, annual deaths in the US are typically 2,813,503. This is not to discount or in any way belittle the danger of possible mushrooming of deaths, but we are currently far away from anything akin to that impact, particularly if there is any kind of plateauing as we expect from the non-curfew based social distancing, testing, treatment and targeted lockdowns. Again, for perspective based on today’s statistics, the lower respiratory annual death rate alone in the US annually is 160,201.
Lanka by the way has roughly 6.3 deaths per 1,000 annually. So, we do have some applicable thresholds to consult to see when radical action is merited, and even there hopefully we can retain the ability to sift between our available choices rather than going immediately for a “scorched earth” economic meltdown option.
Singapore, often touted as a success story in the Covid campaign, economy still functioning, tightens and loosens controls, following their Prime Minister’s theory of “applying and loosening the brakes” based on emerging realities and needs. Hong Kong has done even better, Taiwan better still, and Cambodia and Vietnam are relative exemplars in terms of outcomes as of this writing. So why do we take runaway contagion as our benchmark? And if we do, why not follow South Korea who reined it in after it seemed to explode, the economy was still allowed to function, but there was and is strict targeted quarantining, mass testing, contact tracing, and ongoing hygiene education?
Sri Lanka is a creative, resilient country with many human and other assets, and considerable global goodwill and many allies who wish to support our recovery, and many leaders here dedicated to its wellbeing and flourishing. But we have to together be part of the solution here, as many of the export markets are also going to be unable to fire up the economy in the near-term, and each day we exacerbate our economic plight, also dampens domestic demand and undermines our own potential competitiveness, rather than keeping ourselves both as medically and as economically healthy and capable as we can, so we are able to respond in sync with the best of the recovering Asian and global economies.