23 October, 2020

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Sri Lanka Struck Hard As Covid-19 Starts Global Second Wave  

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

After months of Covid-quiet, the coronavirus has hit the country hard. Sri Lanka’s 33rd Covid-cluster could not have erupted in Minuwangoda any more suddenly and in larger numbers. It caught the government literally holding its constitutional pants from falling down, and to the neglect of everything else. After stagnating for months at 3200+ cases, the Sri Lankan Covid-19 total rose by more than a third in a matter of three days. Since its discovery last Sunday, the 33rd cluster accounted for 1053 cases by Wednesday. 729 cases were reported on a single day, a record. The total number of infections in the country has since passed 4,500. 

The case count is still miniscule compared to the large South Asian countries, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The recovery rate is exceptionally high, and the death rate is exceptionally low. What should be concerning, however, is whether Sri Lanka has strengthened its infrastructure and capacity to anticipate and handle future cluster eruptions, after initially containing the virus spread. Or, has the government been resting on its old Covid laurels and wasting time and effort on an unnecessary constitutional makeover?   

Worldwide, all the highly infected countries are bracing for the so called second wave, with new daily infections higher than what they were in March-April triggering the first spate of lockdowns. People are more aware of the virus now than they were during the first wave, but they are not behaving as responsibly, especially in social situations in the West. Irresponsibly infected by the virus, the American President Donald Trump, who soaks his followers on the slogan “Make America Great Again,” has turned the White House into a “Blight House”, as the New York Daily News called it. No one wants to go there even if they cannot avoid it. 

Governments are reluctant to enforce another lockdown for fear of driving businesses out of business and their employees out of livelihood. On Wednesday, the World Bank predicted that the Covid-19 pandemic will force 150 million people into extreme poverty globally, and South Asia will bear the biggest share between 49 and 57 million of them. Proportionately, based on these projections, Sri Lanka would likely have about 500,000 people driven to extreme poverty by the pandemic. The Bank makes it clear that the new poor will be in the urban, and not rural, sector, mostly comprised of people “engaged in informal services, construction, and manufacturing.” Globally, the public health crisis is expected to last at least two more years, even after a vaccine; and economic recovery could take a decade. The picture cannot be grimmer. 

The public health picture in Sri Lanka has not been so grim, and the general feeling has been that the island country has somehow dodged the Covid-bullet. The worry, at least among the more informed citizens and commentators, is about the economy. For the majority of the people, however, the economic hardships are not something abstract, but have become their living misery. The government lost its head after the initial Covid containment success, and became bullish about a quick (V-shaped, no less) economic recovery despite all the evidence that a rapid and substantial economic recovery is virtually impossible in the middle of a global slowdown. After the August election and two-thirds majority, the government has needlessly got itself embroiled in a constitutional makeover, exposing in the process both political naivete and technical incompetence. It is now banking on a favourable outcome from the Supreme Court, and later even a referendum. The outbreak in Minuawngoda changes the whole picture and all the preceding calculations. Will the government change appropriately, as well? That is the question. 

Covid response and hot spots

Whether or not the government will change course, it has already changed the response structure to Covid-19 that it created during the early months of the outbreak. The response structure that was in place earlier is no longer there. There were two faces to the original structure: its health face was Dr. Anil Jasinghe; and its logistics face was Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva. Dr. Jasinghe is no longer in the Health Ministry. He was administratively shuffled up as Secretary to the Ministry of the Environment soon after the election. The shuffling was apparently a part of what President Rajapaksa hailed as the new “methodical procedure to appoint Heads of Government Institutions.” After Dr. Jasinghe was dispatched, the expectation in professional circles was that Dr. Amal Harsha De Silva, would be promoted to succeed Dr. Jasinghe. There were skeptics, however, who seemed to know the games that are played in these matters despite presidential assertions to the contrary. 

The skeptics were correct, it turns out. Dr. Amal Harsha de Silva did not get the promotion. In fact, no one seems to have been promoted. Dr. S. Sridharan would appear to be functioning as Acting Director General of Health Services. One of the Deputy Directors, Dr. Sudath Samaraweera, who is also the Chief Epidemiologist, has been assigned to fill the other role of Dr. Jasinghe in the National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak (NOCPCO). It is Dr. Sudath Samaraweera who is the new Health counterpart to Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva’s military arm. There is no questioning the competence of Dr. Samaraweera, but there is a question to the government – why move medical professionals in and out of a pandemic task force while keeping the military men as immovable fixtures? Are such moves well advised, for professional morale and dedication, in the middle of a very serious public health crisis? Should Doctors be fighting the coronavirus while looking over their shoulders for political strikes?    

Medical professionals are also speaking out in the wake of the 33rd cluster eruption. Opinions differ on the extent of ‘community spread’ and the exclusion of primary care physicians from the Covid-19 response system. The risks involved in speaking out have been illustrated by the removal of Dr Jayaruwan Bandara, as Director of the Medical Research Institute. His replacement Dr. Prabhath Amarasinghe, was Dr. Bandara’s Deputy Director, according to reports. Government Ministers have muddied the explanation by stating in parliament that Dr. Amerasinghe is merely returning to his accredited position as Director after being out of the country for research studies. So, has Dr. Bandara been only an Acting Director all along? It is not my purpose to labour on staffing minutiae at the Health Ministry, but only to look at how President Rajapaksa’s new “methodical” appointment approach is being applied to senior medical professionals in the middle of a global pandemic. 

The bigger problem after the 33rd cluster is the potential for rampant spread of the virus among the 50,000 garment factory workers employed by nearly 85 companies in the Gampaha District. Not to mention the risk involving garment factories and their workers in all the other districts. From what is being reported, garment factory owners, the army, and public health officials are co-ordinating the response efforts for contact tracing and quarantining quite responsibly. It turns out that in addition to direct factory workers, there are others providing ancillary services in factories through separate contractors. The problem of tracing the ancillary contract workers would seem to be more difficult than dealing with direct factory workers. The key question to the government and the Covid-response Operation Centre, is why no attention was given to such potential hot spots during all the months when the virus was keeping things quiet.

Garment factory workers are an internal migrant population. Perhaps characteristic of the inelastic village and kinship ties and obligations in South Asian societies including Sri Lanka, factory workers are not atomised to permanently relocate from their natal villages to the places of factory work. The upshot is crowded living around the factories in permanently temporary arrangements. Frequent travels in crowded modes between the natal and work-place villages are part of the working life. Village housing schemes undertaken by governments may not have spotted this contradiction, let alone address it. There are other social issues involving uprooted personal relationships, alcoholism, gambling, and indebtedness. 

Nonetheless, people would have muddled through life, as they have been, but for the unexpected arrival of a new virus. Overnight, sources of livelihood and common modes of travel are turned into hot spots of infection. Contact tracing has to navigate multiple villages and mazes of relationships. This is not anybody’s fault, and there are no readymade solutions. Only thing that can reasonably be said to the government is that Covid-19 has made the government’s work cut out for it. There is no room for playing constitutional games in this situation. 

Infections involving garment factory workers drive home the two prongs of the Covid assault and the responses to it, involving public health and the economy. Not only healthy working conditions, but also living conditions must be provided for garment workers to remain healthy and to continue working. The government cannot sustain the economy and the society if workers are unable to work and factories close down. The same premise can be extended to other sectors with due adjustments. The point is that the economic approach that is needed is to ensure basic survival through this crisis. And not the approach that is hitched to any vistas of prosperity or splendour. The only vistas staring Sri Lanka in the face now are vistas of debts, with massive repayments. The 33rd Covid cluster is a wake up call to the government. Will it wake up? How will it respond?

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Latest comments

  • 9
    2

    Thanks Rajan,
    An excellent, insightful and balanced presentation.
    President Rajapaksa, as Emperor Nero with a violin, is fiddling with 20A as Home burns.

    • 4
      5

      What was Yahapalanaya doing for five years when Lanka was still ablaze?
      In fact, what has anybody elected President done to smother the flames since JRJ torched democracy in 1978?
      *
      BTW, the violin emerged in the early 16th Century in Italy, and the medieval fiddle in the 10th Century or later.

      • 3
        6

        Dear SJ

        TULF STARTED THE FIRE AND CONTINUED POURING THE FUEL TO DATE PREVENTED US FROM ADDRESSING ALL ELSE NATURALLY AS A NATION OF PEOPLE. NONE OF US EVER TOOK PART IN ALL THAT TOOK PLACE EVER SINCE AS KIDS RUNNING AROUND AND KILLING EVERYTHING THAT TRY TO DO JYST THAT…CHECK AND BALANCE.NOW WE ARE ALL REAPING THE BENEFITS.

        • 2
          0

          The fire started in 1915 was rekindled in 1948 followed by bush fires in 1958, 1977 and 1981 leading to the genocidal attack of 1983. The TULF has its share of the blame, but do not exonerate the main culprit by talking only of the FP/TULF/TNA.
          *
          Have you heard of the anti Malayali campaign of the 1930s starting with the depression?

          • 0
            0

            SJ,
            Is it true that all those erstwhile Malayalis turned into good good Sinhala Buddhists and Catholics?

            • 0
              0

              OC
              The Malayalis who arrived centuries ago as persons with some kind of skill, ranging from toddy tappers to precious metal workers, got married to Sinhalese women and got Sinhalised. The same could be said for Tamilisation but in far smaller numbers. (Caste was an obstacle to integration in the Peninsula, but less so much in Batticaloa I guess.
              The Malayalis that AE Gunasinghe waged war on were harbour workers and their like. AEG blamed Sinhalese unemployment during the depression on them. Many of them left before independence. There were categories like teachers who stayed on even after independence but mostly as Indian citizens. They had family in India. When overseas remittances were curbed owing to FE problems, many chose to leave.
              One Malayali I know from school married a Sinhalese female and is a strong leftist. Another who was closer to me returned to India.
              There is a difference between individuals adopting another identity and communities doing it. The Catholic fisher folk of the west coast were persuaded by the Church. Among key factors that encouraged it was the attitude of the Vellala Tamil elite who looked down on people outside the Peninsula (and people of wrong castes from anywhere).

              • 0
                0

                S.J,
                Interesting. ?

                • 0
                  0

                  S.J
                  Two of the teachers were Abraham Kovoor and Susan Pulimood. The system could do with a few of the same calibre even now.

                • 0
                  0

                  Add to that M.I. Kuruvilla who taught me English at Aquinas. He had come to Sri Lanka as a nineteen-year-old. He married a Sinhalese, had three daughters and lived in Muhandiram Place Dehiwela.
                  .
                  One son-in-law is Chemsitry Professor, Ajith Abeysekera, who was also a member of the Colombo symphony Orchestra.

                  Kuruvilla was highly regarded in academic circles in Sri Lanka, but he looked so frail, with a terrible tremor, in his hands especially. It was blackboards that he had to write on. Whenthe right hand was trembling badly, he would write with his left.
                  .
                  Rather irrelevant, but so fondly remebered by me that I hope the moderators will allow it.

  • 5
    0

    “The only vistas staring Sri Lanka in the face now are vistas of debts, with massive repayments. “
    Very well put. Most voters today were not even born in the 70’s, So they don’t know first hand what economic nationalism combined with foreign exchange difficulties did to the country. They tend to believe rosy stories told to them by even more clueless opinion makers.
    17 years of JRJ / Premadasa was the reaction to the 70’s. The 70’s govt was not as mired in self-inflicted debt as this one, nor was it as beholden to racist monks.Will it take 5 years of this cabal of monks, obscurantists and strutting military idiots to reset the clock?

    • 0
      0

      OC
      India too had a closed economy until the late 70s; but opening up was slow.
      Sri Lankans had been used to effectively unlimited imports up to 1956 thanks to the favorable balance of payments until then. Even later, we had far less restrictions than India for many semi-luxury items.
      We became a consumer society without producing enough. That needed correction– but a well planned correction unlike that of the UF government.
      The prices of raw produce has been manipulated by cartels and the real prices of plantation produce has been declining steadily; and in the 1970s the oil price hike of 1974 hit us hard. Its impact on balance of payments was severe. Many seem to have forgotten it.
      *
      The mistake of the UF government was its clamp down on all imports in the face of the foreign currency problems. A balanced approach would have offset import costs through export of some goods as well as local production of some essential imports (including agricultural implements).
      *
      The opening up of 1978 wrecked the farmers and ruined small industry. It also encouraged export of labour (now well over 2 million if we count the FTZs). I need not bother to comment on its impact on local industry.

      • 0
        0

        SJ,
        Yes, the UF government might have had good intentions, but handled the situation very badly. In India, people had been used to restrictions for a long time. Plunging Sri Lankans suddenly into a (badly) planned economy was a bad idea.
        As to exporting labour, I can hardly complain, being one of the exports .??

        • 0
          0

          You may have been a luxury good, but what was the net gain for the country from exporting skilled and semi-skilled labour?

  • 2
    5

    Dear Rajan

    As always super article well written to improve knowledge in a very constructive way/constructive criticism too.

    My only comments
    (1) Not sure our GOSL is caught pants down or rather holding the pants….due to million other things they every day…….yes we are also addressing constitutional issues…….I am for it and some others not for it…non issue.

    (2) What always concern me what the elected MP’s reporting/their activity towards serving their constituents even to address and support/implement the GOSL protocol on the panadamic issue in their daily life is hardly reported/other matted they are actioning/progress report on their action lists etc.

    (3) It will be great we use this opportunity to clean up the entire Nation/education on waste management as a whole and the MP’s proactive nature on this subject of their contribution/intellectual prooperty for governance/actively getting the public involved in these matters including the medical waste management issues too.

    (4) It is always the soldier’s picking up our inactive nature..specially MP’s?

  • 2
    2

    Good article.

    I don’t think a lockdown is an answer. They should test all cold-like symptoms in Drs offices and trace. Also factories prisons military and police camps should be tested.

    My Brother who is a Consultant Dr in the affected area said that until the schools opened there weren’t even the regular cold cases. but 3 weeks into schools opening the colds were back.

    This unfortunately the truth about this disease. I live in the US where this is pretty much uncontained. Sri Lanka is in better shape . but it needs to keep the vigilance up.

  • 4
    1

    Gota and Mahinda need 20A to eradicate Covid19
    the current constitution is weak and with a STRONG constitution for the President the virus will go away scared of the presidential powers!

  • 1
    1

    The precautions mesures is set to avoid spread of virus having a one year of study COVID-19 experience doesn’t prove anything the second wave is like to happen president Trump has regular access for testing still he had what about others The ultimate puzzle is how to maintain control, while minimizing daily disruption

  • 3
    3

    What a lot of Tosh Covid fear psycho-Philips!
    How many people in Sri Lanka have died of Covid 19?
    Have you heard that CONTEXT MATTERS? That BCG vaccine protects, that heat and humidity and mere hand sanitizer kills the virus that is milder than seasonal flu!

    Covid-19 is a giant HOAX – the data and tests are all rigged, with papaws and Goats testing posiltive. The data is collected by US Deep State and CIA’s John’s Hopkins Uni.
    Covid-19 is part of the US-EU-NATO hybrid Cold War attack on China’s BRI and Asian and BRICS economies, by cutitng travel, trade and migration routes also to keep Euro-America white as possible and stop migrants from South America and Africa.
    It is also to print money and BAIL OUT the crashing US and EU economies which is in Trillions of DEBT – far worse than third world debt! The USD and EURO are fiat money, paper money castles that are crashing like the US empire as the US morphs into a failed State before our eyes and EU disintegrates in it own debt!

  • 1
    0

    Rajan, not sure this is second or left over of the very first wave.When govt manages the pandemic as in a programmed SHAM, this is expected. Same in US too, Trump is managing the pandemic according to his election plans. In Lanka the recovery numbers reported by govt biased media, in the last 6 months out numbers the reported infected cases. Now that Rajapaksa’s have got what they want, the numbers have been swapped. What we have is community spread where it is difficult or nearly impossible to trace the affected. The govt still denies the community spread.The wartime management may have helped but when there is no transparent information , public will not be able to participate in effective containment.

  • 1
    1

    Brandix cluster keeps expanding. Viyathmaga financing!

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