By 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?