It is shocking but true. 70% of the 801 (around 560) persons who had died of COVID until 10th May 2021, as per the Statistics by the Epidemiology Unit of Ministry of Health dated 10th May 2021 were above the age of 60. Most of them would have been people who had led careful lives to get to that point, only to be struck down by a virus that caught their government unprepared.
How many had been vaccinated beyond the age of 60? This is a query as all those had not been from Colombo, where the vaccination at one point was given to those beyond 60 years of age, were not provided with the vaccine. It had not been continued even in Colombo, but even worse, had not been applied to the rest of the country. The death of these people may be seen as ‘collateral damage’ of Covid which is inevitable. If the same justification was applied to the parliament and the office of the President the continued existence of many of them may have become a question mark today.
There are about 18% of population above 60 years of age and death of 70% of that category is out of proportion. The need for vaccinating the over 60 years age category as done in other parts of the world was highlighted in the media from February 2021 onwards when the possibilities of vaccination was becoming a reality and every newspaper and news highlighted its importance to those over 60.
Dr H T Wickramasinghe, The President of the Vaccine and Infectious disease forum of Sri Lanka submits scientifically, professionally and medically a case for prioritizing the case for elderly.
The Minister of Health, Hon. Pavithra Wanniarachchi emphasized the vital role COVAX Facility vaccines play in the Government’s commitment to vaccinate eligible Sri Lankans, starting with vulnerable groups like those over 60 years old and people residing in high case reporting areas.
“The vaccination of senior citizens from elderly homes within the Colombo Municipality and their caregivers of all ages will commence from today onwards.” The 264,000 Oxford-AstraZeneca Covishield doses received through the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) COVAX Facility are to be utilised in vaccinating citizens above the age of 60. Dr. Samaraweera also said that persons above 60 from the Western Province living in grama niladhari (GN) divisions that are already rolling out the vaccine will be vaccinated from tomorrow (13) onwards. March 11, 2021 – Sunday Morning
Health policy regarding the vaccination of those over 60 stood along these lines as indicated by the State Minister for Health for a few weeks but was restricted to Colombo. However, this policy was thereafter not followed for unknown reasons. When many, including the author, applied on the web for priority Covid vaccination no action was taken, unfortunately.
It would be sad to find out, which would be inevitably true, that many who died beyond the ages of 60 years, may have been alive today, if not for the negligence of the state in terms of violating/neglecting the accepted policy in the world and prescribed policy in the country. There was a story in the media about three octogenarians, husband, wife and husband’s sister, all aged over 80 who died of Covid in their home where they had lived careful lives that had brought them to old age.
Further this also brings to effect the ‘right to life’ concept. Advice from WHO and other countries and from our country too is to vaccinate the elders beyond 60. The failure to implement such vaccination on the ground, causing deaths of persons would be proof of the failure to ensure the rights of persons to live and safeguard their lives on an equal footing with others. It is very likely that those responsible for dereliction of duty may/could/should be charged for medical negligence leading to death of persons.
Everyone accepts the use of the vaccine to the front line workers as they were the most likely to be infected, and no one questions that. But when the probability for Corona infection was very high for those beyond 60 years of age ( category of vulnerability) established globally only considering those in Colombo as priority (on the justification of it being in the category of higher infection area) for vaccination appears as a bias in the system. Was it because Colombo is the hub of Sri Lanka where the influential people reside and they need to be protected at the cost of others? They are wealthy enough to ride away to distance places for safety as stated in the news. The government leadership made an error in not diversifying the vaccination program for the elderly beyond the borders of Colombo, considering their vulnerability.
It is difficult to manage emergencies in any country specially when new political regimes have taken over with different values and financial constraints that are checking their limitations. However policies cannot ignore norms to uphold the right of every citizen especially their right to life.
I salute every person who is in the front line whether on duty or off duty who had subjected themselves to a greater risk than an ordinary person in relation to the COVID RISK whose courage and value need to be appreciated. I for one, not even a minute, consider anyone more important than one of them to live beyond the time of Covid as they had for the sake of others put their life at risk and this needs to be recognized.
The law does not differ when it is applied to those for trying to commit suicide whether by an ordinary person or a VIP or differ for a murder committed by an ordinary person or a VIP. Law is One. Priority may justifiable be given to certain sectors during the COIVID, ONLY because, they are working for the people at large, at their own risk.
Once these categories are set aside, then we need to find out how the citizens are treated equally beyond the district borders. While I appreciate working on a priority basis with the districts that have been more severely affected we can only ignore the vulnerable groups in other districts at the peril of all. In the case of Covid, the protection of the few requires the protection of the many. If this maxim is not heeded the impact would be what we see now, that the vulnerable groups suffer throughout the country. The figure of 70% of death being in one category, speaks for our ignorance or arrogance and for us not to have treated that as a special category of vulnerability is equivalent to a crime.
The indications of the Corona infection being on the rise with the increasing death toll is a dire one. The predictions of American institute predict the death toll of Sri Lanka to be around 20,000 by September from 800 at present, which will see an increased spike in the next few months, if predictions are correct. Unfortunately these predictions had been very accurate with regard to the death toll in the US and we have no reason to doubt it being the same with Sri Lanka as well.
In my opinion we could have spent more time and money getting inoculated against the virus much earlier as suggested, than to hold parliamentary election, pass the 20th amendment, bring tourists from infected countries and serve them in Bubble, which may have given us a better opportunity to curb the pandemic. We have had the rise from September 2020 which we did not see or act upon. We were trying to compare India and USA all the time literally than comparing the proportions in terms of population ratios while Israel had a better plan and as of today they are a success story and we are not.
The Way ahead
The only way forward for us is to collectively spend all our energy and effort to beat the pandemic rather than try and stabilize economy at the same time which may never happen. Please do not forget we had a 17 billion rupee scam in the middle of this and almost all items had gone up in price. We will have to focus on inoculating a larger population as early as possible through state and also non state institutions to the extent possible. This seems the only way to minimize the numbers of death and acute infection. Failure to this will always be seen as a failure of state governance, and the politicians with their petty tussles in and out of the parliament will be condemned by the people today and by history for ignoring the larger issues. Sadly they seem to have forgotten the woods for the trees.
History is written after the events and the Covid history of Sri Lanka will not be written positively but as failure of the policies to effectively mitigate the crisis, unless we take a great stride now and leap to safety.
*The author is Senior professor of Botany (Rtd) and Former Vice Chancellor, Eastern University