Can We Afford Another Country-wide Lockdown?
When the first tsunami wave of coronavirus cases hit Sri Lanka in March this year, we were grossly underprepared to handle the emerging health emergency. Fortunately, we had a highly skilled health service, an efficient military and a Government that was willing to take daring decisions to curb the highly infectious virus from spreading.
However, we did not have enough facilities to treat a large number of patients that was sure to have been reported if prompt actions were not taken. The health authorities warned that an overwhelming number of patients would crash the system, as the healthcare professionals were the ones who would have been directly exposed to the virus.
On top of that there was very little information regarding the virus itself: how it spread, its potency, its life-frame or who it would infect.
Therefore, at that initial point, the only logical step for the authorities was to impose country-wide curfew in order to minimise human interaction as much as possible. And, it worked. By end of April we had completely eliminated community spread of the virus.
At this juncture, two separate clusters emerged: one at the Welisara Navy Camp and the other at the Kandakadu Drug Rehabilitation Centre. In the case of both these clusters, the contacts were traced immediately following the identification of the hotspots and the spread of the virus to the wider society was prevented.
At the end of two months, when curfew was finally lifted, there were only a less than 150 active COVID-19 cases in the country. Almost all the new cases were reported from among Sri Lankans who had been repatriated from countries where the virus was spreading out of control.
The measures taken were effective in preventing a health catastrophe. However, all this was not without a cost. Due to the prolonged curfew, a vast number of people lost their employments. In particular, the daily wage earners, casual labourers, garment factory workers, airline employees and contract employees lost their jobs. A number of companies are still imposing pay-cuts on employees. On top of that a number of small businesses were failing.
In response to small-scale business owners, the President made an intervention to urge the Central Bank of Sri Lanka to introduce a series of relief measures, in order to keep the economy afloat. The Government also distributed Rs 5,000 monthly allowance among low-income earners who had lost their jobs due to the prolonged curfew.
Over the past few months, the economy has been struggling to reach pre-COVID-19 conditions. The import ban on a number of items has actually seen a revival of local industries.
However, all of this turned topsy-turvy with the sudden and alarming emergency of another super cluster, this time stemming from a garment manufacturing facility in Minuwangoda, Gampaha. The first case was reported on 4 October and to this date well over 2,000 cases closely connected to this cluster have been identified. Quite alarmingly, the initial contact who introduced the virus to this cluster is yet to be determined. Subsequently, cases were reported from a couple of other mass-scale garment manufacturing factories as well.
In this midst, another super cluster emerged centring on the Central Fish Market Complex in Peliyagoda, sending fear that virus may already be circulating around the country, faster than anyone imagined. By Friday, large-scale markets such as the Manning Market, Beruwala Fisheries Harbour were temporarily closed due to random testing showing a high number of cases in those places.
The authorities immediately imposed curfew in Gamapaha when the first few cases were detected in Minuwangoda. What, was initially a few Police areas, has now been extended to the whole of Gampaha District. A few days ago curfew was imposed in a number of areas in Colombo as well. Also, a number of villages in the Kalutara District were declared isolated areas to prevent the spread of the virus.
However, with COVID-19 cases being reported from areas around the country, the public were expecting another country-wide lockdown. But the question is whether we can afford to go through a prolonged period of lockdown? If, in case, we go for a lockdown, there is no doubt that our already fragile economy will be in shambles. There won’t be an easy recovery from that.
Instead, what we must do is take extreme precautions. Work from home as much as possible. Leave home only to attend to essential work. If you must leave home, follow health guidelines to a tee: wear a face mask to cover your nose and mouth, maintain 1-metre distance and most importantly, if you have any symptoms, inform your area PHI.
What we must keep in mind is that a Government alone cannot fight a public health emergency. We have a responsibility as the public, to make sure that we follow all the necessary precautions. Hiding symptoms, running away from authorities, refusing to be quarantined is not going to help the situation. In fact, it is going to make things worse.
It’s simple, don’t be a COVIDiot!