Complete Lockdown Detrimental to Daily Wage Earners – Army Commander
By Saman Priyankara Nammunige
The National Operations Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak (NOCPCO) Task Force decided to impose travel restrictions in order to curb the spread of COVID-19, NOCPCO Chief and Army Commander, General Shavendra Silva said.
“We steered clear of imposing a total lockdown because it is detrimental to the economy and daily wage earners,” he added. The third wave occurred due to people’s negligence during the New Year season, he further said.
We have no plan to extend travel restrictions, but we need the people’s support, he said.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
Q: Please explain the reasons for imposing three-day travel restrictions?
A: The fundamental need of the moment is the prevention of the spread of COVID-19. Secondly, we will focus on eliminating the pandemic in the country.
You know how we controlled the first wave of the pandemic. We brought it under control by July last year. However, a second outbreak occurred in October. The reason was the returning migrants bringing the disease. They are our people, and we cannot reject them. However, by April, we reduced the number of patients to around 100. After that, another outbreak occurred as a third wave. We guess that the reason is a strain spread from a foreign country. We are now fighting it. Travel restrictions are a step in this direction.
We saw the probability of a severe spread of COVID-19 during the weekend. That’s why we took these measures to prevent an escalation.
Q: The spread of the virus is more severe in the third wave than in the previous waves. Many people anticipated a complete lockdown?
A: As I said, you know that we reduced the number of patients to 100 and opened the country. That was our method.
This is a small country. It is difficult for us to act in the way the other countries do. We cannot find solutions by fully locking down the country. Some persons argue that people’s health is the top priority. It is good if we can keep the country closed because of that. However, the pandemic may rage again when the country is opened. For example, India and Thailand controlled the pandemic by closing the country, but the pandemic spread after the country was reopened.
I don’t mean that opening the country is terrible. It has both pluses and minuses. However, we planned to maintain a policy of openness.
Like you, many people questioned our action. We had reasons for not shutting down the country. We were controlling COVID-19 systematically.
Initially, we were following COVID-19 infected persons. For that, we conducted countrywide PCR tests. Some tests were random. We directed the patients to treatment and close associates were sent for quarantine.
We prepared a similar plan for the third wave as well, and it was being implemented. However, we had to consider the long weekend. We took this decision to improve the measures to prevent COVID-19. This is not a decision of a single person. It is a collective decision of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Task Force.
Q: The rules and regulations related to travel restrictions seem to be quarantine curfew?
A: Yes. Although we do not call it curfew, it is similar to curfew. However, the travel restrictions are not as strict as a curfew.
We did not allow all the factories and workplaces to function during the curfew, but now we have granted permission. We focus more on preventing travelling.
Q: Doctors and some other health professionals point out that COVID-19 cannot be controlled without a complete lockdown?
A: We see most of these opinions in the Media. But they do not approach the right bodies and make recommendations.
Our Task Force includes specialist doctors, the Secretary of the Ministry of Health and the Ministers in charge of health. None of them recommended such full lockdowns. We act upon the recommendations. I must say that some people make recommendations looking only at one side of the problem. However, we have to look into both health and the economy. Daily wage earners lament that they cannot keep their home fires burning unless they have the opportunity to work. They complain that we lockdown the country thinking only about the salaried staff.
Meanwhile, some others cannot sell their products. They ask not to close the country even if they are killed by COVID-19. We have to consider all sides when making decisions.
Q: Some people claim that there was a delay in decision-making on the new wave of COVID-19?
A: No. The reason for the third outbreak is the behaviour of our people during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. By then, the number of patients had reduced to around 100. We thought twice before making decisions.
We urged people to wear face masks, maintain social distancing, and celebrate the New Year safely. However, those guidelines were not followed, and this is the result.
Q: At the beginning of the third wave, there were issues related to PCR tests. The reports were delayed and the patients were diagnosed late?
A: Yes. Decisions were delayed as a result.
Q: Is it true that the suggestions from the health sector to impose several specific restrictions, such as a limited number of people in a shop were turned down?
A: Who said so?
Q: The Opposition spread such views through the Media?
A: No such person said so. A medical specialist said she had informed before the New Year about the spread of a new strain of COVID-19. Neither the President nor the Task Force knew such a thing. We were made aware of it after the New Year.
Q: Doesn’t the Task Force have good relations with the health sector. Is there any conflict when it comes to decision-making?
A: No. We work very closely. Recently, I participated in a programme at the Ministry of Health and associated with them very cordially. The Secretary of the Ministry of Health is a former military official, and we work very warmly. The Minister of Health is also amiable. Doctors Samitha and Wikum provide us with the reports. We work for the country without any conflict. But the people who observe from outside see that there are issues.
Q: Do the Opposition politicians speak with you about the situation?
A: Yes. Former Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and former Ministers and MPs speak and enquire about the situation. The Former Prime Minister also speaks. They never say that we are wrong.
Q: Did vaccination take place as planned during the period of travel restrictions? I inquire about this from you because the Army contributes to the vaccination programme?
A: Yes, vaccination took place as scheduled in many areas. The programme was very well conducted in the Western Province.
When only the health sector was handling vaccination, we could inoculate only about 2,500 to 3,000 persons per day. With the Army contribution, the number has increased to 75,000.
Now, the Army even provides transport to COVID-19 patients. The Army runs some quarantine centres and even provides food. You must explore the service rendered by the Army together with the officials of the provincial offices of health.
Q: Are you responding to the accusation of specific sectors about getting the Tri-Forces involved in COVID-19 operations?
A: Yes. We hear such allegations. Some people ask why the Armed Forces have been deployed to handle a health issue. The Tri-Forces provided assistance to the health sector from the beginning. When the outbreak occurred for the first time, there were only 5,800 beds for patients. The Army increased it to 25,000. We are still improving the facilities. We do all these things for the sake of the people. We are a disciplined force. Recently, the Minister of Health said vaccination was successful because of the military, which was like a godsend.
During the first wave, we provided mobile services with the doctors of the Ministry of Health to visit the elderly patients in flats.
We built the first COVID-19 private hospital with Army doctors in Koggala as per the idea of the President. The reason was that the wealthy people were trying to hide when they were infected because of the poor quality of basic amenities in public places, as they thought. We catered for their need. That inspired the private hospitals to explore this opportunity.
I highlight these facts for the information of the persons who speak only about the health sector. We can ignore these things and look into only the defence of the Nation. But the people seek our assitance. The reason is that we are disciplined and systematic.
By the way, how much does the Army contribute to the development process? They build tanks, playgrounds, and houses. A majority of sportspersons who brought honour to the country served in the Army.
Q: There is a controversy regarding the Indians who arrive in Sri Lanka for quarantine during the third wave of the virus?
A: Yes. Every country recognises the certificate of quarantine issued by our country. That is why they come to quarantine here. However, we understood the problem and decided to stop it.
Q: Will travel restrictions be reimposed in the future? Will the virus further spread? What is your view about it?
A: Yes. COVID-19 will spread more severely within the coming few weeks. We have focussed on this. Foreign data also indicates the same.
Regarding travel restrictions, I hope the situation will not worsen. We have no plan to extend travel restrictions. However, we need people’s support.
Sri Lanka is a country which Lord Buddha visited thrice. Nature protects us from trouble. We have some unknown power. The reason is that people live by religion. We will be good.