Is it wise to reopen borders?

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 12 2021

The Government, in another 11 days’ time, i.e. on 23 January, plans to reopen the country’s borders for tourists other than for those from UK.

Sri Lanka’s peak tourism season comprises just four months, i.e. from December to March of the following year.Tourism is also Sri Lanka’s third largest foreign exchange earner. 

It’s to take advantage of this period, namely December to March, that the Government is in a haste to reopen its borders which has been closed for tourists for 10 months, i.e. since the middle of last March or thereabouts due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, last month the Government partially reopened   its borders, ‘limiting’ it only to Ukrainian tourists. 

Nonetheless, many are questioning, when we are still battling to control the second wave, are we inviting more trouble by reopening our borders?

Till last Friday (8), 909 Ukrainian tourists had arrived in Sri Lanka and another 2,580 are scheduled to visit Sri Lanka before 24 January.

It is understood that we need US dollars to resurrect the dying tourism industry, but the question is will we have to spend much more than that in combating the COVID-19 pandemic in the event the reopening of borders will result in a surge of new cases?

Will the Ukrainian tourists adhere to health guidelines? 

Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) last week charged that Ukrainian tourists had visited the Yala National Park though it was not in their travel itinerary.

As a result, 28 safari jeep drivers who accompanied the Ukrainians have been escorted for 14-day mandatory quarantine. This was met with strong opposition by them.

“Army came and picked us up after the safari was over. We were not aware of anything. If we knew, we would not have come at all.  Foreigners are travelling all round the country,” they said.

Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga last week instructed officials to prevent a recurrence of such a situation that has arisen due to Ukrainian tourists visiting Yala. 

Ranatunga said that the relevant institutions including SLTDA should pay close attention.

He noted,“The health guidelines introduced in the pilot project for the reopening of the country to tourists should be properly implemented.”

Meanwhile, many say that they still don’t know whether some Ukrainian tourists are carriers of  COVID-19 as PCR tests  are not 100 per cent accurate.

Last Friday (8) Ukraine, a nation of 41 million, closed down schools, restaurants and gyms as a new nationwide lockdown took effect to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 infections in Ukraine began rising again in September and have remained relatively high. The country has registered more than a million coronavirus cases with 19,588 deaths as of 8 January.

The Ukraine Government had decided on the January lockdown in early December, when Ukraine was at the peak of the pandemic and the number of new cases stood at around 12,000-14,000 daily.

The new measures which include the closure of entertainment centres and a ban on mass gatherings will be in force until 24 January.

When Ukraine is in such a mess, is it wise for Sri Lanka to reopen its borders, is a question asked by many.

We controlled the first wave of COVID-19 by closing down borders and imposing lockdowns. Although the country now follows lockdowns in vulnerable areas, borders however were not fully reopened.

Meanwhile, Cabinet granted approval to receive the COVID-19 vaccine under the COVAX programme and the Health Ministry has decided on a priority list of recipients. 

According to the priority list, it had identified those above 60 years, those suffering from comorbidities above the age of 40 and health and frontline workers as being among the first to be inoculated. There are also ongoing trials regarding the possibilities of administering the vaccine to children on an international basis. Nonetheless, children and adolescents have not been included in the priority list, the Ministry said.  

COVAX is co-led by the Global Alliance for Vaccination Initiative (GAVI), the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). Its aim is to accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country. Therefore, low-income countries too would have a fair chance of receiving the vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the Ministry said. 

WHO has pledged to provide the vaccine to 20 per cent of the population free of charge, while the rest would have to purchase it.

Meanwhile, Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi informed Parliament on Thursday (7) that the Asian Development Bank (ADB) would grant US$ five million to buy COVID-19 vaccines. 

Responding to a question from Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, the Minister said, Sri Lanka would receive another $ 370,000 as a donation to develop cold chains required to store these vaccines. 

“We would not rely only on COVAX facility to bring vaccines. Discussions through diplomatic channels are being held with China, Russia and India to get vaccines from them at the moment. I can say that those discussions are progressive. The COVAX facility does not grant money to buy vaccines. It provides vaccines for 20 per cent of the country’s population. If they decide to give Pfizer vaccines, we would give them to the people,” she told Parliament.

However, the million dollar question is when will these vaccines arrive?

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 12 2021

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