by Professor Jayantha Lal Ratnasekera, Vice-Chancellor, Uva Wellassa University
The island-wide travel restrictions imposed on May 21, were lifted after a month on June 21. It was officially called country-wide travel restrictions, but, de facto it was a country-wide lockdown. At the time of writing this article, the travel restrictions between provinces are still in effect, but other travel restrictions are lifted. Though it is too early to assess the real impact of month-long country-wide lockdown on controlling the spread of corona virus, there are already signs of decrease in the daily new corona patients. The daily new cases have gone beyond 3000 at the end of May, but has come down to around 1800 during last few days. However, the pandemic situation is still far from satisfactory and the threat still prevails, repeatedly emphasized by medical experts.
Currently, the total number of corona patients in Sri Lanka has exceeded 250,000, and the total number of corona deaths has also gone beyond 3000. Though there is a drop in the daily new cases, daily death count is still revolving around 50 mark. In this instance, it is important to know the number of PCR tests conducted daily, as the ratio of daily new cases into number of PCR tests would be a more appropriate indicator. The raw number of new cases does not depict the actual picture, and reducing PCR tests would not help the cause. It is under these circumstances, the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) has written to the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on June 19, requesting to continue the island-wide travel restrictions without lifting it on June 21. “Lifting the lockdown even for few days is likely to take us back to the major epidemic situation prevailed in April, and the gains that have been made during the lockdown of the last three weeks will then be sacrificed.” SLMA President Dr. Padma Gunaratne said in her letter to the President.
Undoubtedly, the month-long country-wide lockdown, or travel restrictions as officially declared, has helped in controlling further spread of the virus. As stated by the Chairman of the Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) Union, Mr. Upul Rohana during a discussion on Derana TV, the lockdown has indeed been useful. The restrictions have aided PHIs and health authorities to detect more patients and trace contacts, he said. “Before the travel restrictions, there were times when we would go to a house to get a patient’s information or trace contacts, and nobody would be at home. But, under the lockdown, we were able to direct patients to treatment centres and close contacts to quarantine facilities without much difficulty,” Mr. Upul Rohana further explained.
However, there have been regular violations of travel restrictions, with thousands of people moving freely all over the country. When you look at the number of vehicles entered Colombo city every day during the lockdown, you start to wonder whether the restrictions were really enforced. You start to wonder whether all these are essential workers, as only the essential services were allowed to roam around. On one occasion, it was reported that more than 100,000 vehicles have travelled along the Southern expressway within 48 hours. Even under normal circumstances, 100,000 vehicles in 48 hours on the highway is quite a high number, and all this clearly indicates that some people have completely ignored the travel restrictions. Moreover, there were numerous public gatherings, partying weddings, birthdays and other special events. There were get-togethers from five star hotels to private houses, and from famous celebrities to local politicians have joined in. Of course, in some cases, police got involved and sent them for quarantine, but there could have been much more occasions not reported or not detected by authorities. On the other hand, this kind of misconduct by some people gives the impression that health guidelines and relevant rules are not applicable to them.
We could imagine how these people would behave when the travel restrictions were lifted, and it was confirmed on June 21. On this day, when the country was opened after a month, almost all the towns in the country were packed with people; the necessary physical distance was not observed at all; the mask is around either the chin or the neck. This irresponsible behaviour continues to date, despite severe warnings from medical experts. Of course, as human beings, we do not like to be restricted to a small area for a long time, but prefer to roam around freely. However, we should understand that the current situation, COVID-19 pandemic, is not a normal one. This global pandemic has restricted our freedom in all spheres and we have to change our behavioural patterns accordingly.
In the meantime, the medical experts have warned that the Indian virus variant known as Delta might become the dominant variant in Sri Lanka as well, if proper measures were not taken in time. Few patients infected with Delta virus variant were identified in Dematagoda and the area was locked down. Investigations are in progress to verify whether the COVID patients from Madiwela and Kahathuduwa are also having Delta variant. Delta, earlier known as B.1.617.2, one of the four “variants of concern” listed by the World Health Organization (WHO), was first discovered in India in October 2020. Other virus variants labelled as variants of concern by WHO are alpha, first found in UK, beta, first found South Africa and gamma, first discovered in Brazil. Out of these four strains, Delta is said to be the most dangerous virus variant, and was responsible for disastrous second COVID wave started in the latter part of April in India. Delta variant has completely paralyzed the Indian health system and resulted in a huge number of deaths.
The delta variant seems to be around 60 percent more transmissible than the alpha variant, according to early research data. The data, from England and Scotland, suggest that a person is twice as likely to be hospitalized if infected with the delta variant compared with the alpha. As reflected by hospitalization risk, delta variant seems to be associated with an increased disease severity. Delta variant has threatened even the countries where further spread of virus has been controlled to some extent thanks to speedy vaccination drive. It was reported that the delta variant is already dominant in countries like Australia, Indonesia and Israel, and the government of Bangladesh has decided to lockdown the Dhaka city for one week effective from June 28, due to the spread of delta virus variant. As mentioned above, COVID infected with Delta virus variant were already found in Sri Lanka as well, and there is a possibility of penetrating this variant from India to the island through fisherman. So, in order to avoid a worse scenario, it is extremely important to strictly adhere to the health guidelines and practices, medical experts warn. Though the island-wide travel restrictions were lifted, the real threat of COVID-19 had not disappeared at all, medical experts emphasize.
It is understood that the country cannot be kept closed continuously for a long time, as in such a case, the impact on the economy will be really bad. It is estimated that the economic loss per day due to country-wide lockdown was around 15,000 million rupees. Needless to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has done a irreparable damage to the economy during last one and half years. Threat of an economic tsunami is looming along with the COVID threat. Hence, the government is bound take measures to prevent further collapse of the country’s economy. On the one hand, government has to impose strict restrictions to curb the pandemic, and on the other hand, to take measure to revive the economy.
We as citizens, should wholeheartedly support health workers and authorities in their mission in controlling the pandemic by strictly adhering to the health guidelines and practices. We should be able to impose some kind of self-discipline during these pandemic days, and should have some courage and strength to behave responsibly and ethically during these pandemic days. We should leave behind our personal or political agenda, if any, and be united as one nation in this critical juncture. Otherwise, we all together will have to suffer from a fourth COVID-19 wave!