By Professor Jayantha Lal Ratnasekera Vice-Chancellor, Uva Wellassa University
COVID-19 virus has been torturing the entire world, entire humanity for more than one and half years now. A small micro-particle with a diameter of about 125 nanometers has been torturing the entire humanity for more than one and half years. Irrespective of the country, race, or religion, the COVID-19 virus has been a real threat to everyone in the world. Irrespective of whether you are living in a developed or under-developed country, the magnitude of the COVID-19 virus threat has been the same. In fact, some of the developed countries have suffered from the pandemic more than some under-developed countries. At the time of writing this article, the total number of corona patients has exceeded 169 million globally, and the total number of corona deaths has reached 3.5 million. Even in the countries where the first wave of the pandemic has been controlled successfully, the second and third waves have been more devastating. Undoubtedly, this has been the most dangerous pandemic humanity has faced during the last 100 years.
In Sri Lanka, the first corona patient was found in March last year, and we were able to control the virus spread by executing strict health measures. After a few weeks of quarantine curfew, the country was reopened and the normalcy has been restored. However, the situation has changed after a corona patient was found in a garment factory in Minuwangoda, on October 4, 2020. In other words, the second wave of the pandemic started in October 2020. We were able to control the second wave also to a certain extent, and the vaccination process commenced in January 2021.
Accordingly, we had to celebrate the Sinhala-Tamil new year while strictly adhering to health guidelines. The Director-General of Health Services, Dr. Asela Gunawardena has warned in advance that there might be a third wave of the pandemic, in case the public will not follow the health guidelines. As it was not possible to fully restrict the people’s movements during the new year season, the Director-General of Health Services has urged the public to strictly adhere to the guidelines, which were issued specifically for the new year. According to those guidelines, the people have been urged to celebrate the festival and to observe the traditions and rituals at home with their immediate family members. The guidelines have further recommended not to visit the relatives’ places and not to exchange the confectioneries with neighbors, which is the usual practice during the new year. Though the majority of the public has been celebrating the new year following instructions issued by the health authorities, few people have not given due consideration for the same. Many have traveled all around the country violating health guidelines. Many of those have not maintained the physical distance, did not wear face masks, did not use hand sanitizers as required. A large number of hotels around Bandarawela, Ella, Nuwaraeliya, Matara Polhena were packed with local tourists for days.
As a result of this irresponsible behavior of few people, the third wave of the corona pandemic has begun immediately after the new year. During the past few weeks, the ‘New Year COVID Cluster’ has had a threatening effect on the entire country; the entire society. Currently, the total number of corona patients in Sri Lanka has exceeded 170,000 and the total number of corona deaths has exceeded 1300. Though it has come down a little during the last few days, the daily identified number of corona patients has gone beyond 3000 for few consecutive days. In this regard, the most important fact is that the number of hospitalized corona patients has touched the 30,000 marks. As it has been continuously warned by a number of experts, the Sri Lankan health system has been reaching the maximum threshold of its capacity. Some doctors have even been saying that the Sri Lankan health system has come close to its redline. Under these circumstances, a number of medical experts have emphasized the need for a 14-day countrywide lockdown. World-famous virologist, Professor Malik Peiris of the University of Hong Kong and public health expert, Professor Kamani Mendis, Professor Emeritus of the University of Colombo have jointly pointed out that a total countrywide lockdown of 14 days will lead to the interruption of one or two cycles of virus transmission in the community. Professor Malik Peiris has pointed out that the incubation period of the COVID-19 virus (i.e. the time between the exposure to the virus and symptoms onset) is around 5-7 days. Further, if an individual contracts the virus and infects the family members, it will take another 5-7 days for the family members to start showing symptoms. This is the scientific basis for the need for a lockdown for 14 days. And it is the scientific basis for the 14-day quarantine period.
The Government, after considering this expert advice, decided to extend the travel restrictions till June 7 from May 31. However, in order to facilitate the purchase of essential goods such as food items, medicine, etc., the Government has decided to relax the travel restrictions in-between. Accordingly, the travel restrictions were relaxed on Tuesday, May 25, and the behavior of some people on that day was totally not acceptable. Early in the morning on May 25, a large number of people have come to the cities to purchase goods and they have not bothered at all about the physical distance. Even though there were requests that one person from each family to go to the nearest shop, many have come in their private vehicles, and long queues were seen near the supermarkets as well as other shops. In some cities, there were even traffic jams like during normal working days. Some people have used false doctor’s passes to go through the checkpoints. Head of the National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 and the Army Commander General Shavendra Silva has stated that an alternative method for distributing essential items needs to be introduced as the behavior of many people was grossly unsatisfactory, when the travel restrictions were relaxed on May 25. General Shavendra Silva further stated that this type of irresponsible behavior of the public could lead to the speedy spreading of the virus.
This indicates that some Sri Lankans are yet to understand the real gravity of the COVID-19 virus threat, though it has been torturing the entire humanity for more than one and half years, as stated above. During the first wave of the pandemic last year, an Italian doctor has explained the real threat of the virus by saying that, “if you fully understand the real danger of this virus, you will not even put your head through a window at your home”. There is a small truth about this virus, which has been repeatedly voiced by many medical experts, but some of us have not understood or not accepted yet. It is that the COVID-19 virus will not come to our home on its own unless we go outside and bring it home with us. That is why the proclamation, “Stay Home, Stay Safe” is so important these days. On other hand, as stated by General Shavendra Silva, if we continue with this type of irresponsible behavior, it could definitely lead to further spread of the virus. In turn, it will bring the capacity of our health system to the maximum threshold or to its red line. If we reach such a situation, then it will be difficult for the health workers to cope up with the pandemic. If that happens, we might face a situation very much similar to what we see in India today.
In my opinion, we still can avoid such a situation. We stall can nullify the probability of such a worse scenario. But, for that, we need to impose some kind of self-discipline during these pandemic days. Self-discipline is the ability to control ourselves and to behave in a particular way most suited to the situation. Some people use the terms self-control and self-discipline interchangeably, and self-control also means the ability to control ourselves, in particular our emotions and desires, especially in difficult situations. Undoubtedly, in order to control yourself, you should have some courage and strength. What we should understand is that strict adherence to health guidelines is required for our own good. The strict adherence to travel restrictions is required for our own good. Some kind of self-discipline is required for our own good. By doing all these, we will contribute our own share in controlling the further spread of the virus.
However, it has to be noted that the majority of the people have supported the health workers and authorities in their mission in controlling the pandemic. It is the irresponsible behavior of few people which raises concerns. As stated above, it is really unfortunate that these few people still do not understand or do not accept the gravity of the current pandemic. It is really unfortunate that some people misuse the relaxation of travel restrictions; some people try to have fun during the relaxation of travel restrictions. That is why we need to impose some kind of self-discipline during these pandemic days. We should have some courage and strength to behave responsibly and ethically during these pandemic days. We all should wholeheartedly support health workers and authorities in their mission in controlling the pandemic.