By Kusal perera
The Government this time imposed inter-provincial travel from May 11, while continuing with selective isolation of Grama Niladhari (GN) and police divisions despite pressure from Colombo middleclass to have a countrywide total lockdown. The Government also slapped heavy restrictions on individual movements, laying conditions on festivals and funerals and for people leaving home. The whole scheme finally smacks of total lockdown without curfew, but without the term “lockdown” used anytime.
This nevertheless is a reasonable decision this side of a total lockdown of the whole country. It does not completely strangle the ailing economy though without answers to revive the economy. It allows some space for social life in a COVID-19 devastated society. This alone would not control the pandemic. There is more that needs to be added to control numbers from spreading. Such a measure also allows more space for socioeconomic life too.
Sadly, the Opposition does not stand up to its mandated responsibility of being constructively critical of Government decisions and interacting with the society on those issues. Instead, it is in a self-styled political “lockdown” of their own. They do call the President a “failure”, but not on the two major tragedies, the “national economy” and “COVID-19 control” that leads the country into “comorbidity”. Some go about posting photos on social media and tweeting, trying to project themselves as “supporting people” with vaccination, quarantine and dry food parcels. They too join health authorities and the Colombo’s elite in blaming the people for the continuing COVID-19 spread, completely ignoring the urban affluent breaking all health guidelines to enjoy life partying in Colombo hotels and in festivals patronised by politically powerful. These are events the law enforcement personnel do not even want to notice. The opposition is clueless as to what politics is and about political responsibility of the Opposition.
Thus, the question, “where does Sajith and his Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) stand on COVID-19 prevention”? Do they endorse the government’s handling of this COVID-19 outbreak? Do Sajith and SJB accept restrictions and lockdowns as the answer? Do they accept the Minuwangoda Brandix COVID-19 outbreak as inevitable? To be more precise, could not the Brandix outbreak have been avoided, had the company management adhered to the decision in May 2020 of the Labour Ministry Task Force on COVID-19 Related Issues to establish Factory Health Committees (FHC) with worker representation?
Most top investors in especially the apparel sector, who presumably fund Sajith P’s SJB and other main political parties and leaders, violated the decision of the labour ministry with the labour department also going blind on it. Heavy exploitation of workers with no FHC allowed to be established by the management, the Brandix COVID-19 cluster exploded beyond control, labelled as Minuwangoda cluster.
From Brandix to the largest fish market in the country at Peliyagoda a week or so after, where thousands of unknown and unidentified customers crowd every morning, “contact tracing” is almost impossible resulted in another new fast-growing cluster that spread around.
A group of Scientists and researchers specialised in Immunology, Molecular Medicine and Allergy, conducted genomic sequencing of COVID-19 virus samples from these two main clusters supported by the Australian government and the WHO Sri Lanka. They concluded one, unlike the first outbreak that had many strains, this second wave has only a single strain of origin. Two, the Brandix and Peliyagoda clusters were related. What was not researched for or observed was the origin of the Brandix cluster.
The two clusters may be related, but from where and how did first few workers at Brandix factory get infected? What were their COVID-19 contacts? That, if investigated into would have posed the question, “was there unidentified a-symptomatic virus carriers in society after the first countrywide 06 week lockdown in 2020?” That question was discreetly avoided not only by government and health authorities, but by the Opposition too.
A post in the official website of the WHO accredited Vaccine Alliance “Gavi” says, studies have suggested “…..the fact that a subset of people continues testing positive for the virus weeks or months after developing COVID-19 symptoms, and the existence of ‘long COVID’, is prompting some immunologists to wonder if small amounts of virus could linger in safe havens, like the eyes, testes, brain or spinal cord – at least in a subset of patients.”
Thus, mere locking down for weeks alone with restrictions on social mobility and crowding is no answer, as the 02 major spikes have proved during the 06 months from October last year. Yet the Opposition SJB, the JVP and the TNA included, did not have any capacity to question the validity of this government’s Colombo-centric authoritative measures. Not even with the present “third wave” now spread to all the districts and to date have isolated and closed down 71 police and GN divisions. They fail to realise the gravity of over 2,000 positive cases reported each day and deaths that slowly increased from around 100 on 28 March last year (2020) to 600 or so on 12 April this year (2021) galloping to over 950 in just one month after Sinhala-Tamil New Year.
Just not politics
As Leader of the Opposition Sajith has failed and miserably too in providing political leadership and direction to the parliamentary opposition and to his own SJB. There is not even a minimal decent contribution by Sajith as Opposition Leader on the two major issues, economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. The two are very much inter-twined. Without answers for COVID-19 pandemic control, economic issues cannot be addressed. Shutting down society, shuts down economic activities too. This is therefore time the main Opposition should present their own political solution against what government does, as the alternative to the twin crises and also as the government in waiting. Sajith going about donating equipment to hospitals as charity is not politics. Charity cannot replace the necessity of an alternate programme for COVID-19 pandemic control and economic revival. His charity only proves the Opposition is also without answers to the twin crisis.
From all information available in accepted international forums, immediate answer is not in “locking down” the whole country and waiting for the virus spread to recede. It does not happen as one whole year with the 03 waves, each larger than the previous has proved. “Lockdowns” in a wholly corrupt free market economy serve this fixation for hospital-based curative healthcare service that expands with incurable frauds and corruption. From what is whispered loud in Colombo gossip circles there is lobbying for Oxygen and ventilator supplies to hospitals and fixing ICU facilitators. Minister Fernandopulle’s appeal for private donors, will be opening doors for all; for perhaps supplies in unwanted numbers and quantities, and in unchecked quality, all approved though, as DM on 17 May 2021 exposed deals on Litro Gas, which is not new in Sri Lanka.
Inefficiency, inadequacy, corruption at every level in the system and an approach way out of focus that allowed for heavy increase in numbers of positive cases and fatalities demand a complete shift away from the “curative healthcare” fixation the experts and professionals are glued to. A shift to “preventive healthcare” at community level is needed. A shift from “servicing increasing numbers” to working towards “reducing numbers” in society.
“Preventive healthcare” at community level, if adopted 06 months ago, we would not have seen this massive spike as a third wave during the past month.
Shift to “preventive healthcare service” at community level does not require heavy investments and therefore has minimal waste and corruption. But that network is necessary for quick “tracing” of all “contacts” and testing them for COVID-19 virus to keep spreading tightly under control. That only needs PCR testing kits to match numbers and a very efficient community healthcare network. Within restricted provinces and isolated villages this is possible if all 371 MOH offices can be turned into “Local COVID-19 Task Force Offices” with trained and experienced community healthcare field staff (PHIs and Family Health Officers) provided additional support by the Grama Niladhari (GN) personnel. Every MOH area establishing their own quarantine centres with medical practitioners in the area volunteering for few hours each day, to assist the MOH, who is a qualified medical doctor.
We will not succeed in getting out of the economic crisis with these travel restrictions and selective lockdowns for local citizens only, while caught in a massive debt this free market economy could not service even before COVID-19 strangled the global economy. We will have to change course without doubt, that reminds me of a Facebook post that was shared by many a few days ago. Translated to English it reads as “Answer is not in changing tuition masters, because the mess is in the syllabus. We have to instead change the syllabus.”