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Sri Lanka: How to Tackle the Second Wave?

Claims and counterclaims are flying around aplenty. 

by Manik de Silva 

The Covid-19 situation has dealt Sri Lanka and all its people a deadly blow on their collective solar plexus. But none of us can place our hands on our chest and swear “not guilty” to the charge of not doing everything we should have in the situation we were placed in. For the past several weeks we have been warned by those who know best that we have been allowing our guard to slip. It has been repeated almost ad nauseam that far too many of us have been acting as though things had normalized; and this was absolutely dangerous. Many people sign off their emails with a ‘stay safe’ exhortation. But how many of them practice what they preach? Human nature is such that the easy way is what the vast majority chooses, however tight the circumstances. Now the deadly virus has caught the feared second wind and the country is faced with many hard options.

The safest thing to do would be to lock down, the way we did or was forced to do, the first time round. But at what cost? Tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of our people are daily wage earners eking out what is barely sufficient for the day. While a lock down can slow, though not entirely arrest, a community spread, it is not an ironclad guarantee that everything would be tickety boo very quickly. In the meantime an economy that is already in very bad shape sinks deeper in the mire. Added to that is the human misery that it heaps on the poorest of the poor. There was a pre-election handout (if we may call it that) of Rs. 5,000 per needy family. A second similar installment was promised but many people complained that they didn’t get it. A third installment was also supposed to be on the way but that did not materialize.

 How badly the Samurdhi poor relief scheme is targeted is common knowledge; large numbers in dire distress do not get it while many of those not qualifying do. There was a newspaper report in the early days of the scheme that an MPs parents were Samurdhi recipients. We do not know whether the son did not look after his elderly parents or whether he facilitated the Samurdhi benefit paid to them. However that be, there is no escaping the reality that even a basic poor relief scheme has been massively politicized in this country of ours. There were reports that the lock down relief granted, with an election down the road, was seized by politicians to gather votes for themselves. It was alleged that application forms for the assistance were sometimes distributed in the homes of Pradeshiya Sabha members. The intervention of the Elections Commission was demanded. Nobody would have been surprised at what happened; the cause for surprise would have been if it did not happen!

 President Gotabaya Rajapksa is on public record saying he gets thousands of text messages urging him to bring back Lankans working overseas. Doing that in an unregulated manner will be asking for trouble and the president, with the best will in the world, cannot do that. While all of us can well understand the anguish of our countrymen, who have long supported national coffers with their remittances, stranded in sometimes high risk places undergoing great hardship, there is little that can be done to help them at present. There have been some repatriation flights but not nearly enough. There was talk of reopening the Katunayake International Airport, even in a limited manner, when the Brandix cluster hit us. Obviously tourism on which this country is greatly dependent cannot regain a semblance of normality with Katunayake closed. Even if it was open, given the global reach of the pandemic, there would have been few takers for holidays in this “land like no other.”

Claims and counterclaims are flying around aplenty. Organizations like the GMOA that strongly supported the election of the incumbents say that we had not even utilized the existing 3,000 tests per day capability and were doing only a thousand when the latest blow struck. Then 5,000 tests a day was claimed and the obvious question arises of how it is possible to exceed available testing capacity. Dr. Anil Jasinghe, who held the position of Director General of Health Services when the Covid blow struck, and was one of the most visible front line fighters of the pandemic, was moved out of that job and made Secretary to the Ministry of Environment. It was cynically asked whether this doctor, who held high WHO office in his previous avatar, was expected to fight Covid in the environment. Jasinghe was replaced by a Major General of the Sri Lanka Army Medical Corps.

Now we are told of some strange shenanigans at the Medical Research Institute (MRI) whose acting director has been made deputy director and the deputy director made director, whether acting or not we don’t know. What we do know is that the long-established MRI built by a philanthropist to commemorate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, has for over a century been engaged in doing highly reputed research work in fields like virology, bacteriology, parasitology and much more. It would obviously a fortress for the army of front liners battling the pandemic. A bhikku who was one of the strongest supporters of the ruling SLPP made some scathing remarks about the changing of the guard at the MRI a couple of days back. Health Minister Pavitra Wanniarachchi offered an explanation of sorts in parliament the other day but it is yet unclear whether she has satisfied Ven. Muruttetuwe Ananda whose temple at Narahenpita was a virtual headquarters of the SLPP not so long ago.

What is crystal clear is that the country is confronted with a frightening challenge while its leaders are obsessed with enacting a 20th Amendment to our periodical-like constitution that was not part of the promised “Vistas of Splendor and Prosperity.”

The writer is the chief editor of Sunday Island, a Colombo based daily, where this piece first appeared. 

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