Health workers conducted Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests for COVID-19 at Manning Market in the Pettah area recently.
The Government this week moved in to a decisive course of action against the Coronavirus pandemic, indicating a significant change in its stance in the battle against the deadly infection which is now threatening to undermine Sri Lanka’s success in combating the ‘first wave’ of the disease.
When the virus first hit the country earlier this year, the Government chose a strategy of ‘lockdown’ to combat the pandemic. As a result, even the Sinhala and Tamil New Year (April) and Vesak celebrations (May) were curtailed. This strategy was successful in containing the spread of the infection throughout Sri Lanka.
This strategy also saw the postponement of the General Elections, twice. With only a few deaths and a few thousand infections, Sri Lanka was hailed as a model for other nations to follow in dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic, particularly for those countries with limited health resources. Sri Lanka came in for praise from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other countries.
While being spared of a massive number of infections, this success came at a price. It had a significant adverse impact on the economy. Some sectors such as tourism, a key cog in the country’s economic wheel, have been crippled with international and domestic tourism in a state of shutdown.
Other sectors have also been adversely affected. Being a developing country, Sri Lanka has a high percentage of workers who rely on casual employment for their daily wages. With lockdowns in force for months at a time and no savings to rely on, such persons have been struggling to make ends meet. The Government had given this sector an allowance of Rs.5,000.
After the period of the initial lockdown, restrictions were eased and the country was slowly but surely returning to normality. Offices and shops were re-opened, examinations resumed and even a General Election was successfully held. That was until the ‘second wave’ of the infection hit Sri Lanka a few weeks ago.
This ‘second wave’ has proved to be deadly. At the time of writing, over 14,700 cases of Covid-19 have been identified with 41 deaths and over 400 cases being identified on the previous day alone. Colombo, Gampaha, Puttalam and Kalutara remain the districts most affected by the pandemic.
These developments have forced the Government to rethink its strategy. The current thinking is that while a lockdown may be useful in dealing with the pandemic, as it was in Sri Lanka earlier this year, it is not a strategy that can be sustained in the long term, whenever there is an outbreak of the infection.
This was revealed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa when he chaired a meeting of the Presidential Task Force for Covid-19 earlier this week. It is the Government’s policy to sustain the economy while ensuring all activities such as agriculture and fishing are continued, President Rajapaksa stressed.
“We have three options in the face of the spread of the pandemic. The first is to lock down the entire country by imposing a curfew. The second is not to do anything at all. Carrying out our normal activities while controlling the disease is the third option and we have opted for that,” the President told the Task Force.
“The country cannot remain closed until the pandemic is wiped out. We have to understand that reality and act. Infected persons are reported daily even from areas that have been closed for nearly 40 days, showing that the pandemic cannot be controlled by lockdowns alone,” President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said.
Reacting to reports on the stigma of the illness and of some persons ignoring public health advice and others attempting to evade PCR testing for the disease, the President also called for public cooperation. “People must also extend their wholehearted support in controlling the spread of the disease,” he said.
President Rajapaksa noted that daily expenditure for the Government to conduct PCR tests exceeds Rs. 60 million. “A large amount of money is spent daily on tests and on the quarantine process. It is the responsibility of the public to understand this and avoid falling prey to the disease,” the President noted.
This direction from the President came as fears heightened among health sector experts of a possible shift to community transmission. Although community transmission is yet to be reached in Sri Lanka, there was a definite possibility of this occurring as one cluster expands exponentially, experts warn.
An existing cluster in the country has reached an unexpected magnitude with over 10,500 cases, Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Sudath Samaraweera noted. “When a cluster expands, it can lead to community transmission. It can also occur when a large number of cases are reported from a large city,” he said.
“If positive cases are reported without an origin, it can be identified as a community transmission. Such community transmission takes place when cases are reported with no connection to an existing cluster. As of now, Sri Lanka has not reached a level of community spread,” Dr. Samaraweera said.
These comments came as health authorities were pooling resources to combat the so-called ‘Minuwangoda’ and ‘Peliyagoda’ clusters that are believed to be responsible for the ‘second wave’ of the pandemic in Sri Lanka. In response, PCR testing was ramped up throughout the country.
A total of 294,273 PCR tests were carried out from October 5- when first reports of the ‘second wave’ from the ‘Minuwangoda cluster emerged- to November 9. Of those, 10,620 tests confirmed the virus, which indicated that within this cluster, 3.63 per cent of those tested had yielded a positive test.
The Government was also busy addressing the cultural sensitivities related to the pandemic. This was in relation to concerns in the Muslim community over the cremation of Muslims who die following the Coronavirus infection. At present, this is the practice being adopted because of health guidelines.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has reportedly instructed health authorities to inquire in to the possibility of allocating a dry land in any part of the country to allow burials of Covid-19 victims following increasing requests by the Muslim community to halt the cremation of Muslim victims.
The silver lining that emerged this week despite the daunting challenges faced by the Government was the prospect of a vaccine against the Coronavirus being developed shortly. Several vaccines have already been produced and are in the process of being tested on a mass scale in a number of countries.
The vaccines are projected to be available early next year for widespread use. However, being a developing country, Sri Lanka will be in a tight race with other nations competing to secure adequate amounts of the vaccine to vaccinate its entire population, health and economic experts have cautioned.
These warnings came after pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced that a vaccine manufactured by their company showed promising results (see article on opposite page). Data from its Coronavirus vaccine shows it is more than 90% effective, a much better than expected efficacy, the United States based drug company said.
“We are a step closer to providing people around the world with a breakthrough to help bring an end to this global health crisis,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said. “We look forward to sharing additional efficacy and safety data generated from thousands of participants in the coming weeks,” he added.
The Government meanwhile was working to ensure that the country would receive adequate stocks of a vaccine when it is finally developed and cleared for use. Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi and WHO Country Representative Dr. Razia Pendse held talks on the issue this week.
It was reported that the WHO had pledged to provide 20 percent of the requirement of Covid-19 vaccines to Sri Lanka when a vaccine is developed and Sri Lankan authorities are able to appoint a technical team to identify priority groups who would be vaccinated under this priority quota.
Even if a vaccine is developed soon and is available in the international market, Sri Lanka will still face challenges in implementing a countrywide vaccination programme. This is because of the cost of the vaccine, logistical difficulties in accessing sufficient stocks and in carrying out such a programme. The Pfizer vaccine presents a major challenge to most developing countries as it has to be stored at -80 Celsius during transport and storage. Even many developed countries lack such Cold Chain capabilities.
Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Sudath Samaraweera predicted a high demand for the vaccine. “No company would be able to meet the demand promptly. At the same time, there is a possibility that another country would purchase a higher number of vaccine kits creating a dearth of the vaccine,” he said. Some developed countries have already pre-ordered the Pfizer vaccine over and above the requirements of their entire populations.
It is however clear that the threat posed by the Coronavirus pandemic is far from over. The number of cases reported daily continues to rise as does the death toll from the disease. The Government had declared it will pursue a strategy of keeping the economy moving while imposing ‘local’ lockdowns.
These developments come as the Government prepares to present its first Budget in Parliament on November 17. It will be presented by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa who is also the Minister of Finance. It will be without the usual fanfare of a budget speech due to Coronavirus restrictions.
In one week, it will also be the first anniversary marking President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory at the 2019 Presidential Election. For the President who has never engaged in politics before, it has been an eventful year with victories on the political front but challenges due to the rampaging pandemic.