A multi-pronged approach to defeat the pandemic

Last week saw a landmark event in Sri Lanka’s battle against the Coronavirus with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declaring a ten-day lockdown. It was a measure taken to beat the rampant fourth wave of the pandemic caused by the highly infectious and virulent Delta variant of the virus.

The lockdown which began last Friday is due to end on August 30, unless a decision to the contrary is arrived at. It follows several weeks where there was a steady escalation in the number of people infected daily and succumbing to the virus following the spread of the Delta variant in the country.

Tuesday’s death toll stood at 190, with the total number of deaths due to the coronavirus in Sri Lanka reaching 7,750. A total of 4,355 infections were recorded on the same day, indicating the magnitude of the challenge. Now, nearly 400, 000 persons have been infected with the virus in Sri Lanka.

The decision to impose a lockdown was first announced by the newly appointed Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella on social media. “Nationwide Lockdown in effect from 10 p.m. today (20/08) to Monday (30/08). All essential services will function as normal,” Rambukwella said on Twitter.

Delta variant

The declaration was the culmination of a debate between two schools of thought. Medical experts were requesting a lockdown to limit the spread of the Delta variant in the country and other groups, particularly in the business community, argued that it would have an adverse impact on the economy.

Two major medical organisations, the Association of Medical Specialists (AMS) and the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) had lobbied strenuously for several weeks saying imposing a lockdown was necessary to reduce the cumulative numbers of deaths due to the virus over the coming months.

While noting that vaccination efforts were underway and were progressing at a reasonable pace, both the AMS and the SLMA noted that the less restrictive options that had already been enforced have not been successful in containing the spread of the virus recently, particularly the Delta variant.

Countering these requests were business professionals and economists who observed that a significant percentage of the country’s population relied on normal day-to-day activity for their living. This segment which did not rely on salaried jobs would be deprived of their wages, they argued.

It was noted that when the country was under a similar lockdown last year during the first wave of the coronavirus, the Government offered assistance to those who were deprived of their income in the form of a Rs.5,000 payment which was disbursed through Grama Niladhari divisions.

Economic impact

The Government was not in a position to disburse such payments now on an ongoing basis and sustain them for a prolonged period of time, economists say. This is because of the economic impact of the pandemic on Sri Lanka which has adversely affected some major revenue earning industries.

It was against such a backdrop that President Rajapaksa last week had to decide between a lockdown to reduce the burden of disease and keeping the country open for economic activity. Following a series of consultations with all sectors concerned, it was decided to opt for a 10-day lockdown.

President Rajapaksa thought it fit to explain his decision to the country. Shortly after the declaration of the lockdown, he did so through an Address to the Nation. In a 15-minute speech, President Rajapaksa sought to both outline the rationale for the lockdown and also to appeal to the public.

The President explained in detail the Government’s strategy, noting that vaccination was the key to emerging from the pandemic with minimal impact. He gave statistics about the Government’s efforts noting that by about September 10, a significant portion of the vaccination plan will be complete.

However, the President also noted the economic impact of the pandemic. Sri Lanka had seen its lowest economic growth of the country since Independence during the first wave of COVID-19 as a result of placing the country under a lockdown for several months last year, he recalled.

President Rajapaksa said that the apparel sector that brought in a revenue of about US$ 5 billion to Sri Lanka annually was gravely affected. Sri Lanka’s tourism industry, which generated over US$ 4.5 billion and provided a livelihood to over three million people had completely collapsed, he noted.

The President also said the Government had spent Rs. 30 billion whenever the Rs.5,000 payment was made to those whose incomes were affected by the pandemic. The Government also continues to pay the wages of 1.4 million public servants without any deductions whatsoever, he said.

“The country’s economy would be in a great crisis if the country was put under another complete lockdown. It is not a situation that this country can bear,” President Rajapaksa said. Observers noted that the President’s objective was to explain to the public the magnitude of the impact of a complete lockdown.

Health guidelines

“However, I have decided to impose a lockdown from 10 p.m. today till 4 a.m. on 30th Monday of this month in order to contain the increase of COVID patients,” the President said. In announcing this while explaining its consequences, the President was emphasising the absolute need for health restrictions.

“This situation is not a rivalry or conflict between different ideologists, trade unions, doctors, other health officials and the Government. We have to understand the reality. This is an issue that the whole world faces. Today, all the countries are adapting to this ‘New Normal’,” the President said.

While thanking those in the health sector for serving the sick at the risk of their own lives, President Rajapaksa also appealed to others to defer their protest campaigns. “It is clear that this is not a time for strike actions and protests. Do not attempt to destabilise the country,” he urged.

The President also indicated that, if the pandemic continues unabated despite the new restrictions, challenging times will follow. “I request everyone to be prepared to make more sacrifices, if the country is to be placed under a lockdown for a longer period of time in the future,” he said.

According to the initial decision, the countrywide lockdown is due to end on Monday, August 30. However, this is a matter that will be subject to careful scrutiny by all stakeholders before a final decision is made. An analysis of the impact of the lockdown both on the pandemic and on the economy will be made.

As President Rajapaksa noted, opinion has been divided about health costs and the numbers of lives lost against the economic impact of the pandemic. Nevertheless, a balance has to be reached at some point: Neither the health costs nor the economic impact should escalate to unreasonable levels.

Death of Mangala Samaraweera

This week also saw the country lose arguably its highest profile personality to the deadly Coronavirus. Former Foreign Minister Mangala Pinsiri Samaraweera (65) passed away at a private hospital on Tuesday from complications after contracting the infection. His funeral was held on the same day in line with the prevailing health guidelines.

A colourful personality, Samaraweera began his political journey in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). He hailed from Matara where he had his roots. His father, Mahanama Samaraweera served as a Deputy Minister under Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and as a Minister under Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

Samaraweera himself served in the Cabinets of Presidents Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena holding a number of key portfolios. Initially a staunch loyalist of President Kumaratunga, Samaraweera was then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s successful Campaign Manager at the 2005 Presidential Election.

However, Samaraweera left the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government in 2007 along with former Speaker Anura Bandaranaike and Minister Sripathi Sooriyarachchi and joined the Opposition ranks. For a brief period, he formed his own political party but joined the United National Party (UNP) shortly afterwards.

Samaraweera is known to have played a key role in bringing diverse personalities such as President Kumaratunga and the UNP led by Ranil Wickremesinghe together and convincing Maithripala Sirisena to run against then President Mahinda Rajapaksa in what was another successful campaign in January 2015. This ultimately resulted in the Good Governance (Yahapalana) Government.

An avowed liberal in his political philosophy, Samaraweera yearned to change Sri Lanka’s political system and replace its archaic hierarchical value system. He did not hesitate to speak his mind and as a result made many a controversial comments but still commanded respect for being honest and astute.

Often being a kingmaker in forming governments, Samaraweera was rewarded with plum portfolios. He held the Ministries of Ports and Aviation, Media, Foreign Affairs and Finance. He has said that one of his greatest achievements in politics was enforce fiscal discipline as the Minister of Finance.

When the UNP split in 2020 with the formation of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), Samaraweera opted to join the SJB. However, after submitting nominations from the SJB, he withdrew from the contest two months before the poll stating he was retiring from politics for personal reasons.

Samaraweera’s demise removes from the political stage a controversial yet street smart politician who was able to sense the change in political fortunes of parties and leaders, switch sides accordingly and survive in the brutal world of Sri Lankan politics. As such, his loss will be felt by all political parties.

Now the earnest hope of the nation is for the Coronavirus pandemic to be brought under control so that lives can be saved and at least a semblance of normality can be restored. The coming days – which will tell whether the lockdown has been effective – will be critical for Sri Lanka in achieving this objective.

– Daily News Sri Lanka

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