After Corona and Curfew: A soft landing, ‘herd immunity’ and an Easter memorial
Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake is a cultural anthropologist with research expertise in international political economy, peace, and development studies in South and South East Asia. Opinions expressed by guest writers do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of the publication.
Them belly full but we hungry
A hungry mob is an angry mob
A rain a-fall but the dirt, it tough
A pot a-cook but the food no ‘nough
–Bob Marley and the Wailers
The Government of Sri Lanka has yet to respond effectively, rationally, and in a manner that balances the physical and mental well-being of citizens, their livelihoods, and the economy, as well as, democratic rights such as to information, with available in-country data on Covid 19.
An indefinite and economically crippling curfew, now in its 8th day, has been imposed on the entire country and citizenry, indiscriminately, with little information provided and less logic, if the data and numbers of Covid 19 cases in the island nation are an indication.
In a country of 22 million, there have been 109 cases with many recoveries and NO deaths – so far – due to the superb efforts of frontline health workers. Many of the Covid 19 cases in Sri Lanka were tourists and those returned from abroad. Yet unlike in badly Covid 19 hit UK or the US where despite the crisis, food and grocery stores were open and people encouraged and able to go out for daily exercise, Sri Lankan citizens are under continuous curfew.
The softer notion of “social distance” is less used. Those who venture out for food or exercise – which may also boost their immune systems to withstand the virus- risk arrest and/ or their vehicles being confiscated in Sri Lanka. Super markets and corner shops where people may buy food have been shut indefinitely, with many unsure where their next meal may come from. Only the State Pharmacies, Osu Salas, are open at this time, although transmission of the Covid 19 virus appears relatively low and the illness appears to mutate to relatively mild in hot and humid Sri Lanka, similar to data from other tropical regions of the world. Those who may have colds and coughs meanwhile fear stigma
While, information is scarce in Sri Lanka as the press and media are not considered essential services unlike in India, state and private television channels regularly run interviews with military and police officers or the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA). The latter keep warning that only a total shut down of the country could prevent the spread of the infection. The GMOA ‘experts’ speak of the need to obey the indefinite lock-down and some claim that 500 people may be infected to justify prolonged and indefinite curfews.
Economic Impact of Indefinite Curfew
The economy and citizens’ livelihoods are hurting on all sides at this time, as in many other parts of the world. Country-wide curfew in Sri Lanka has shut down both economic production and consumption. The Cinnamon Grand Hotel, one of Colombo’s oldest five star hotels which survived last year’s Easter Sunday suicide attacks is now shuttered after decades – a result of the blow dealt by the lockdowns. Workers, young and old, are out of work and wages, without funds to purchase food and other essentials. Many free trade zone workers who are young and hence less vulnerable to the virus which mainly targets the elderly population, have nevertheless lost their livelihoods and are being ‘assisted’ to migrate back to their villages by the Sri Lanka Army and their employers.
While the government claims that food is available and being delivered to homes at reduced prices, calls for food provision deliveries are unanswered. Simultaneously, daily wage, service and gig economy workers and those in small and medium enterprise (SMEs), are out of jobs and income because of the curfew. They lack the cash to buy food and other essentials – even if available.
Meanwhile, jobless and wage-less “curfew violators” who go out looking for food are deemed anti-national and selfish, and threatened with arrest despite the fact that more people die due to normal flu, dengue, poverty and malnutrition related illness in the country. On Friday March 27, 1,1670 curfew violators were arrested within 24 hours bringing the total to 5185 after the regime arbitrarily revoked a brief lifting of 4 days long non-stop curfew, according to Ada Derana SMS messages. What about the right to food?
In the absence of tourists and local clientele several luxury hotels have been offered as makeshift hospitals if needed. However, plans are on-going to convert buildings occupied by the Voice of America (VOA) station into a Covid 19 hospital, despite the fact that there have been few new Covid cases, and full recoveries, and there are plenty of hospital beds and if needed five-star makeshift space available. Sri Lanka has designated 18 hospitals to accept COVID-19 patients, but most of the confirmed patients are treated at the main infectious disease hospital in Colombo.
The democratic rights or the people, such as the, right to information has been likewise stifled with doctored messages. While the qualifications of the Minister of Health for the job are not obvious at this time, one GMOA expert praised her for willingness to listen to the GMOA and boasted on television about Sri Lanka’s brilliant Covid 19 response while speaking with schadenfreude about the numbers of dead and struggle of healthcare workers in hard hit Italy and Spain.
An exit strategy from Curfew: Herd Immunity
The country needs an exit strategy from endless curfew, especially as there is increased evidence that the virus mutates to mild in hot and humid climates as in Sri Lanka and may tropical parts of Africa and Asia. Endless curfews and confining people in doors for extended periods of time impact on physical fitness and mental well-being. There has been an increase in reported cases of domestic violence due to the stress of being confined at this time.
Dr. Michael O. Favorov immunologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, USA, has stated clearly that lock downs delay but cannot prevent spread of Corona 19. The long term solution is either for immunization by vaccine or for the flu to run its course through 50-60 percent of the population, enabling development of anti-bodies to the virus and what is termed ‘herd immunity’.
Given that there is no vaccine for Covid 19 at this time anywhere in the world and nor envisaged for a while and treatment is symptomatic, ‘herd immunity’ has been the long term strategy of countries like the United Kingdom (UK), where even the Prime Minister and Prince Charles have got symptoms, indicating likelihood that many more have got the Covid 19 and been either asymptomatic or very mild.
Researchers at the University of Melbourne, who have mapped the immune responses from one of country’s first coronavirus patients, the bulk of those infected experience only mild symptoms, it is severe or critical in 6% of patients. The virus mortality rate is about 3.4%, the WHO has estimated. While monitoring the situation for new cases the end point would be working to develop herd immunity while self-isolation for those with underlying health issues and the elderly is needed.
Herd immunity means that once 60-70 per cent of the population have got the COVID 19 flu and develop the anti-bodies, the rest of the population and vulnerable people like elders who have been protected would be safe from getting the virus and this particular flu epidemic would be over in Sri Lanka. It is known that the virus does poorly in warm climates. Indeed, it may be better to get the mild stand of the COVID 19 in this hot season in Sri Lanka and acquire herd immunity and for South Asian populations to develop anti-bodies at this time, rather than later when the temperature drops in the monsoon season when rains also bring other diseases like Dengue.
Being a Middle Income Country (MIC), with significant tax payer funds invested in the education and health systems, Sri Lanka has one of the best health care systems in the South Asian region, with many outstanding doctors and health professionals. There are even are robots to assist at the infectious disease hospital (IDH). The health system may be tested but able to meet the COVID 19 virus challenge without causing further economic and social stress if and when the inevitable second wave of infection comes.
Having successfully limited the first wave spread of Covid 19 in Sri Lanka, a calibrated policy response taking into account the economic stress that the population faces at this time seems called for by the Colombo regime, the Health Minister, and related advisors, Formulating targeted policy focused at protecting the vulnerable while healthy people carry on with every-day life and work, based on analysis of the Sri Lanka county context, data and environmental and climate conditions, rather than following the global media narrative and WHO recommendations that takes the global north as a baseline even though Sri Lanka is not a northern hemisphere country and not as vulnerable as wintering Europe or China would be needed at this time. Risk factors also vary by person and country, age, gender and certainly ethnicity, whether one is a smoker or not. Certainly climate zone and temperature matters significantly as to which persons and populations are at risk.
Sri Lanka responding even more harshly at this time than the US or Eurozone global north which is badly affected by the Covid 19 outbreak and still in the cold, winter and flu season, with lockdowns and incessant curfews is unwarranted. Lockdowns impact livelihoods with a knock on effect on family food security, poverty, malnutrition etc.
What seems needed is data and evidence-based analysis and measured and balanced and calibrate response in Sri Lanka, taking into account regional and environmental factors at play in the spread of COVID-19, and the strength of the country’ health system and professional rather than county-wide lockdowns that self-destruct national and regional economies.
Ironically, the swift and over-reactive curfews imposed by the Sri Lankan state to Covid 19 in the country, which initially earned the Colombo regime applause from citizens and the World Health Organization (WHO), by blocking controlled spread of the virus to enable herd immunity in the population during this warm season, may impede an early recovery of the country from the global Covid 19 panicdemic.
Biological warfare and Easter Sunday
In the midst of the global Covid 19 panic curfews are being planned up to Easter, which falls April 12, 2020. Easter is a special day, also for American President Donald Trump who plans to open up the US economy on that day. Would the Covid 19 pandemic erase from memory the trauma of last year’s Easter Sunday carnage in Sri Lanka when 250 people died and many more were injured in mysterious suicide attacks on people and economy? Those attacks were mysteriously claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Under the Covid 19 lock down would the Catholic Bishop who keeps talking about foreign hands that profit from weapons sales after staging violent events to trigger religious and ethnic conflicts and the need for inquiry into the Easter Sunday Carnage last year be distracted and muffled with the lack of information –amidst curfew?
Will the Corvid 19 panic deflect the search for answers and accountability for last Easter’s crime in Colombo? Bill Gates in a TED Talk, has noted that while the world was focused on conventional weapons and nuclear war, “today the greatest risk of global catastrophe is Bio-War or Bio-Terrorism in the form of virus.. a highly infectious virus rather than a war, not missiles, but microbes. We have invested a huge amount in nuclear deterrents and invested little in a system to stop epidemic”. At the same time, the current panicdemic has exposed how ill prepared countries are to deal with bio war viruses that may also benefit pharmaceutical corporations and drug companies that invent vaccines, both, disease and the cure. Big pharmaceutical corporations also fund and work with the WHO and national medical organizations like the GMOA, as well as, and patient support groups to sell their products particularly vaccines, while benefiting from delays in onset of herd immunity.’
The President of Sri Lanka has meanwhile quietly extended for another 6 months the Commission of Inquiry into the Easter Sunday carnage in Sri Lanka, while high profile cases and corruption trials of politicians and cronies, like the general elections where the people may speak out stand postponed due to the Covid 19 crisis and in Sri Lanka may show up a lack of capacity, as well as, an impotence among the political class and civil society leaders to address high level corruption and formulate evidence-based policy with available national data, expertise and analysis of facts– also to steer the country to a soft landing amidst a global panicdemic.