ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka health authorities have expressed alarm at what they say is reckless behaviour on the part of the public when the threat of COVID-19 has not yet subsided, with a top health official calling for continued restrictions despite a drop in cases.
Health Services Director General Dr Asela Gunawardena told reporters on Monday (18) that some restrictions should continue till the end of the year to prevent a fourth wave of the epidemic.
An inter-provincial travel ban is still in place, and Gunawardena and other health officials have pleaded with the public to postpone any long-distance travel plans.
Though a presidential directive was made last week to strictly enforce the restriction on crossing provinces, social media is replete with accounts of people – many of whom appear to be of some means – travelling the country with apparent gay abandon. Some even dare to post pictures of their escapades.
“We saw the same thing happened in April this year when restrictions were relaxed as case numbers dropped. A sudden spike was seen as more people began to travel,” said Gunawardena.
“Do not go to crowded places. Wear a mask and follow health guidelines and behave responsibly,” he said, adding that restrictions should continue till at least the end of the year.
Critics have argued that Sri Lanka’s quarantine law has been unequal in its application, while others have said there is a double standard in allowing vaccinated tourists to travel freely within the island while denying vaccinated law-abiding citizens the same opportunity.
Still others maintain that it is unfair on the part of the authorities to heap blame on the pandemic-fatigued public when the government failed to contain the third wave of COVID-19 by imposing tighter restrictions at its onset in mid April, around the time of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year holidays.
COVID-19 has claimed 13,507 lives since the virus was first detected in the island in March 2020. A fourth wave could prove disastrous in terms of public health even accounting for progress in vaccination, while further lockdown measures could spell doom for the already ailing economy.
The third wave saw daily cases soar as a result of the deadly Delta variant of the novel coronavirus which was first detected in June. The government ignored repeated calls from epidemiology experts for a lockdown, until it was forced to heed their advice on August 20 amid a rising a death toll.
The six-week lockdown ended on October 1 as cases began to drop significantly, though the travel ban between provinces has persisted, albeit on paper to some.
To the authorities’ credit, however, vaccination against COVID-19 has been largely successful, though it has led to a new concern. The Public Health Inspectors (PHI) union said on Monday that the virus is in danger of spreading again as most vaccinated people who get infected don’t show symptoms.
Noting an increase in asymptomatic cases, PHI union chief Upul Rohana urged health authorities to increase random PCR and rapid antigen tests to identify patients.
“We have to do these tests island-wide to get a picture of the real situation in the country and put a stop to the spread,” he said.
Meanwhile Deputy Director General of Health Services Dr Hemantha Herath said if Sri Lanka goes back to the way things were, the country will lose the grip it now has on the virus. He, too, blamed the “irresponsible behaviour” of the public.
“Media reports showed how some people acted over the last weekend with the restrictions being relaxed. We are very sad to see such behaviour,” Herath told reporters on Monday (18).
“The number of patients has not gone down to a satisfactory level. We are still in danger. Behaving irresponsibly in such a situation means the country can go back to the state it was in the recent past,” he said, calling for self-imposed restrictions in order to maintain control of the epidemic.
“Don’t be the one to take the country back to the state it was [when cases and death toll were spiking]. Don’t think ‘because others are going, I will go also’,” said Herath.
When asked about travel destinations being opened for the general public, Herath said it is not practical for health officials to oversee resections while controlling the epidemic.
“There are authorised institutes for that who have been given the power to stop it,” he said.
In the past 24 hours 570 patients were identified bringing the total number of patients in the country to 532,218. At the time of writing, 25,736 are still receiving treatment. Twelve deaths were reported on Monday.
According to Police Spokesman Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Nihal Thalduwa, 1,523 people and 899 vehicles that tried to cross provincial boarders since October 01 have been turned away.
“Eleven vehicles and 53 people were arrested yesterday for violating the quarantine law,” Thalduwa told reporters on Monday (18).
Meanwhile, Chief Epidemiologist Dr Samitha Ginige said with number of daily cases going down, the number of deaths have started reduce in the past few days as well.
“This is a clear indication that when the spreading is controlled, the number of fatalities also decreases. There is a direct link there,” Ginige told reporters on Monday (18).
With the vaccine rollout successfully under way, he said, it is important that the general public follows the health guidelines along with it.
Health officials have vaccinated nearly 100 percent of the population over the age of 20 with the first dose of the five vaccines while 87 percent have received both doses, he said.
“Of the total population, the first dose is given to 67.4 percent while 58.3 percent has been fully vaccinated. That is a great number. If it continues, we can get it to around 65 percent in the next two weeks.”
Ginige said, of the 18-19 year age category, vaccination is continuing successfully in the Colombo region and so far around 10,000 have been vaccinated.
“From October 21, the programme will commence island wide in every Medical Officers of Health area. We are trying to have vaccination centres in the school itself so it will be easy for students.”
“But there can be changes due to practical issues that may arise,” he added.
If there are students in the age 18-19 category who go to a school in different provinces, away from their residences, said Ginige, the vaccine can be obtained from the Medical Officer of Health office in the area every Saturday starting from October 23. (Colombo/Oct19/2021)