Facing the COVID19 threat: It is up to you

PROTECTION: A rider wearing a mask waits at a motorcycle park in Colombo.

We now have a Sri Lankan infected with the COVID19 virus in Sri Lanka and that should compel the country to come together and prevent this disease from becoming a forest fire that will engulf us.

The news that one of our own contracted the disease at home coincided with the World Health Organisation declaring this a global pandemic, the first to be caused by a coronavirus.

In Geneva last night the WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, made the announcement.

“Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death.”

He said that the world body had come to this conclusion after “assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction.”

Sri Lankans have been complacent until now. The young Chinese woman tourist who turned up in the country with COVID19 was treated in a government hospital, the IDH, and made a complete recovery to the extent that the Minister of Health Pavithra Wanniarachchi could give her a kiss.

We believed tourism promoters, who for some reason, said that the coronavirus would not spread here and actually advertised that as a fact and tried some slick promotional material around it.

But the mood at the press conference given by Wanniarachchi and the Director-General of Health Services Dr Anil Jasinghe on Wednesday was suitably sombre with the Minister calling on all Sri Lankans to come together at this hour.

A broad public relations program to inform the country without causing unnecessary panic is needed.

The reaction of Sri Lankans returning from South Korea at the Bandaranaike airport when they were hustled off to quarantine in the East was understandable. Were they and their loved ones at home told that this would happen on arrival?

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By now have all in-bound travellers to Sri Lanka from the three “quarantined countries” Italy, South Korea and Iran been told that when you come here your first two weeks will be in quarantine?

This could be divisive as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna pounced on the fact that Sri Lankans returning from South Korea were in quarantine while Chinese nationals who entered the country were roaming free.

Jasinghe countered that by describing the surveillance and tracking that his staff is doing on the estimated 4,443 Chinese nationals.

This also could not have come at a worse time. Today is when nominations open for the Parliamentary General elections to be held on April 25. It is also a time many had planned family outings as the school holidays are near.

The “Big Matches,” annual cricketing encounters between major boys’ schools, are on and large gatherings lubricated by alcohol and spiced by school-boyish naughtiness are the norm.

Jasinghe pleaded with Sri Lankans yesterday saying “if you have planned excursions in a group to travel around the country, please don’t do it.”

He is right. Where crowds gather, where there are lots of people in close proximity is where a coronavirus, spread by globules of liquid sneezed out, can spread quickly.

What of the political campaign, which relies on large rallies, thousands of sweaty people squeezed together as politicians berate their opponents on stage? Will we to abandon that as well? No more kissing babies on this campaign folks.

Postponing the elections over coronavirus is already a decision that is being floated with the ex-UNP MP Harin Fernando accusing the government of “conspiring” to put off the poll.

But should we go into a total panic?

The WHO’s DG Ghebreyesus says perhaps not. While calling this a pandemic he said “we have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled, at the same time.”

He quoted some heartening numbers. “Of the 118,000 cases reported globally in 114 countries, more than 90 per cent of cases are in just four countries, and two of those – China and the Republic of Korea – have significantly declining epidemics” the WHO chief reported.

He added that 81 countries have not reported any cases, and 57 countries have reported 10 cases or less.

“We cannot say this loudly enough, or clearly enough, or often enough: all countries can still change the course of this pandemic,” he said.

Jasinghe was cautious about this level of optimism. “If the disease spreads here a country like Sri Lanka will find it very difficult to control it,” he warned.

Very true. China and South Korea are relatively wealthier states than ours. But most importantly they are disciplined, very much more organised and more law-abiding than us.

But will, we Sri Lankans, who are governed by law-breakers and see no point in standing in queues or driving along a designated lane cancel our annual trips, stop family gatherings to mark our parents’ death anniversaries and the many other things we as a society engage in.

Ghebreyesus praised the countries that have controlled the spread of the bug but pointed out that others have different issues.

He said:  “Some countries are struggling with a lack of capacity. Some countries are struggling with a lack of resources. Some countries are struggling with a lack of resolve.”

We in Sri Lanka, as Jasinghe said, have capacity and resource issues, but we can resolve to be resolute and do what is right.

Ghebreyesus also said what is right: “All countries must strike a fine balance between protecting health, minimizing economic and social disruption, and respecting human rights.”

Now we’re in this together, so let’s learn from the past.

Remember the tsunami, when we cast aside our ethnic and communal differences and rose together to help each other? Remember we crossed the frontlines and stopped the war, for a bit at least.

Then the cash flowed in from outside, the politicians stole the money and swiftly went back to war to serve their own purposes.

Here is another chance. But don’t rely on others to do it for you. Take your own precautions so that you keep yourself and your neighbor safe.

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