Health minister says Sri Lankans not taking COVID-19 seriously enough

ECONOMYNEXT – The Sri Lankan people don’t appear to be taking the COVID-19 public health crisis seriously enough, Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarchchi said.

“We urge the people to act responsibly,” she told reporters this afternoon, calling for public cooperation in restricting movement in the country as public health officials struggle to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak.

With confirmed COVID-19 cases now totalling 60, Sri Lanka is still hesitant to go for a nationwide lockdown, opting instead to restrict movement through banning certain public gatherings and experimenting with a two-week “work from home” regime.

Wanniarchchi said a full lockdown would adversely affect the economy and “bring everything to a halt.”

“[With the work-from-home experiment] we’re trying to prevent large crowds of people from congregating in places like trains, cities, etc. Unless and until a lockdown is absolutely necessary, we will try to restrict movement as much as possible,” she said.

The health minister made an open appeal to apparel businesses to shut down retail stores where she claimed long lines of consumers have been observed.

“The president is trying to minimise the spread without going for a total lockdown. His chosen method is to rely on the army, and the army has decided to coordinate with the intelligence agencies that help public health officials track down close contacts of confirmed patients,” said Wanniarachchi.

“This is our first step toward containing this. We ask the people to cooperate with us. Everyone has a role to play and act responsibly. Please play your part,” she added.

Earlier today, the government declared a six-day period of working from home for both public and private sectors from March 20 to 27.

Asked if the public sector was sufficiently equipped to put this into practice, Director General of Government Information Nalaka Kaluwewa said it is “an experiment of sorts”, with a view to also implementing such practices in the future under ordinary circumstances. He expressed confidence that existing resources can be utilised while experimenting with a work-from-home practice at some levels of the public service.

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“We’re not saying all problems will disappear, but we’re trying to use a minimum number of staff and maintain services while working from home,” said Kaluwewa.

Meanwhile, some events such as weddings are permitted to go on under certain conditions.

Army Commander Lt Gen Shavendra Silva said if it is difficult to postpone a wedding, it can still be held with a limited number of essential participants. Some hotels, he said, have informed the government that if a wedding is postponed, any payments can be reimbursed under the circumstances.

Deputy Inspector General of Police Ajith Rohana concurred.

“Weddings can be held with the advice of the local Public Health Inspector (PHI) with the participation of the couple, registrar, witnesses, one bridesmaid and best man each and the parents,” he said.

However, strict action will be taken against local police officers who allow mass public gatherings to be held. DIG Rohana said he instructed police personnel to visit places of worship and instruct religious leaders to stop holding mass religious events.

“I saw one video of a bicycle race. We will take legal action against local police officers who let these events go ahead,” he said. (Colombo/Mar19/2020)

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