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Saturday May 25th, 2024

How effective has Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 lockdown been?

ECONOMYNEXT – Since May 21, Sri Lanka has been under lockdown in all but name, with curfew-style movement restrictions imposed island wide in an effort contain surging COVID-19 cases. At the time of writing, with confirmed daily cases still well over 2,000, restrictions that were supposed to be lifted June 14 have been extended till June 21 and are widely expected to continue till the end of the month.

Though cases have seen a dip since June 03, there has also been a corresponding drop in daily PCR tests. Exactly how effective has the lockdown been in terms of slowing the spread of the virus?

Authorities maintain that, given the virus’ incubation period, laboratory delays and other logistical factors, the results won’t be apparent until some time has passed. Others, however, contend that the restrictions don’t seem to apply equally to all, with thousands still moving freely and potentially contributing to more cases – a problem aggravated by what they call a collapse in testing, particularly random testing, and contact tracing. Still others have called for continued restrictions, imperfections notwithstanding.

The lockdown was imposed in the face of a spike in cases that belonged to a so called “New Year cluster” that officially began on April 15, the day after the Sinhala & Tamil New Year holidays which saw thousands of people gather in bustling shopping districts in Colombo and elsewhere.

Case numbers continued to rise  throughout the restriction period, with 3,410 infections confirmed on June 03. Army Commander Gen Shavendra Silva, who heads Sri Lakna’s COVID-19 task force, said numbers will continue to rise until four weeks after the lockdown.

“We hope to see a decline in cases after June 11 or 12. At present, we’re seeing the results of our past behavior,” he told reporters on June 10.

Some 88,000 vehicles come into Colombo every day during the lockdown, according to police, though a vast majority of these claim to be essential services.

Related: Sri Lanka police discontinue lockdown traffic sticker; parties continue undetected

“We have to wonder if these restrictions have actually been imposed, because we still see a lot of vehicles on road and coming into Colombo,” President of the Sri Lanka Medical Association Dr Padma Gunaratne told reporters on June 15.

Despite the large number of vehicles, officials claim, no mass gatherings have been observed.

However, thousands have been arrested for violating the lockdown, or “quarantine law” as it is officially called – among them celebrities who threw birthday parties and loudly protested an alleged double standard. The Kurunegala mayor was also in hot water when no less a person than the local Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) organised a birthday event in his name – in close proximity to the police station. The ASP was transferred, though no action appears to have been taken against the mayor.

Authorities were also baffled, seemingly, to find that residents of Colombo had driven over 100 kilometres to Galle to receive the second dose of the elusive AstraZeneca vaccine that was reserved for locals. Luxury vehicles bearing Western province (WP) license plates were seen parked outside the Southern province vaccination centre, despite islandwide movement restrictions.

Related: Sri Lanka vaccine conundrum: How did Colombo residents get AstraZeneca in Galle?

All this against a backdrop of ordinary citizens being frog-marched into police buses for allegedly violating quarantine laws.

Related: Police arrest 7,316 Sri Lankans for alleged non-compliance of quarantine regulations

Private sector businesses engaged in essential services have been permitted to operate. Apparel companies, which bring in much-needed foreign exchange, continue to operate at great risk to staff and possible risk of quarantine leaks. Trade unions have demanded that garment factory workers are prioritised in Sri Lanka’s vaccine rollout the same way frontline workers in the health sector and the military are. Trade unions also complain of stigma against workers, with people fearing that returning workers could bring the disease with them. One incident in Kilonochchi in early June where villagers had compelled a group of garment factory workers to not board their factory bus was a case in point.

Programme Coordinator of Dabindu Collective Chamila Thushari told EconomyNext on June 14 that more and more positive cases are identified within Sri Lanka’s export processing zones. She claimed that the correct numbers were not been published and that workers are not allowed vacation.

“Supervision by management and health officials is very poor,” she said.

With regard to the vaccine, Thushari said most workers are under the age of 30.

“Even if a vaccine rollout is initiated, the country’s most valuable workforce will neglected,” she said.

Chairman of the Public Health Inspectors (PHI) Union Upul Rohan told the privately owned Derana network that the lockdown has indeed been useful.

The restrictions have aided PHIs and Medical Officers of Health (MOH) to detect more patients and trace contacts, said Rohana.

“Before the restrictions, there were times when we would go to get a patient’s information or trace contacts and nobody would be at home. But now we can direct close contacts to quarantine facilities and patients to treatment centres without much difficulty,” he said.

The Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) has called for continued restrictions.

What with over 2,000 cases reported a day, now is not the time to relax and act as if the danger has passed, said Dr Gunaratne.

“If we don’t make some sacrifices now to bring the situation under control, we will see a rapid increase in cases again,” she warned.

Police Spokesman Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Ajith Rohana conceded on June 15 that there has been an increase in traffic in the city.

“An analysis by intelligence officers has shown an increase in vehicles. We have focused our attention on this, and we request the public to remain indoors as much as possible,” he said.

In a letter addressed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on June 11, SLMA President Dr Gunaratne said the lockdown shows promise.

“We find that the number of new cases, though still high, have remained fairly stable. This is a major improvement compared to the time before the lockdown when the COVID incidence was rising exponentially. It will take two-three weeks for the ‘lockdown’ to have an impact on case numbers, and even longer, on deaths. This is because of the incubation period of the disease, the time it takes for the disease to progress, and for people to seek health care,” she said.

However, movement restrictions were not highly stringent. Some workplaces such as factories and some offices continued to function during the lockdown, and this too will slow the impact of the lockdown, said Gunaratne.

The SLMA chair also noted that vaccines in general have “markedly less action on transmissibility of the infection”.

Gunarante has recommended that the lockdown continue till at least June 28. She has also called for more stringent implementation of the restrictions as well as increased surveillance for COVID-19 in factories and workplaces. The SLMA’s other recommendations include increased random PCR tests in the community, better communication strategies, and a ban on tourists from countries with ongoing transmission.

Executive Director of the Institute for Health Policy (IHP) Dr Ravindra Rannan-Eliya believes the lockdown has not been as successful as it could’ve been.

“I have to say I don’t really understand the “lockdown” or whatever the government calls this. Clearly there is a lot of movement for some people, but not all,” he told EconomyNext on June 14.
Rannan-Eliya is of the view that Sri Lanka’s movement restrictions have not been very effective in containing the spread as it has failed to substantially reduce transmission.

Testing, tracing and isolation which he said are the most critical interventions in managing the crisis have collapsed, he claimed.

“The drop in testing and substantial collapse in contact tracing and isolation makes the reported case numbers an unreliable metric of actual infection trends.

“Given these issues, it’s hard to know what is happening, but I would not exclude the possibility that the lockdown has failed to result in a decline in transmission rates,” he said. (Colombo/June15/2021)

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Sri Lanka power outages from falling trees worsened by unfilled vacancies: CEB union

HEAVY WINDS: Heavy rains and gusting winds have brought down trees on many location in Sri Lanka.

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s power grid has been hit by 300,000 outages as heavy winds brought down trees, restoring supply has been delayed by unfilled vacancies of breakdown staff, a union statement said.

Despite electricity being declared an essential service, vacancies have not been filled, the CEB Engineers Union said.

“In this already challenging situation, the Acting General Manager of CEB issued a circular on May 21, 2024, abolishing several essential service positions, including the Maintenance Electrical Engineer in the Area Engineer Offices, Construction Units, and Distribution Maintenance Units,” the Union said.

“This decision, made without any scientific basis, significantly reduces our capacity to provide adequate services to the public during this emergency.

“On behalf of all the staff of CEB, we express our deep regret for the inconvenience caused to our valued customers.”

High winds had rains have brought down trees across power lines and transformers, the statement said.

In the past few day over 300,000 power outages have been reported nationwide, with some areas experiencing over 30,000 outages within an hour.

“Our limited technical staff at the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) are making extraordinary efforts to restore power as quickly as possible,” the union said.

“We deeply regret that due to the high volume of calls, there are times when we are unable to respond to all customer inquiries.

“We kindly ask consumers to support our restoration teams and to report any fallen live electrical wires or devices to the Electricity Board immediately without attempting to handle them.

The union said there were not enough workers to restore power quickly when such a large volume of breakdowns happens.

“We want to clarify that the additional groups mentioned by the minister have not yet been received by the CEB,” the union said.

“Despite the government’s designation of electricity as an essential service, neither the government, the minister in charge, nor the CEB board of directors have taken adequate steps to fill the relevant vacancies or retain current employees.

“We believe they should be held directly responsible for the delays in addressing the power outages due to the shortage of staff.”

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Melco’s Nuwa hotel to open in Sri Lanka in mid-2025

ECONOMYNEXT – A Nuwa branded hotel run by Melco Resorts and Entertainment linked to their gaming operation in Colombo will open in mid 2025, its Sri Lanka partner John Keells Holdings said.

The group’s integrated resort is being re-branded as a ‘City of Dreams’, a brand of Melco.

The resort will have a 687-room Cinnamon Life hotel and the Nuwa hotel described as “ultra-high end”.

“The 113-key exclusive hotel, situated on the top five floors of the integrated resort, will be managed by Melco under its ultra high-end luxury-standard hotel brand ‘Nuwa’, which has presence in Macau and the Philippines,” JKH told shareholders in the annual report.

“Melco’s ultra high-end luxury-standard hotel and casino, together with its global brand and footprint, will strongly complement the MICE, entertainment, shopping, dining and leisure offerings in the ‘City of Dreams Sri Lanka’ integrated resort, establishing it as a one-of-a-kind destination in South Asia and the region.”

Melco is investing 125 million dollars in fitting out its casino.

“The collaboration with Melco, including access to the technical, marketing, branding and loyalty programmes, expertise and governance structures, will be a boost for not only the integrated resort of the Group but a strong show of confidence in the tourism potential of the country,” JKH said.

The Cinnamon Life hotel has already started marketing.

Related Sri Lanka’s Cinnamon Life begins marketing, accepts bookings


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Sri Lanka to find investors by ‘competitive system’ after revoking plantations privatizations

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka will revoke the privatization of plantation companies that do not pay government dictated wages, by cancelling land leases and find new investors under a ‘competitive system’, State Minister for Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya has said.

Sri Lanka privatized the ownership of 22 plantations companies in the 1990s through long term leases after initially giving only management to private firms.

Management companies that made profits (mostly those with more rubber) were given the firms under a valuation and those that made losses (mostly ones with more tea) were sold on the stock market.

The privatized firms then made annual lease payments and paid taxes when profits were made.

In 2024 the government decreed a wage hike announced a mandated wage after President Ranil Wickremesinghe made the announcement in the presence of several politicians representing plantations workers.

The land leases of privatized plantations, which do not pay the mandated wages would be cancelled, Minister Siyambalapitiya was quoted as saying at a ceremony in Deraniyagala.

The re-expropriated plantations would be given to new investors through “special transparency”

The new ‘privatization’ will be done in a ‘competitive process’ taking into account export orientation, worker welfare, infrastructure, new technology, Minister Siyambalapitiya said.

It is not clear whether paying government-dictated wages was a clause in the privatization agreement.

Then President J R Jayewardene put constitutional guarantee against expropriation as the original nationalization of foreign and domestic owned companies were blamed for Sri Lanka becoming a backward nation after getting independence with indicators ‘only behind Japan’ according to many commentators.

However, in 2011 a series of companies were expropriation without recourse to judicial review, again delivering a blow to the country’s investment framework.

Ironically plantations that were privatized in the 1990s were in the original wave of nationalizations.

Minister Bandula Gunawardana said the cabinet approval had been given to set up a committee to examine wage and cancel the leases of plantations that were unable to pay the dictated wages.


Sri Lanka state interference in plantation wages escalates into land grab threat

From the time the firms were privatized unions and the companies had bargained through collective agreements, striking in some cases as macro-economists printed money and triggered high inflation.

Under President Gotabaya, mandating wages through gazettes began in January 2020, and the wage bargaining process was put aside.

Sri Lanka’s macro-economists advising President Rajapaksa the printed money and triggered a collapse of the rupee from 184 to 370 to the US dollar from 2020 to 2020 in the course of targeting ‘potential output’ which was taught by the International Monetary Fund.

In 2024, the current central bank governor had allowed the exchange rate to appreciate to 300 to the US dollar, amid deflationary policy, recouping some of the lost wages of plantations workers.

The plantations have not given an official increase to account for what macro-economists did to the unit of account of their wages. With salaries under ‘wages boards’ from the 2020 through gazettes, neither employees not workers have engaged in the traditional wage negotiations.

The threat to re-exproriate plantations is coming as the government is trying to privatize several state enterprises, including SriLankan Airlines.

It is not clear now the impending reversal of plantations privatization will affect the prices of bids by investors for upcoming privatizations.

The firms were privatized to stop monthly transfers from the Treasury to pay salaries under state ownership. (Colombo/May25/2024)

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