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