Opinion: It is time to rethink how we are dealing with Covid

SOPHISTICATED SURVEILLANCE – Army Chief Lt Gen Shavendra Silva tries out an Army drone now deployed to catch curfew violaters.

ECONOMYNEXT – As the second wave of the Covid 19 pandemic continues to engulf the country, and the public is increasingly showing its frustration and panic, it is time the country rethinks its strategy to combat the spread of the disease.

Since the Minuwangoda cluster exploded on us that first weekend of October, the total number of confirmed cases has increased from 3,733 to 16,583. The number of deaths from Covid 19 too has gone up from 13 to 58 since.

The district of Colombo has recorded 5,127 of those cases since October with Gampaha coming a close second with 4,917, according to the National Operations Centre for the Prevention of Covid 19 (NOCPOC). What’s more, the numbers of newly identified positive cases are increasing by 400 and 500 daily. Yesterday, November 15, that number was 704.

The number of positive cases identified yesterday, came from 30 districts and three prisons, again with Colombo reporting the highest number.

No doubt there is fear and deep concern. A social media post that sick people were found dead of Covid 19 along roadsides across the country went viral very quickly. That story was found to be fake, with police locating the person who created it and arresting him. They are now believed to be searching for those who shared the post.

But the fake post fed into the fear spreading in the country over a seemingly uncontrollable pandemic.

Clearly, public frustration is building. Two days ago the residents of an inner-city apartment block in Henamulla in the Modera Police area in Colombo staged a noisy protest complaining that while they had to remain in isolation, the authorities had failed to provide them with their basic supplies.

Opposition Member of Parliament for Colombo Mujibur Rahman told EconomyNext that the protestors were locked in and had no way of going out to earn any money or get supplies. Eventually, he said the local authorities had arrived at the place with an LKR 5,000 handout.

Even though the government has promised to continue with the subsidies the problem seems to be becoming bigger. The government said yesterday November 15 that 12.7 million families have received the LKR 5,000 handout between March 13 and November 13.

Epicentre of infections – people at the Peliyagoda Fishmarket being tested for Covid 19

“We beat Covid”

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When this government went into the Parliamentary elections in August this year, it was under the “we beat Covid” (කොවිඩ් ජයගත් ) banner, claiming it had beaten the contagion that had brought greater and more powerful nations to their knees.

As the Parliamentary election campaign began in earnest, our leaders Trumpishly participated in various ceremonies and did walkabouts among the crowds without wearing the masks or observing social distancing that the Health authorities have mandated.

Election campaign offices of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna trumpeted the victory over Covid as another indication of effective government.

Naturally, the false impression that Covid had been eradicated from Sri Lanka meant that the public ignored the safety measures put in; many went about without masks or observing social distance and hand hygiene.

Supermarkets and other institutions which had previously zealously enforced these measures became lax.

Within months of the elections in the midst of the second wave, we are now arresting and charging people for doing what our leaders did in public during the campaign.

So, did the Health Authorities relax too? Were the tender procedures to import the Antigen test kits hurried through, because the authorities too believed Covid was past us? Is that why, they were not prepared for this second wave, which is proving to be brutal?

Muslims protest cremation/trtworld

Demonizing the victims

As usual, the victims of the virus are being put through more trauma, by demonizing them. It happened in the first wave and is happening again.

Naturally, many who suspect they may have caught the virus, want to hide the fact, making it more difficult to trace, isolate and treat them and their close contacts.

And in this, the government, first responders and both mainstream and social media have proved extremely insensitive in handling the situation.

During the first wave whenever someone tested positive for Covid, we saw Public Health Inspectors turning up at their homes to escort them to quarantine centres, oftentimes accompanied by local Television Correspondents.

The evening newscasts, particularly private stations that openly support the government, lingered on these images of families being taken away to quarantine in buses further stigmatizing the victims.

When social media took to sharing names and other personal information of those believed to have been exposed to the virus, there was hardly a crackdown on the perpetrators.

Because the public has become scared of the consequences for themselves and family members if they become Covid positive, they are hiding.

Nobody goes out and willfully contracts a contagion, Covid patients need our love and support; and the government, which proudly claimed victory over the first wave, seems to have forgotten that fact now!

Some like the Muslims fear that if they succumb to the virus, they would be denied a burial as required by the dictates of their faith.

Anecdotally we have learned that many are fearful of reporting feeling sick and some are opting to remain home and forgo treatment.

Of the 45 deaths officially reported by the Director-General of Health Services, since the onset of the Minuwangoda outbreak, 40pct – or 18 individuals – were reported to have passed away at home were dead on admission. Most were elderly, and are believed to have had underlying health issues. Yet, that is a high number.

And it is possible that they and their families suspecting that they were Covid positive decided to care for them at home, rather than pack them off to hospital with family having no access to them.

It is certainly time then, that the leadership of this country re-thinks their messaging of the COVID-19 pandemic.

ON GUARD – Troops man roadblock at the entrance to Colombo before 3-day curfew is imposed

Not a zero-sum game

The response so far from the authorities to the new outbreak has been to be more of the same as before – lockdowns and surveillance by increasingly more sophisticated methods, the latest being the use of drones to identify those who violate the curfew or isolation instructions.

Such methods, surveillance by drone and helicopter, are militaristic and authoritarian, prompting Liberal commentators such as Sanjana Hattotuwa, to label them Orwellian.

Rethinking our actions to deal with Covid must come with the realization that we can’t beat this microscopic but dreadful monster so easily.

We cannot destroy it like a human enemy, the tiny beast is going to live within us and around us for a long time and the best we can do is to manage it.

There are no winners and losers as the leaders of this country wanted the public to believe, pre-election period.

It is not a zero-sum game.

Therefore in decision-making, we need to shift gears to a managing mode, and while monitoring and creating cordon sanitaire in areas which are at risk may be necessary, more creative ways of dealing with the pandemic should be introduced.

Patients and their families must be treated in a gentler manner. They are not criminals!

The official support system must be designed to ensure children, seniors and other sick persons are not abandoned when caregivers fall prey to the virus.

Let’s leave out the politics; daily wage and low-income earners must receive their basic needs and their concerns addressed in a methodical manner.

Even though the government has received millions for the Covid fund, this time around too, it has been left to charitable groups and religious organisation and others who have come together informally to provide these people with their basic needs. And it is to friends and family that these groups appeal for financial help to continue their work.

Last, but most importantly we have to look after the “least of our brothers” the marginalized and the vulnerable.

They are the factory workers, the drug addicts, the sex-workers, street-cleaners, and single-headed households etc. that are the most vulnerable.

The Navy cluster was blamed on drug addicts in the Seeduwa area whom sailors had been assigned to capture and taken to quarantine. The Kandakadu cluster is said to have originated from drug addicts who were in rehabilitation. The first to be reported from the Brandix/Divulapitiya outbreak were women working in the high-pressure sweatshops of the Free Trade Zone, even though health authorities are yet to locate the original source.

In times of trouble we Sri Lankans seek solace in religion. And instead of blaming the public, or dropping pots of ‘blessed” water into rivers to ward off evil, we would do better to look at how our primary religious leaders acted and spoke when faced with illnesses.

“He who attends on the sick attends on me,” declared the Buddha, exhorting his disciples on the importance of ministering to the sick. In stories about the Buddha’s life, we are told of how he bathed and treated Monks who were sick with dysentery and others whose bodies were suppurating with sores.

“Whatever you do for the least of my brothers that you do unto me,” preached Jesus Christ.

Words and actions we should follow when treating our sick and frightened people, so we overcome this pandemic together.

(Colombo, November 15, 2020)

By Arjuna Ranawana

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