Sri Lanka, Vietnam in Coronavirus battle of wits to bust the Covid-19 bug

ECONOMYNEXT – As the deadly Coronavirus is sweeping the globe and claiming the thousands of lives, Sri Lanka and Vietnam are waging a battle of wits trying to stem the tide, tightening borders, chasing down contacts, quarantining arrivals in a mostly invisible battle.

Growth in confirmed cases in both countries has been in single digits or low double digits so far in March.

Sri Lanka on Tuesday slapped indefinite curfews in the districts of Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara and declared them high risk areas. Out of 101 confirmed by late afternoon on March 24, 21 were from Colombo, 13 were from Kalutara and 10 were from Gampaha.

“We have found a relatively higher number cases from these three districts, and should pay close attention to this area,” the head of Sri Lanka’s health service, Anil Jasinghe told reporters on March 24.

“We need the full co-operation of the public for this program by the government. The most valuable step we can take is to maintain social distance. That is why we have imposed curfews.

“Even if we lift the curfew it is the duty of the people to maintain social distance.”

Most of the confirmed cases are still returnees from abroad.

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The declaration of high risk areas came a day after Sri Lanka’s first Wave II patient, a tour guide linked to a tourist group from Italy, made a full recovery.

“It is great relief for us and also a reason to be happy,” Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi said.

“Our health service is strong. The health service and the military is working together to save the county under the guidance of the President.”

But Sri Lanka has only about 600 intensive care beds to treat the worst cases and the country is on an all out offensive to stop the spread of the disease and prevent the health service from being swamped in the country with a population of 20 million.

Vietnam, with over 90 million has been managing with surgical lockdowns in specific areas, compensating the less affluent with 02 dollars a day and providing them with food.

Vietnam’s factories are operating, schools are closed and people have been asked to avoid un-necessary travel.

But the leadership on March 24 warned the public to get ready for a change in lifestyle. Bars, massage parlours and gyms were ordered to be closed and people were asked to remain indoors as far as possible with a jump in suspected cases.

“In the next two weeks, we have to keep the number of people under 1,000, preferably at 500,” Ho Chi Minh City Party Secretary Nguyen Thien Nhan, a former Deputy Prime Minister, technocrat and policy czar was quoted as saying in March 24 on Kinhtedothi, a government newspaper.

“If we go up to more than 1,000 cases we are at high risk like Italy, Spain, Germany. Ho Chi Minh City needs to discuss early asking people not to go to the market every day, instead go every two to three days. Clothes, shoes do not buy in two weeks.”

As of March 23, Sri Lanka had confirmed 102 Coronavirus infections with one Wave I case. Over 200 suspected cases are in hospital.

Vietnam had confirmed 123, mostly foreigners who had recently arrived from abroad including 16 wave II cases. Over 1,500 are under observation.

Vietnam had also tested over 24,000 persons and excluded over 7,900. Vietnam is producing its own two hour test kit for screening. Vietnam has over 1,500 suspected cases in hospital. Testing had been ramped up to around 5000 a day.

Sri Lanka however is asking anyone with cough and fever similar to Coronavirus to call hotlines and get admitted, especially if they have been abroad or met anyone else who has.

Over 200 such persons are in designated hospitals across the country.

Sri Lanka released the first Second Wave Coronavirus patient after a full recovery on March 23.

At the frontlines of the battle of both countries are nurses, doctors, public health inspectors, the military, local headmen, airport workers and the staff of Vietnam Airlines and Sri Lankan Airlines who fly out to maintain a tenuous link with the rest of the world as carriers and airports close elsewhere.

If nothing is done or authorities fail to bottle the bug, a viral epidemic stops on its own after about 60 percent of the population is infected and recover, a phenomenon known as ‘herd immunity’, similar to what happened in Hubei, China.

Herd immunity is similar to vaccination.

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First Wave

Sri Lanka confirmed one First Wave patient, a woman tourist from Wuhan on January 27, where the SARS-Cov-2 virus, which is believed to be loose in the jungles of China, was transmitted to humans.

Sri Lanka then put returning resident Chinese on home quarantine and stopped the rest from coming. Visas were also tightened for tourists.

Sri Lanka’s First Wave patient made a full recovery.

Vietnam identified and treated 16 persons in the First Wave, including visitors from Wuhan.

They have all recovered including an overseas Vietnamese. Treatment is free of charge.

Wave I began when two patients were identified in Ho Chi Minh City, on January 23, 2020 – 66 year old Chinese man who came from Wuhan to visit his son who was resident in Ho Chi Minh City, infecting him.

Doctor’s at Vietnam’s Chợ Rẫy hospital in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) the Southern power house that drives the economy of the country eventually saved the son and also the 66 year old father who reportedly had a history of cancer and lung problems.

One week later three Vietnamese returned from Wuhan.

The town Vĩnh Phúc about 40 kilometres away from the capital Hanoi was locked down and the government paid two dollars a day for expenses, gave rations for the 10,600 residents of the village.

Italian Wave

Vietnam’s second wave started with a woman and her friend who had travelled to Milan to see a fashion show, visiting her sister in London and returned, bringing back the disease.

She was confirmed at 1100 pm and the street where she lived was surgically locked down when residents tried to go to work in the morning.

Vietnam authorities chased down everyone who came in the came in the same flight. Nine Britons who were in the business class of the flight was nabbed halfway across the country.

Britain had been following a so-called ‘herd immunity’ based on mortality and other data released by China and had delayed taking action.

Koreans were also in the second wave.

The military nuclear and chemical warfare protection division of the Vietnam military washed the streets of Hanoi as the first infections came from Britain and Italy.

Vietnam began to quarantine arrivals from selected countries and aggressively chased down contacts mobilizing local people’s committees and other officials.

City blocks, streets and apartments were surgically locked down.

“There are still a lot of difficulties and risks ahead,” Vietnam’s Toutre newspaper quoted Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam, the man who is leading the charge against the against virus as saying on March 23.

“Anti-epidemic work to be done in co-ordination and synchronizing with urgent actions to prevent community transmission.”

Vietnam initially started quarantining visitors and returnees from high risk countries and testing them.

The country has produced a test kit which gives a result in two hours.

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In the ancient city of Hoi Anh, a tourist hotspot, quarantined Europeans are telling newspaper it is a bit like Paradise, better than home.

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On Sunday Vietnam sad it is stopping foreign arrivals.

Vietnam is now struggling to clamp down on a group of Muslim pilgrims who had returned from a religious festival in Malaysia. Malaysia has reported over 1,000 cases in the second wave.

The country also kept the door open for Vietnamese returnees until said it is running out of quarantine spaces and will have to halt arrivals for the time being.

As of March 23, over 20,000 persons were in quarantine centres around the country. Another 30,000 were in quarantine, home quarantine or in surgical lockdown.

The government has said it will have to halt all arrivals as it is running out of quarantine space. A batch first Bach of 5,000 quarantined persons were released this week.

Sri Lanka also released 300 quarantined returnees.

Italian Connection

Sri Lanka’s Second Wave also had an Italian connection.

Sri Lanka identified first person from the second wave on March 06, a guide who had been in contact with travelers from Italy, who became the first person to recover on March 26.

More Sri Lankans in Italy, some who had gone there illegally, followed.

Sri Lanka began to quarantine arrivals from selected countries March 10, and halted all arrivals except Buddhist pilgrims from India on March 19. On March 22 all arrivals were halted.

Sri Lanka then began chasing down returnees and contacts, particularly from Italy and asked them to register.

Sri Lanka has tracked down put over 14,000 persons in self quarantine, the island’s military chief Shavendra Silva who is heading a task force against the spread of Coronavirus told reporters.

More than 3000 are in military run quarantine centres of which 31 are foreigners.

Sri Lanka has gone further than Vietnam in placing the entire nation under three day rolling curfews with a half day break to buy food.

Vietnam lifted all domestic taxes on masks and medical supplies in the first wave. Now social security, the equivalent of EPF had been lifted on employee salaries.

Landlords have been requested to give concessions to struggling tenants. In Korea also many landlords slashed rents and deferred payments when the crisis began.

Sri Lanka has just slashed taxes on imported masks. The president has also announced a series of measures

The similarities end there.

Unlike Vietnam Sri Lanka’s central bank has printed over 100 billion rupees in a matter of weeks, in multiple helicopter drop style injections, imitating the monetary authorities of floating rate reserve currencies despite having a soft-pegged exchange rate.

Since 2015 in particular monetary instability had worsened ad the credibility of Sri Lanka’s rupee peg had been eroded, driving out foreign investors. Investors in both rupee bonds and stocks were selling out long before the Coronavirus pandemic with the rupee falling from 131 to 182 up to 2018.

After the liquidity injections, further monetary instability has followed with the rupee falling to below 188 to the US dollar and the central bank slapped trade controls.

Sri Lanka sovereign bonds are trading 30 percent below par, compared to 1 percent or less for Vietnam, which is benefitting from US monetary loosening trough a mostly credible peg, where rates were cut recently after credit slowed and market rates eased.

The yields of long term domestic currency bonds have plunged, and many are trading steeply above par.

The State Bank of Vietnam has been holding the dong around 22000 to 23,000 Dong to the US dollar for over 10 years, using a wide policy corridor, analysts say.

But the Dong also collapsed in 2008 as the country tried to engage in ‘stimulus’ amid the Great Recession, showing that the peg is not fully credible and is vulnerable to stimulus. (Colombo/Mar25/2020)