By Shivanthi Ranasinghe
Colombo, April 5 (newsin.asia): The only way Sri Lanka can survive the COVID-19 pandemic is by stalling its progress just long enough to enable the government to improve its capacity to disable the killer virus. But given the speed and ease with which the virus is spreading, the question that arises is: should the country double, treble or quadruple its existing capacity to deal with the threat?
It has been almost three months since the virus was identified and its genetic code was mapped. Yet, its characteristics continue to surprise us. Earlier assertions such as that it cannot survive for long in an inert surface are proving to be false. We still do not know if scientists had read the virus right or wrong or if it has evolved rapidly.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, Sri Lanka was not in a great economic shape. Ill-fitting fiscal policies, a depreciating rupee, yo-yoing financial policies that scared away investors, high taxes and mounting debts, all played their part in destroying the economy and slowing down GDP growth. Amidst this, terrorism on Easter Sunday in 2019 shattered the tourism sector – the one thing that was doing well in Sri Lanka. By end 2019, tourism was struggling, but was also getting back on its feet.
And a new President had taken Office.
Yet, things were far from been rosy. Though President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had new economic policies designed to help local industries, he was heading a minority government. The Opposition, which had the majority in parliament, would not even help pass a bill to pay for expenses incurred when the incumbent Opposition was the government.
Envoys from most powerful countries of the world came rushing to woo the new President. Even as they were promising new investments, stronger bilateral relations and new markets, export industries were struggling to keep orders flowing. The reason was simple. Raw materials were not coming from China. The new virus had already locked down China’s seventh largest city, Wuhan, and the Hubei province of which it is the capital. The virus had effectively put China’s economic activities on pause. Soon, the virus took control of other countries which were Sri Lanka’s key export markets.
Need To Outsmart Virus
Now that the COVID-19 virus is in Sri Lanka as well, this country needs to do more than capacity building to treat the viral attack. It needs to outsmart the virus. COVID-19 may be an invisible spec so tiny that it can hardly be called a living organism. Most unfortunately, its cunningness makes up for whatever it is lacking. It comes in many guises. The sign it likes to give is a dry cough, sniveling, and over a few days, a sore throat, tightening of the chest to shorten the breath, a gradual increase in body temperature, and a bad tummy, leading all the way to respiratory ailments. Failing to get treatment will lead to pneumonia and death.
But the problem is, the COVID-19 does not always allow these symptoms to show. These symptoms, even if they come, may not appear in the above stated order. Sometimes, all one experiences at first is a tummy bug or aches in the joints. Carriers may not show any symptoms.
The fourth Sri Lankan COVID-19 patient to die had contracted the virus whilst on a pilgrimage to India. He was with his wife, who was also infected. She recovered within days, while he, aged 58 and in reasonably good health, succumbed to the virus. The fifth victim was in his mid- 40s and again in reasonable good health.
The terrible thing about this virus is that it is so infectious and so mysterious, that one cannot take a chance with it. Anyone who is even suspected to have come within close quarters with an infected person will have to be quarantined. This puts the medical corps, that is the first line of defense, in an utterly difficult position.
As the country races to increase its capacity ahead of the spread, it can ill afford to have its medical staff quarantined. This includes doctors, nurses and other support staff who are not involved in treating COVID-19 patients. Anyone who has to be quarantined will be out of service for two weeks. If that person tests positive for the virus, then he or she will be out of action for at least two months.
To protect its doctors and other patients, the Lankan Administration has designated specific hospitals to treat only those who are suspected to have got infected with COVID-19. Out of the 25 districts in the country, six have been identified as “high risk” zones. The spread of the virus had been minimal in the other 19 districts. Most of the COVID-19 patients have been identified as being from the high risk Colombo, Gampaha, Kaluthara, Puttalam, Kandy and Jaffna districts.
In Colombo, the Homagama Base Hospital has been converted to treat suspected cases. In Gampaha, it is the Minuwangoda Base Hospital; in Kaluthara, it is the Beruwela Base Hospital and in Puttalam, the center used once upon a time by the Voice of America relay station, has been converted for this purpose.
Currently, in Kandy, the high risk areas have been identified and completely locked down. Medical staff regularly make house visits and regularly and repeatedly test the area’s residents. Similar efforts are underway in other districts.
Anyone who lives in these high risk zones and begins to show one or more of symptoms typical of COVID-19, or is suspected to have got infected, should head for a designated hospital in the district. The alternative is to inform the nearest police station. He or she should not go to any medical facility or hospital other than a designated COVID-19 hospital. Failing to comply with this simple directive can lead to very tragic consequences.
A patient who was admitted to Kalubowila Hospital was eventually diagnosed to be COVID-19 positive. While he was transferred to the IDH Hospital in Angoda, other patients who were in the same ward were transferred to the Homagama Base Hospital. There, one of the patients succumbed due to complications stemming from his previous illness. Though he was not COVID-19 positive, he was cremated according to the strict procedure followed in the case of those who had died of COVID-19. Thus, he was denied his final rites. Only two of his closest relatives were allowed at the cremation, which took place within 15 hours of passing away.
We all fall sick, and eventually die. This is the natural sequence of life. Yet, to die without a loved one in sight is too horrible even to contemplate. To leave loved ones forever behind to wonder what your final moments were like, what you might have wanted to tell them, never to give an opportunity for them to say what they would have wanted to, to be denied the dignity of final rites, is truly awful.
The Administration can increases its capacity and even lock us down and keep us confined to our homes for weeks and months to come. However, if we fail to be responsible, this is the fate that awaits us and our loved ones.
As annoying, frustrating, boring and worrisome as this situation is, we just cannot let this despicable tiny spec win. Let us all be responsible and disciplined citizens and show where COVID-19 belongs – the dustbin of history.