By Harini Amarasuriya
On 12 August, 2021, the death toll from COVID-19 in Sri Lanka for the last 24 hours was 156. This is the official death toll. Many (including the medical community) suspect that the actual number is much higher. For the last several days, the death toll from COVID19 has been over one hundred each day. The medical and scientific community is repeatedly warning us that not only are the numbers much higher than reported, but that the worst is yet to come.
Frontline medical workers are reporting exhaustion – not merely physical but emotional; the anguish of being forced to make choices about treatment and care as they struggle for resources; the pain of witnessing the suffering of patients and their relatives; and the trauma of seeing the pleas for help in the eyes of the patients while knowing that there is little they can do. We saw all this happening in the USA, the UK, Italy, and in India – but never did we think that we would be facing the same situation. After all, were we not ‘the best’ at coping with COVID? We had the ‘best’ lockdown; we have the ‘best’ vaccination policy, right?
Yet, our own experiences and even the under-reported numbers that we hear daily are painting a grim picture – one that is far from the ‘best’ country messaging that the Government keeps trotting out. What is astounding is how there has been silence on the part of the Government on the growing crisis. Either the Government is unaware of how worried and apprehensive the general public are as they go about their daily business or the Government simply does not care. Not one word of regret, sorrow or grief has anyone from within the Government expressed about the lives that have been lost. Instead, we have Ministers who have asked the public to turn to God, or those who seem resigned to the fact that there is no link or conversation between the decision-makers in this Government and those with knowledge, expertise and data.
Never has this country felt so rudder-less, so completely out of control. Many of us thought we had hit rock-bottom when we saw images of smirking Ministers at a press conference after the Easter Attack tragedy. That we thought was the pinnacle of being out of touch and insensitive to the feelings and experiences of the public; a despicable display of callousness in the face of tragedy. This Government seems to have improved on this record in their response to COVID-19. Rather than showing strength and compassion at a moment of national crisis, this Government is acting like a petulant child, complaining about how the general public is not following rules. The Government seems to see no irony in blaming the public for breaking rules while creating all the necessary conditions for exactly that.
For instance, ever since the end of the first wave (which was managed quite well), the Government acted as if it has already vanquished COVID. Despite lessons from other parts of the world, the Government ignored the constantly changing nature of the virus and the cyclical nature of the way in which the virus behaved. There was no prioritisation to strengthen health resources, preparation of contingency plans for future lockdowns, consistent public messaging on the need to be constantly vigilant, strategies to strengthen immunity among people and a sense of urgency with obtaining and implementing a vaccination plan. There was no encouragement for research on the long term impact of COVID on health and psychosocial wellbeing, on the economy and on social institutions and processes. Rather the Government chose to boast of their accomplishments and to attack any criticism (well-founded or otherwise), with a viciousness, unworthy of a regime supposedly secure of their hold on power. The Government has also chosen to prioritise recovery of the economy over the health of its citizens, forgetting that the economy has to work for the people and not the other way around.
When the vaccinations finally started arriving, rather than sticking to the Ministry of Health mandated and agreed upon roll out strategy, power and privilege won the day resulting in ad-hoc changes to the plan unjustifiable from a public health perspective. This included ignoring the priority list of frontline workers, the over 60 age group and those with co-morbidities. Rather parliamentarians, professional groups and others who qualified by connections to the powerful were prioritised. As of now, although the Government has seemingly succeeded finally in obtaining sufficient doses of the vaccine, but rather than seeing the picture holistically, the Government has chosen to approach vaccination as a contest to prove its superiority and to pin all its hopes of controlling the virus through vaccination and only vaccination.
But as pointed out by health experts, the vaccine does not fully protect people from the current variant Delta and others that are on the way. Even fully vaccinated people can get infected – and more importantly can infect others, even if they remain asymptomatic or have less severe symptoms. Currently, according to a statement made public by the Independent Expert Group Meeting convened by the WHO, on the 10August 2021, the fully vaccinated percentage in the country is only 15 per cent. Those who have received a single dose as well as those who are yet to be vaccinated are very much at risk of illness and death. Thus it is clear that many other measures need to be taken as well as vaccination if COVID is to be managed properly, especially till a significant percentage of the population is fully vaccinated which would take at 4-6 weeks more and even longer to take effect.
The Expert Group urges stricter measures to control movement warning that the death toll by January 2022 could be as high as 30,000 if we go on as we are doing now. Imposing restrictions for four weeks immediately could reduce the death toll by 18,000. Let me repeat: 18,000 human lives could be saved if the Government acts now! Yet, as I write this article, the Government has made no moves to restrict movement. Instead, restrictions have decreased, people are being asked to report to work forcing them to travel in crowded public transport, shortages of essential goods are resulting in long queues in violation of social distancing rules. But preparations are underway to conduct the Esala Perehera in Kandy, a district where the percentage of fully vaccinated is less than 3%!! The Government is also focussing on arresting and harassing students, teachers and university academics for participating in demonstrations and protests, also called upon by the Government itself with their stubborn and arrogant approach to decision making and policy formulation.
How do we understand this attitude of the Government and who is responsible for this level of anarchy? Reading between the lines of what prominent members of the Government are communicating, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa seems to be resisting any effort at restricting movement. While the basis for the President’s stubbornness on this issue is incomprehensible, the question that begs to be asked is: where is the rest of the Government? Where in fact, are the three other brothers who are powerful Ministers in the Cabinet headed by the President? Does the entire Cabinet agree with the President’s decision? If they don’t agree (as many have hinted), the mind boggles to understand how decisions are made in this country at the highest levels of the Government.
All this would be ideal material for the stuff of dark comedy except for the fact that it is very real, and people are having, to pay with their lives. It would not be an exaggeration to say that many of the lives we lost in Sri Lanka could have been prevented if the right decisions had been made at the right time. How is this acceptable? How can any Government have any claim to legitimacy after mismanaging a situation to this extent?
As mentioned earlier, one Minister asked the people to turn to God at this moment. Essentially, this means that the Government has abandoned the people. That they have no plan or desire to save the lives of the people of this country. For a President and Government that came to power pretty much claiming to be the ‘blessed ones’, the ‘anointed’ and as those who were going to ‘save’ us from all evil – this demonstration of ineptitude is ironic to say the least. Sadly, those in charge seem content to bury their heads in the sand and worse, to not understand their own limited capacities and knowledge and to seek help or collaborate with others. Neither do they seem capable of speaking to the people with even a modicum of empathy or compassion during these difficult times.
As citizens, the only thing we can do is to look after ourselves and to care for each other because certainly this Government will not do so. We have survived this far because many in the health sector and other critical areas are working DESPITE the lack of support or direction from the Government and they deserve our gratitude. Let us hope that those of us who survive these times will not forget the harsh lessons we are being taught about leadership and governance.