Focus/Spotlight

COVID-19 Prevention Protocol breached?

  • AASL and health authorities commence investigations

By Sarah Hannan

The complacency displayed by several institutions on following the necessary health and safety protocols to prevent Covid-19 from spreading in society got the better of Sri Lanka earlier this week.

While the Ministry of Health was too eager to celebrate the milestone of the first foreign national being treated and sent back to China after making a full recovery, the pats on the back given to government institutions for having everything under control have now been overshadowed, as ground-level issues have arisen, giving way to the breach that took place at the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA).

For weeks, Epidemiology Unit Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Sudath Samaraweera has been calling the media in for weekly press briefings to reiterate the importance of following the necessary health guidelines and has also been consistently reminding the public about the proper donning and doffing of face masks, washing or sanitising hands, maintaining physical distance, and adopting proper respiratory etiquette.

“There will come a time when there is a breach in the process that would threaten the wellbeing of the entire nation. Therefore, it is important that each person takes the responsibility of their health and wellbeing into mind and follows these guidelines,” Dr. Samaraweera stressed.

Safety precautions dodged

A 15-member crew arrived at the MRIA from Bangalore, India on 13 September and had produced PCR test certifications they had obtained in India to confirm that they were not infected with the virus. However, when the crew was to depart, they were subjected to a PCR test at a private hospital in Matara on 23 September, after which a 52-year-old Russian flight crew member was tested positive for Covid-19 the following day.

Although we do not receive a daily update from the National Operation Centre for Prevention of Covid-19 (NOCPOC) anymore, Army Commander and NOCPOC Head Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva makes it a point at every chance he gets, to address the media to remind the public not to take this situation lightly.

“The incident in Matara has revealed that there has been a shortcoming in following the procedures we have been abiding by over the past six months. The airport authorities had failed to inform the NOCPOC about their arrival and their stay in the country. The group in question too had not adhered to the health guidelines that are issued to them when visiting another country.”

He said that ideally, anyone entering the country through any seaport or airport should be directed to a designated hotel that is recognised by and registered with the NOCPOC and would be closely monitored by the assigned healthcare officials on a daily basis, adding that the failure to update the NOCPOC, however, had created this breach.

Speaking to The Sunday Morning, Airport and Aviation Services (Sri Lanka) Ltd. (AASL) Chairman Maj. Gen. (Retd.) G.A. Chandrasiri stated: “As soon as the incident was reported, our team visited the MRIA and conducted a preliminary investigation, which went on until Friday (25) 3 a.m. Another team arrived at MRIA to carry out disciplinary inquiries over the various department personnel who were responsible for executing their duties on the days the group arrived at the MRIA.”

Maj. Gen. Chandrasiri noted that disciplinary action will be taken against all personnel involved and the AASL will take all necessary measures to rectify the situation to ensure such a breach would not take place in the future.

We then contacted the Ministry of Health to inquire as to what measures they are taking to rectify this matter and whether strict action would be taken against anyone who does not follow the specified health and safety guidelines.

A well-placed source at the Ministry of Health said that even the NOCPOC meetings have stopped and the personnel who are authorised to make statements are evading the media, which they believe is an act of deceit.

PHIs’ hands still tied

Meanwhile, Public Health Inspectors’ Union of Sri Lanka (PHIUSL) President Upul Rohana expressed his displeasure on how they are not provided with accurate information about the persons entering the country and whether they need to be under surveillance by the PHIs of the respective areas.

“Lately, we have been unable to carry out our duties in preventing another outbreak, as we are not given the necessary information. Also, when our area PHI is not updated about the exact whereabouts of visitors who are coming to the country on short holidays, it is difficult for us to determine whether they have been staying in the country since the lockdown period or whether they are new arrivals.”

Rohana also noted that with the health guidelines not being gazetted as a community health regulation, their officers cannot impose arbitrary laws on the public by forcing them to stay indoors, limit their outdoor activities, or instruct them to wear face masks when in public places.

Questions have also been raised by the public over the many public gatherings taking place as of late, such as the Colombo International Book Fair which saw scores of people gathering to make their yearly purchases.

Even the health authorities and the Epidemiology Unit had made their observations over the possible threat to society, as contact tracing for thousands of people arriving from all corners of the island would be a gargantuan task.

Moreover, the Government’s decision to go ahead and bring down the Bangladesh cricket team too has come under heavy criticism. However, the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs had announced that all safety measures will be followed when the team is brought down to Sri Lanka, further stating that it is important that sports activities commence so that the team’s spirit can be lifted.