Editorial/Opinion

Focus on the bigger picture

Now entering its third week of lockdown, Sri Lanka has so far managed to keep the numbers under control but medical experts are of the view that the tables could be turned if there is a let up in the lockdown anytime soon.

Based on research, it has been found that up to 50% of the carriers don’t know they are infected as no symptoms are visible until the sixth or seventh day when mild symptoms begin to appear. Even then, many can easily mistake mild symptoms for the common flu and not seek medical attention until the condition is at an advanced stage, which is what is happening in many parts of the world.

This is why it is important to carry out random testing in identified, high-risk locations rather than wait for patients to show up in hospitals. Iceland has been a success story of this strategy, having already tested nearly 10% of its population.

The results of its comprehensive testing programme are now being used as guidance for other countries on the spread of the virus. Accordingly, what is key is that the screening should include those not showing symptoms and not currently in quarantine. The Iceland testing has shockingly revealed that
around 50% of those who tested positive had said that they were asymptomatic, confirming that these people played an important role in spreading the virus.

Sri Lanka’s health authorities who so far have been on top of their game, should seriously consider expanding testing to cover all suspect areas concurrent to the quarantine measures that are in place.

Meanwhile, research carried out by Imperial College London has revealed that making wearing of masks and social distancing compulsory by 11 European countries have saved an estimated 59,000 lives, which is equivalent to the global death toll as of now.

Meanwhile, as the entire planet goes into lockdown to try and keep the ravaging coronavirus at bay, ground zero, Wuhan, China is slowly opening up and returning to normal. That’s a good five months since the first case was detected there in November 2019.

It is no secret that no country on this planet can match China for the speed and efficiency with which it mobilised the resources at its disposal to contain the virus, care for the sick, and provide the equipment necessary to bring the situation under control.

The Chinese authorities in turn have attributed their success to the complete lockdown in Wuhan and the Hubei Province lasting nearly four months.
The fact of the matter is that even for the Chinese, it took no less than five months to tide over the crisis.

The most important question in the minds of every leader now grappling with the fast-spreading virus is whether they can come anywhere close to the Chinese time frame. More so in the two coronavirus time bombs waiting to happen that could potentially affect millions of people around the world including Sri Lanka.

One is the US which is Sri Lanka’s biggest export market and the other is neighbour India with vast economic, social, cultural, and religious connections to Sri Lanka. Both countries, though from contrasting economic situations, are struggling to contain what could potentially end up as epidemics of catastrophic proportions.

The US has only itself to blame for the crisis on its hands due to the initial lackadaisical approach of its political leadership in countering the pandemic which prompted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to state that President Trump was “fiddling” while the country was burning.

As of yesterday (4), the US had overtaken every other nation by quite a margin, reporting a mind-boggling 280,000 coronavirus patients and 7,200 deaths, completely overwhelming the country’s healthcare system. Despite the gravity of the situation, even as late as yesterday, no less than 10 states were yet to implement any form of a lockdown or social distancing.

The impact of Covid-19 on the US economy is unprecedented and has effectively wiped out a decade of economic gains. All this in a matter of one week since last Sunday (29 March) when the number of patients was around 100,000 with 1,000 reported deaths. In that one week, the numbers have kept multiplying at an alarming rate with jobless claims shooting up to nearly seven million while in total, that figure now exceeds 10 million. Such has been the impact that US President Donald Trump has been forced to accept plane loads of medical equipment from its two sworn rivals, Russia and China.

India on the other hand, with four times the population of the US, most of them living in heavily congested settlements and devoid of basic sanitation, must surely be hoping against hope for some form of divine intervention to stop the deadly virus from wreaking havoc in the country. As of last Friday, the authorities were expecting the worst with a coronavirus patient being discovered in what has been described as one of Asia’s biggest slums in Mumbai. To make matters worse, the patient died within hours of being discovered. The number of cases in India has doubled in the last four days to 2,500 cases with 62 reported deaths.

If the US and India are bad enough, economy-wise, China is no better, as it slowly begins to pick up the pieces after the virus. For starters, this would be the first time in 44 years that China’s economy may not indicate growth.

In Europe, where Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and now the UK have all been heavily hit, the financial doom and gloom only continues to grow. As of Friday, 1.1 million autoworkers had already lost their jobs in Europe.

The bitter truth is that the economic consequences for Sri Lanka from the coronavirus will be nothing short of disastrous in the short, medium, and long term with no easy way out. What it has come down to now is for the political leadership to come up with innovative thinking and for the Treasury to prepare for the worst and cushion the impact on the people by providing relief to all those affected, devoid of political influence.

The all-party mechanism established at national level under the stewardship of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa for this purpose is commendable, but questions are being raised on whether the same co-operation is reflected at the most important level, which is the grassroots level, when it comes to the execution of the wide-ranging relief measures that have been announced so far.

With an election on the horizon, it is inevitable that grassroots level officials of the ruling party will attempt to leverage the relief measures to their advantage. However, these officials should be made aware that the anticipated election may not materialise within the current time frame as the Election Commission has now communicated to the President that he should seek the opinion of the Supreme Court with regard to the matter, as the election law specifies that the new Parliament should sit before the expiry of three months since the date nominations were called. That date falls on 2 June 2020; under the present circumstances, this scenario is highly unlikely.

As such, the topmost priority of all state and party officials at this critical juncture should be to put the country and its struggling people before all else.

Failure to do so at the cost of party politics could result in lives being lost not due to Covid-19, but the economic circumstances of the less privileged. If that were to happen, we would have failed as a nation notwithstanding all the success in containing the deadly virus. Let’s hope that will not be the case.

Therefore, it is important that officials stay focused on the job at hand and not lose sight of the bigger picture.