Advance notice of lockdown 

The drastic increase in the number of Covid-19 cases and related deaths is disheartening, and speculation is rife that sooner or later, the Government will have to resort to more stringent measures to control the pandemic, which has resulted in over 3,500 cases a day, in addition to those already in place.

One such measure many parties, including Opposition parties and medical experts, have expressed support for is an islandwide lockdown. The demands for a lockdown is so strong that a group of health sector trade unions recently held a protest demanding that the Government impose an islandwide lockdown, among other demands, to control the pandemic. The National Trade Union Centre has also issued an ultimatum to the Government concerning imposing an immediate lockdown or to face a two-week-long strike across various sectors. While the feasibility of taking such a measure without allowing it to affect the country’s deteriorating economy remains exceedingly uncertain, the Government has not ruled out the possibility of such a decision. Official figures suggest that the pandemic situation is only getting worse, and it appears that sooner or later, the Government will have to go for a lockdown.

The decision lies in the hands of the health authorities and the Government. However, whenever the Government imposed lockdowns or similar restrictions, more than the lockdown itself, it is the manner in which it was imposed and enforced that affected the people. After the pandemic broke out early last year, the Government imposed nationwide lockdowns and curfew on several occasions, and regional lockdowns and inter-provincial travel restrictions on numerous occasions. However, most of the time, these restrictions were imposed with very little to almost no prior notice, rendering a large segment of the country’s population unable to procure most basic goods to face a lengthy lockdown. Also, we cannot forget how some people, especially daily wage workers such as construction workers and apparel factory workers, were stuck in various areas with no way of obtaining food or going back to their homes during the first islandwide lockdown, or curfew, as it was called at that time.

In addition to the abrupt manner in which lockdowns were imposed, the fact that these restrictions had many names including lockdowns, curfew, and travel restrictions – even though they were nearly identical in terms of the nature of the restrictions – caused controversy and led to allegations by many parties who claimed that the Government is incapable of reaching a unanimous decision on what it wanted to do. The most recent travel restriction was announced and came into effect on 16 August – when rather abruptly, the authorities said that except for essential services and urgent needs such as medical emergencies, travelling between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. has been prohibited.

The Government has not said that it would not impose a lockdown; however, saying no and suddenly imposing restrictions is a familiar pattern Sri Lankans have witnessed during the last one-and-a-half years, and therefore, being prepared for such measures is recommendable. However, this preparation will not be possible without the Government’s support, i.e. giving adequate notice of lockdown measures, which is not at all impossible.

The truth is, unless in an urgent situation such as a national-level emergency, imposing a lockdown is not a sudden decision. The Government and the health authorities think long and hard about it, which they appear to be doing at present. The fact that the planning phase does not include people’s convenience is tragic, and shows a certain level of irresponsibility on the part of the Government. If a lockdown is meant to restrict people’s movement, unarguably, people should have the opportunity to get ready, especially when it comes to obtaining day-to-day goods including food. Sri Lanka has dealt with the pandemic as well as restrictions long enough to understand that out-of-the-blue announcements about lockdowns or similar restrictions increase the risk of the spread of Covid-19, due to the influx of consumers scrambling to obtain basic needs, which is absolutely the opposite of what needs to happen. Issuing a notice in advance with the specific date and time of a lockdown, on the other hand, will help people be prepared mentally and physically, which would result in a lockdown period in which people actually stay at home.

Perhaps, it is time that the Government and the health authorities reconsider their notion that abrupt lockdown notices reduce the risk of the spread of the virus as it gives people no time to get ready.