Focus/Spotlight

Heading for a second wave of Covid-19 | Not fully out of danger

By Sarah Hannan

As the curfew times have now been further relaxed to just four hours spanning 12 a.m. to 4 a.m., public activities are gradually resuming with schools scheduled to open on 6 July and the country preparing to receive tourists from 1 August.

Yet, some are questioning whether Sri Lanka decided to return to normalcy too soon, with development projects starting to bring in their foreign consultants via special flights to resume work.

Just last week, among the group of Iranian technicians that arrived in the country to work in the Uma Oya Multipurpose Development Project, four technicians tested positive from the PCR test that was done at the airport upon their arrival, sending the rest to the Karandagolla Quarantine Centre.

The practical aspects of reopening the country this soon whilst the pandemic is still looming is now revealing its drawbacks. Should one or two people test positive for Covid-19, will all the passengers, flight crew, and airport staff that came into contact need to be put under quarantine or self-isolation?

How will the country manage the situation once thousands of passengers start arriving at different airports and seaports?

Are we inviting a second wave of Covid-19 to the country by bringing in a large number of foreigners as well as Sri Lankans who had migrated to work in other countries?

These are some valid questions even the experts are struggling to answer.

Close monitoring required

The Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) last week said there is a chance a second outbreak of Covid-19 might take place if stringent measures are not taken to test, trace, and isolate such persons.

“It is imperative that whoever enters the country is subjected to rapid tests to detect whether they are infected by Covid-19 and the infected person is referred to a hospital immediately, while the rest of the group is sent to quarantine for 14-21 days. Anyone who has tested negative on one day can test positive during the second PCR test that is to be taken in four days since their day of arrival; if they are travelling from place to place, they are putting others at risk,” GMOA Secretary Dr. Haritha Aluthge stressed.

The GMOA also proposed that airport staff, flight staff, health officials, tri-force and police personnel, servicing staff at the quarantine centres and quarantine hotels, and suppliers should be subjected to health screening and testing for Covid-19 routinely. Furthermore, the association noted that once a person completes their quarantine and returns home, they should also be closely monitored until they reach their destination, and that journey should be managed accordingly.

No legal provision

The Public Health Inspectors Union of Sri Lanka (PHIUSL) is sceptical about effectively carrying out the monitoring process once people have returned to their homes after quarantine. PHIUSL President M.G.U. Rohana noted that the PHIs do not have any legal provision to keep an eye on the general public and enforce regulations or take action against them if they fail to follow the health guidelines.

“We are at a difficult place as the Ministry of Health still has not taken steps to gazette the health guidelines that have been issued, presenting us a challenge in instructing people to follow them (guidelines). We are also not empowered to force persons to undergo PCR tests following their discharge from quarantine centres,” Rohana explained.

Explaining that the citizens have a right to go and file a fundamental rights (FR) petition against the PHIs as well as the Police for forcing them to follow self-isolation or to take PCR tests, he said: “The Constitution supersedes all the guidelines that are in practice and people have the right to seek counsel from the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) should they feel as if their fundamental rights are being violated by arbitrary regulations.”

Second wave unlikely

Secretary to the Ministry of Defence Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Kamal Gunaratne, sharing his observations earlier last week, indicated that the security forces, the Police, and health sector officials have so far been successful in controlling Covid-19 from spreading. He expressed his hopes that there would not be a second wave of the pandemic in the country.

“We have used an effective mechanism to control the virus, and our soldiers together with Police and health officials will continue to apply the same mechanism in the future. Therefore, I hope there will not be a second wave of the pandemic. It is over 50 days since the last patient was reported from the community and we have not received any cases from the general public except for the cases that are detected by the Navy cluster and from the persons returning to the country these days,” he stated.

According to Maj. Gen. Gunaratne, even if there would be a threat of a second wave, military, police, and healthcare personnel would effectively face the situation.

Monitoring election meetings

The PHIUSL said that the guidelines issued for the upcoming general election do not clearly indicate the minimum or maximum number of people that can be present at a single place.

“What is more challenging is that since these guidelines have not been gazetted under the Quarantine Act (Quarantine and Prevention of Disease Ordinance), we are unable to enforce the guidelines on them. Moreover, we cannot be sending a flying squad to monitor such meetings as we do not have the necessary legal empowerment to do so. Should a political party inform us that they are to have a public meeting at a ground in the area and that they intend to bring in people and want us to be present, then we can go there to monitor the situation,” Rohana added.

photo Eshan Dasanayaka