There are reasons for the more aware citizens to raise concerns over government’s recent shift in approach in controlling COVID-19. Perceptions that top bureaucrats responsible for the health sector are not independently so, also contribute to serious concerns. However much they brag about their independence in service, their work seem more aligned to the election agenda of the governing party. On July 03 when an individual in Jinthupitiya, Colombo 13 who was in self quarantine was identified as COVID-19 positive, DG Health Services Dr. Anil Jasinghe told media he would not be a “virus carrier” as he had completed the 14 day quarantine and was thereafter in self quarantine. But then, if Dr. Jasinghe was that certain the affected person would not be a “virus carrier” why was taxpayer money wasted on 154 persons to quarantine them for 14 days? This sounds no different to the Coast Conservation officials who said they expect sand from Ratmalana dumped to the sea from Mt.Lavinia would collect in Wellawatte.
Much different to them, the head of the taskforce responsible for prevention of COVID-19, army Commander Lt. General Shavendra Silva’s media briefing on 10 July on the new surge in COVID-19 positive numbers at Kandakadu and Senapura drug rehabilitation camps was quite objective. He clearly said, apart from the already identified 57, there were 196 affected cases reported in the morning, totalling 253. He had also told they were awaiting reports on 375 PCR tests already done and they may have positive cases, further increasing numbers. His assumption he had told media is that this outbreak could be from visits allowed for 116 of their relatives, or from those drug addicts the Courts decided to transfer, in the past few days.
He had also told media all precautionary steps have been taken to control any further spread. Yet he had warned, as there are expatriates also flown in, there can be reports of new cases tested positive and therefore community spreads cannot be totally ruled out. People should therefore take precautionary measures, he had warned.
That in fact is the reality. On the side of the people, COVID-19 has become a threat in the waning. Face masks are often forgotten in public. Social distancing seems no more relevant. Such social neglect does not come without change of priorities in government approach to COVID-19 prevention. The government removed most precautionary measures and restrictions imposed for COVID-19 prevention, in order to create social space for electioneering. Inter district travel that was in place, was removed. With very short notice, all island curfew was completely removed. Social distancing was gradually left aside and private buses came on the roads, reopening of schools in stages began, 500 students in a lot was allowed for private tuition, restaurants and hotels were allowed usual businesses and the situation at ground level seemed so much like that of the 2019 presidential elections.
With that, restrictions and conditions for election campaigning was only applicable to opposition campaigns and not for candidates of the government party. This open discrimination made COVID-19 control look irrelevant and the danger a bygone issue. These campaigns with media coverage make people feel the situation is “normal” once again creating a social psyche, COVID-19 is no more an issue in life.
Although election campaigns don’t have huge hoardings, massive public rallies, large and open public campaigns with huge money spent, there is public debate about who should be voted. With the election date nearing and an election mood slowly giving into collective engagements, social dialogue leaves COVID-19 unimportant and has lost attention in society.
In such context, increase in positive COVID-19 numbers have also lost notice in society. The 253 cases from Kandakadu and Senapura rehabilitation camps the Army Commander announced on 10 July morning reached an all time high of 300 in a day by evening. The Jinthupitiya case, Welikada remand prison case with another addition on 10 July and a Kandakadu rehabilitation camp Counsellor from Kottaramulla, Chilaw district tested positive with another Counsellor from Habaraduwa, Galle district tested positive too add to a growing possibility of community spread. Their number of contacts, the numbers subjected to PCR tests and possible positive numbers out of them are yet unknown. Meanwhile in Hambantota district, 15 from Ambalantota and 22 officers and prisoners from Angunakola prison and another 15 from Pelmadulla in Ratnapura district have been sent for quarantine. This gives an idea of the new spread that is creeping around.
There is no clear indication how Kandakadu and Senapura rehabilitation camps came to be COVID-19 clusters. If as the Army Commander suspects, it was with relatives who visited inmates, then not only the 116 visitors but their close contacts in hundreds would have to be traced. If the outbreak was due to drug addicts transferred to those camps on Court orders, again their close contacts can be very many. It could also be both sources that infected the camp inmates.
Tracing their contacts to the last and testing them for COVID-19 would mean PCR tests in thousands, not in hundreds. The extent of the possible spread cannot be otherwise traced, assessed and controlled. Till then we would be speaking about numbers in a social context that assumes everything is “normal” once again and is dominated by an election mentality. Maintaining and nurturing such social freedom till elections are over, may lead to a second wave. This second wave can be more severe than the first, with all indications of the spread now taking hold in the community.
But there is still the possibility of restricting it within controllable limits. That first needs re-imposing of an all island curfew from 09 in the night till 05 in the morning next day. Curfew will impose some restrictions in social life. But would not seriously effect election campaigns. Election campaign meetings, pocket meetings by candidates and collective election interventions should be totally banned. All schools should remain closed at least till elections are over. Private tuition classes should also be banned. Also, all detailed information about identified positive cases, their contacts and the number of PCR tests done should be made public. That allows others to avoid contact with suspected cases.
In summing up this whole essay let me say, COVID-19 prevention measures should be immediately slammed, and election campaigning should be allowed only within the space that would remain. Priority should be in electing a parliament with COVID-19 completely controlled and not one in a society threatened by a second wave that would be disastrous to everyone. Thus it is the responsibility of political parties and candidates in how they would design their election campaign within the space that COVID-19 prevention measures allow. If they cannot be innovative in meeting that challenge, they prove they are not competent in addressing the serious crisis the whole country is already in raising the question, “why elect them at all?