GP Insights # 296, 18 March 2020
Even though COVID-19 originated in China, it didn't take long to spread towards South Asia. It was approximately one and half months later that the first patient was discovered in Sri Lanka, who was a Chinese tourist that was tested positive at the end of her tour on 27 January 2020. She was receiving treatment at the Infectious Disease Hospital (IDH) and fully recovered by 1 February 2020. Since then no cases were reported till 11 March. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka was able to successfully evacuate Sri Lankan students from Wuhan, with the support of Sri Lankan Airlines, tri forces and the Ministry of Health. The students were quarantined for 14 days, and none of them was found infected.
However, on 11 March, the first Sri Lankan was tested positive, who is a tour guide and suspected to be infected by Italian tourists. Since then, the number of infections has risen to 43 with 204 suspected cases under observations.
Various policy decisions have been taken by the government including the shutdown of all schools and pre-schools island-wide, shared two hotlines for the general public to gather information and updates on COVID-19 and to seek assistance for any emergency, travel bans for 11 countries including Italy, South Korea and some European countries which was followed by a halt of all passenger arrivals while continuing departure, transit and cargo, suspension of screening of movies, ban on public gatherings and closure of national museums etc. Considering the global situation, Sri Lanka has acted swiftly to take necessary actions, as Sri Lanka, which is a developing country under heavy debt burden, cannot afford rising numbers of infected people.
Sri Lanka possesses one hospital solely dedicated to treating infected diseases and therefore currently, actions are taken to open up another hospital in Polonnaruwa with ICU facilities. With the leadership of Sri Lankan Army, 16 quarantine centres have been established with 2258 people being quarantined. However, it is burdensome that around 1500-2000 Sri Lankans who arrived in Sri Lanka before the travel bans, from highly infected areas, have escaped security measures at the airport, disrespecting the rules and regulations set for mandatory quarantine. It is thoroughly advised to all families of COVID-19 patients and all travellers from infected areas to self-quarantine themselves with strict regulations. Medical officers continue to check these people on a regular basis.
As seen globally, Sri Lankans too began panic buying supplies when the first Sri Lankan patient was announced. However, it was assured from the private and public sector that there would be no shortage of essential commodities, although Sri Lanka has run out of masks and hand sanitizers. At a time, when the government has declared a three-day holiday, some people have made this a time to go out relaxing and specifically on pilgrimages, despite warnings from the authorities. Unfortunately, the public is disappointed with the fact that the authorities haven't given any thought to postpone the upcoming elections, like France did, as this provides space for large public gatherings. Therefore, public opinion is formed asking for a lockdown of the country, but the issues remain if Sri Lanka can afford a situation as such, which will grow towards a grave recession.
Fake news has been circulating on the number of COVID-19 patients and how people in the quarantine centres were ill-treated. However, this was immediately tackled by updates broadcasted by the Department of Government Information and National Operational Centre for the prevention of the spread of COVID-19, headed by the Commander of Army of Sri Lanka.
The immediate steps of Sri Lanka should include assessment of available health kits and essential medication for at least a buffer period of 4 weeks, immediate fever checks within all public buildings that run essential services. Postponing of upcoming elections should be given more consideration. It is high time that Sri Lanka learns from Singapore and Taiwan and acts with preparedness and vigilance.