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Sri Lanka’s Successful Response to COVID-19

While the South Asian subcontinent struggles to flatten the coronavirus curve, with India alone reporting 3.23 million cases and taking third place in the world, Sri Lanka provides a glimmer of hope to curb the regular rate of infection. Even though Sri Lanka was rated the 16th high-risk country vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been ranked 9th best country in the world for its successful and quick response to the virus. So far, Sri Lanka has recorded 2,959 cases and 12 deaths [ 26, August 2020], among its population of 21.67 million people. Experts say that early lockdown, suspending incoming passenger flights, fast-tracking of Covid-19 suspects, high testing rate, effective social distancing measures and financial intervention in socio-economic areas, are the most significant highlights of their success story.

In the light of the remarkable response to the pandemic, health experts from around the world praised the Sri Lankan healthcare system, which has been a case study for other countries since the 1980s. For example, the Study of the Rockefeller Foundation published in 1985 identified Sri Lanka as a country that has set up an affordable healthcare system. In most districts of the country, primary healthcare facilities are within 3 kilometers of each neighborhood. The ease of access to health facilities, combined with low-cost programs, has helped the country improve its public health.

The Sri Lankan Government mobilized healthcare workers to closely monitor the pandemics movement right after the first case reported on 27th January 2020, after a 44-year-old Chinese woman from Hubei Province in China admitted to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases. And the health experts ensured that most Covid-19 suspects traced in potential hotspots.

“The first case came out in Sri Lanka in the last week of January, after which there were no cases till about mid-March. During that gap, the Government ensured that public health surveillance was activated to find any cases with respiratory illnesses. Once the cases were identified, we conducted the needed diagnostics so that we were able to rule out any suspected COVID-19 cases,” WHO respondent.

The Sri Lankan Government declared that it had lifted the curfew on 11th of May, which had been in place for more than two months, putting an end to the 52-day curfew style shutdown, indicating that the public might start going to work by maintaining social distances. However, public gatherings, festivals and celebrations with huge crowd remain prohibited. The Sri Lankan Government also approved the opening of salons, beauty parlors and barbershops on 11 May, but strictly prohibited shaving. Further, it advised the barbers to uphold preventive health measures when cutting their hair.

The Ministry of Health and the Sri Lankan Army are providing their fullest support to control the transmission of viruses across the country. The Quarantine operations have been tracked by the Sri Lankan army whereas, on 23rd March, forty-five quarantine centers have been set in the country as a preventive measure to counter the coronavirus pandemic. Almost 3,500 people were under quarantine in 45 quarantine centers, which also includes 31 foreigners from 14 countries. As of 25th March 2020, Sri Lankan authorities monitored more than 14,000 people who had contacted known patients and ordered self-quarantine for these citizens. A separate Presidential Contributing Fund, worth $7.4 million to date, has also been raised. In addition to all these steps, the Sri Lankan Government has put a special concern on the COVID-19 surveillance system to keep COVID-19 mortality at bay.

“More than 50 per cent of the COVID-19 cases in Sri Lanka are of people between the ages of 20-60. These are relatively younger people who are less vulnerable to a severe presentation of the disease. A reason why most of the cases are mild may be that the lockdown in Sri Lanka started very early,” said Razia Pendse, a WHO representative to Sri Lanka.

However, there is still a risk of a potential surge as curfews ease. Fatalities from other diseases continue amid the pandemic, especially the spread of dengue and curfews have made access to critical health care more difficult in areas, particularly for vulnerable groups with different health needs. The UN Adversary Paper; developed per the agreement of the Sri Lankan Government, informs and supports the national socio-economic response effort of COVID-19. In prioritizing health first, the UN recommends improving the capacity of the health system and emergency preparedness, ensuring equal access to critical health services, especially for at-risk and disadvantaged groups; and establishing a comprehensive strategy for sustainable medium-term health financing.

The Government acknowledged the vulnerability of Sri Lankan households to economic consequences by committing Rs. 50 billion (USD 270 million or 0.33% of GDP) in monthly transfers, most of them worth Rs. 5,000 each, to beneficiaries across the country in April and May. Since the beginning of 2020, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) has supported the affected firms in the form of 150 basis points in monetary easing, with suspensions of loan payments and a concessional refinancing program of Rs. 50 billion (0.33% of GDP) for activities affected by the pandemic. The Government has also committed 0.1% of GDP to quarantine and containment measures, USD 5 million to the SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Fund the Petroleum Stabilization Fund (PSF) built using lower international oil prices and the Presidential Contributing Fund, which has raised Rs.1.4 billion (USD 7.4 million) to date.

“Sri Lanka’s response to COVID-19 has been remarkable, including the swift transfer of vital cash by the Government to millions of households in April and May. But as the impact of the crisis drags on, it is critical for Sri Lanka to continue—and expand—it’s good initial cash transfer response to support people for a further 6 months. This will help Sri Lanka’s economy to recover quickly and will have long term benefits for child wellbeing across the country” said Tim Sutton, Representative, UNICEF Sri Lanka.

By Jumana Jabeer

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