Notes from Colombo: Sri Lanka Weathers the Covid-19 Storm
July 8, 2020
Sri Lanka was one of the early movers on Covid-19. Within two weeks of the public declaration of a pandemic, the government established a special action committee and worked closely with the World Health Organization to devise a proactive response. Since March 14th, shortly after the first local patient was confirmed, Sri Lanka has taken strong measures to manage and mitigate the crisis. Beginning on March 20th, the country moved into a police-managed lockdown with severe restrictions on civilian movements and zero tolerance of social gatherings.
The new regulations caused major disruptions of lives and livelihoods. Unlike the lockdowns in other countries, where citizens have still enjoyed small liberties like a drive to the grocery store or a walk in the park, Sri Lanka’s “curfew” kept everyone at home. Internal travel across district lines was permitted only under special circumstances and only with a police-authorized curfew pass.
While Sri Lanka’s healthcare system ranks high in the region, with a network of accessible hospitals around the country, highly qualified medical staff, and local governments with dedicated public-health inspectors, the lack of institutional capacity to manage a mass outbreak required strict virus-control measures. Workplaces, schools, and businesses were abruptly ordered closed; only private-sector food retailers and essential service providers were granted permission to continue operations and make deliveries to residential zones. Just days after the start of the curfew, lorries and trishaws, weighed down with coconuts and a variety of fruits and vegetables, began arriving daily in urban areas, driven by small-scale retailers calling out their wares.
The military has shouldered the responsibility for the national response—from overseeing quarantine centers to contact tracing—while the police have managed the curfew, responding to reports of violations and arresting suspected violators. The government adopted other strict measures, including a temporary suspension of inbound flights and on-arrival visas, registration and mandatory quarantine of recent arrivals from Italy, Iran, and South Korea, and regularly disinfecting marketplaces and public transport stations, all of which earned the military and police forces praise for a swift and diligent response that has successfully limited the rate of transmission.
Most citizens are adhering to the regulations, but the disruption of livelihoods has caused concern in some communities, particularly among daily wage-earners, families living on plantations, women-headed households, and people living with disabilities. Although the government has voiced concern for these low-income citizens, emergency food relief and other basic support measures have been slow to materialize at the grassroots level. By mid-April, the government had arranged for a grant of Rs 5,000 to citizens whose livelihoods had come to a standstill, while several civil society organizations collaborated with local authorities to supply care packages and dry rations to those who had fallen on hard times.
While indispensable, the government’s preventative measures have taken a high economic and social toll, and forecasts paint a dismal economic picture. The economy took a major hit from the 2019 Easter attacks, and growth is expected to slow further due to the pandemic, possibly edging into negative territory. Agriculture, tourism, manufacturing, and apparel are expected to show the greatest declines, with informal SMEs suffering the most. Sri Lanka is also expected to face a wave of salary reductions and soaring unemployment in the coming months as companies retrench to make ends meet. The apparel industry, which accounts for about half a million jobs, has already announced significant layoffs due to reduced global demand and a shortage of raw materials.
Significant economic activity normally associated with national holidays has also been forfeited. April is usually an eventful month in Sri Lanka, with the dulcet call of the Asian Koel marking the arrival of the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year, an occasion celebrated with festive social gatherings, tables laden with traditional sweetmeats, and the sound of firecrackers filling the air. This April, the new year dawned silently, and the usually auspicious time was spent praying for a relaxed curfew and the end of Covid-19. A similarly subdued air was observed during Vesak, the biggest event in the Buddhist calendar, typically enlivened by colorful vistas of streets lined with paper lanterns, brilliantly illuminated temples, and stalls serving free food and drink to the public to earn merit. Public remembrances and religious ceremonies paying tribute those who lost their lives during the Easter Sunday bombings were also canceled. Instead, the nation observed a moment of silence filled only with the ringing bells of nearby churches and temples.
As June turned to July, Sri Lanka was rapidly scaling up its testing, and the number of confirmed cases has reached 2,081 as of this writing, with more than 1,955 recoveries and only 11 deaths. Most confirmed cases have occurred in the western districts, in densely populated areas characterized by poor-quality housing and intergenerational households. It is safe to say that the virus is having the worst impact on society’s most vulnerable, so it is now more important than ever for both the private and public sectors to think carefully about how they are going to incorporate the challenges of Covid-19 into their commitments—with an emphasis on the long term and a focus on growing the local economy, strengthening food security, and providing employment. Considering the strenuous past efforts of both sectors, Sri Lanka will no doubt find a path to renewed prosperity, having proven its regenerative capacity after the civil war in 2009 and the Easter attacks of 2019. As the country begins to ease restrictions, how it adapts will be the final measure of how well Sri Lanka has weathered the Covid-19 storm.
Maljini Ranaraja is a program officer in the Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning Unit of the The Asia Foundation’s Sri Lanka office. She can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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