Sri Lanka and the Pandemic Part One

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in Ceylon Today on May 21 2020.


One reads a lot in the western press about how badly the UK and US governments are coping with the Covid19 pandemic. One of the UK’s diplomatic strengths has long been its international advocacy for global health, and its poor domestic performance in this area may cause other nations to think again about the prestige accorded to Britain. Britain’s current failures undermine its soft power in the international arena and ‘less-developed’ nations may be even less willing to listen to British ‘advice’ on health and, indeed, other matters.

As I write (May 17), people in the UK are totally confused by the government’s latest guidance. Boris Johnson is coming under increasing criticism for the missteps he has taken in dealing with the crisis from the outset. He now has a formidable opponent in the new leader of the opposition Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer. Starmer has had a distinguished career as a human rights barrister and served five years as the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions. He brings incisive forensic skills to his questioning of inept government ministers who have never done a proper job in their lives. Johnson and his possible successor, Gove, were journalists (not very good ones). It is depressing to contemplate what a better job Starmer would be doing as prime minister, depressing to contemplate the missed opportunities, the lives needlessly lost.

Despite many difficulties, the situation in Sri Lanka is encouraging. Health Review Global did a thorough analysis and concluded: “We have studied the responses of many countries to the coronavirus pandemic. We at decided to select Sri Lanka for its swift and impressive response to the global epidemic despite being a second world economy. On top of it, we learned the importance of investing in public health”.


Lack of Recognition


It is surprising how little coverage there is world-wide of Sri Lanka’s battle against the virus. The London Sunday Times published an article entitled Lifting Lockdown: What Britain can learn from the rest of the world. The article draws on a report by the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University. Readers are invited to: “Select any of the 109 countries tracked to see their lockdown journey.” I scrolled down the list and discovered a strange gap between Spain and Sudan. Shouldn’t Sri Lanka be in there?


New Zealand, which locked down before it had a single death, has seen its Blavatnik stringency score fall by nearly ten points. New Zealand and its prime minister have justly been praised for a successful approach to the crisis. New Zealand’s population is 4.88 million; there have been 21 deaths.


Compared with Sri Lanka


The Sri Lankan government deserves praise for the way it has handled the crisis. Sri Lanka reacted rapidly to early warnings while most Western countries complacently carried on as if nothing were happening. The world was put on notice on 31 December 2019, when the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reported an unusual cluster of cases of pneumonia. Our president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, elected by a decisive majority last November, followed up his advice to people to stay at home and keep a safe social distance by imposing a curfew from Friday 20 March at 6.00 p.m.

The first Sri Lankan to be confirmed as having the virus was a 52-year-old tour guide who was dealing with Italian tourists. He was declared recovered and released from quarantine on March 26. On 28 March, the first death from the virus was announced. The victim was a 60-year-old diabetic who had had a heart transplant. As of May 17, the total number of confirmed cases is 935 and 477 patients have completely recovered so far. There have been nine deaths.

When I initially compared the total number of deaths in Sri Lanka and UK, I was told such comparisons could not be made. Some suggested that Sri Lanka might not be recording all cases or was lax in its testing procedures. The UK government is also arguing that international comparisons are odious. Odious to them, perhaps, because deaths in the UK are, at 32,065 (May 12) the worst in Europe (It’s probably nearer 55,000). The UK population is 67.83 million. The UK accounts for less than one per cent of the global population but accounts for 12 per cent of reported Covid deaths.

It is very strange that Sri Lanka is never mentioned when comparative responses to the virus are being discussed. Ireland is held up as a good example. The population of the Republic of Ireland is 4.94 million. As of 17 May, the Irish Department of Health has confirmed a total of 1,533 deaths.

What Did Sri Lanka Do Right?


In Part Two, I will go into more detail about the factors that have brought about Sri Lanka’s success. One of the advantages that Sri Lanka enjoys is a free healthcare system with an integrated network of state hospitals nationwide supplemented by a thriving, modern, well-equipped private system. MOH (Medical Officer of Health) geographical areas were established across the island in 1926 to provide preventive health services at a community level, through a team of medical officers, public health nurses, health inspectors and midwives.

All flights to Bandaranaike International Airport were stopped from March 19. High risk areas in the Negombo and Puttalam districts were locked down. Schools closed indefinitely. Government offices closed and working from home was encouraged.  Large gatherings were banned and the planned parliamentary election was postponed. An island-wide curfew was monitored by the police and the armed forces. To date (May 18) over 48,000 people have been arrested and will be prosecuted. Their vehicles were impounded.

Systems were set up at an early stage to facilitate the exchange of medical information. Police were involved at an early stage in tracking down people likely to have been exposed to the virus and to deal with those who were uncooperative in following government guidelines. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa set up a ‘National Operation Center for Prevention of COVID- 19 Outbreak’ led by Army Commander Shavendra Silva. The army, navy and air force have played a huge role in the success of Sri Lanka’s anti-Covid programme, helping with tracing of contacts, setting up quarantine centres, delivering food and medicine.

There are concerns from human rights advocates about the dangers to democracy of a strong president ruling through a number of task forces with the support of the military in the absence of parliament. I will deal with those issues in another article.