Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 Spiral

Mahum Kidwai explains the chaotic situation as the pandemic intensifies in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 Spiral
Sri Lanka is in the throes of crisis; the delta variant of Covid-19 has been identified in several patients within its capital city Colombo this week, and experts on the island are warning the public that only the first dose of the vaccine does nothing to mitigate risk of death.

The island nation is in its third consecutive week of a curfew-like atmosphere, with travel restrictions being extended each week. The end seems nowhere in sight.

Expert data statistics suggest that Sri Lanka has reached 79 percent of its peak in infections, with 80 infections per 100,000 being reported in the last seven days. The daily average number of coronavirus-related deaths reported in Sri Lanka has reached a new high in the last three weeks; the country is now reporting more than 67 per day on average. The country is reporting 2,513 new infections on average each day, with the highest daily average reported on May 26.

Overall, there have been 228,256 infections and 2,315 coronavirus-related deaths reported in the country since the pandemic began. These numbers do not seem as catastrophic when compared to other countries in the region, but the drastic speed with which infection and death rates have increased after its ‘Avurudu’ new year in April, the community has spiraled into a state of panic, with health officials struggling to gain control of the situation.

In times as dire as these, it is prudent to shed light on how the vaccination rollout affects countries and their ability to contain soaring death rates.
The government has been doing all that it can to secure more stocks of vaccines given the surge in the third wave threatening to drown Sri Lanka in death

Sri Lanka has administered at least 2,930,212 doses of the vaccines so far. Assuming every person needs two doses, that is enough to have vaccinated about 6.7 percent of the country’s population. This vaccine rollout data is reported by the number of doses of coronavirus vaccines administered, not the number of people who have been vaccinated. Last week, Sri Lanka averaged about 57,624 doses administered each day. At that rate, it will take a further 76 days to administer enough doses for another 10 percent of the population; unfortunately, this is still not fast enough.

Sri Lanka’s initial successes in curbing the Covid-19 spread a year ago are no longer the topic being celebrated. The Sri Lankan government hoped to vaccinate at least 60 percent of its adult population by the end of this year, but like most other South Asian nations, Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts were severely hampered by a third wave of cases in India, subsequent disruptions to vaccine supplies and the emergence of its own third wave since April. As of May 27, a total of 341,962 Sri Lankan’s have been fully vaccinated (given both doses) through Covishield (AstraZeneca), while another 1,161,673 have received the first dose of Covishield, Sinopharm, or the Sputnik–V vaccines. Only healthcare workers and other frontline workers have been fully vaccinated (approximately 2.5 percent of total adult population) while approximately 10 percent of the country’s total adult population have been at least partially vaccinated.

On March 7 this year, Sri Lanka received its first batch of vaccines through the COVAX facility, and formally began its vaccination programme. Since then, a growing number of people who had received the Astrazeneca vaccine (sent from India) have been left to wonder when their second dose will be administered at all, as the country quickly ran out of supplies needed for the second shot. This is where the issues began; many citizens were left furious about the lack of direction and vision with regards administering the first shot of the Astrazeneca vaccine when the second shots had not been secured. India had promised to send more, but due to an alarmingly catastrophic situation arising post-April, they were unable to make good on the promises they had made to other countries in this regard.

This left Sri Lankan citizens and residents who had received their first jab frustrated and worried. They still are left to live in stress, wondering whether mixing vaccines is the fate that awaits them.

Since then, the government has been doing all that it can to secure more stocks of vaccines given the surge in the third wave threatening to drown Sri Lanka in death. China and Russia have stepped in to offer help at this critical time.

On May 13, the government of Sri Lanka and the World Bank signed an agreement for $80.5 million in additional financing to help Sri Lanka access and distribute Covid-19 vaccines and to strengthen the country’s vaccination system and pandemic response.

Sajith Attygalle, secretary to the Ministry of Finance, signed on behalf of the government and Faris Hadad-Zervos signed on behalf of the World Bank. “Solidarity and support of all stakeholders is key to fight this pandemic,” said Faris Hadad-Zervos. “The World Bank remains responsive to the health priorities of Sri Lanka as well as emergency needs. Effective deployment of the vaccines will help Sri Lanka protect people, build human capital and facilitate inclusive economic recovery.”

The second additional financing to the Covid-19 Emergency Response and Health System Preparedness Project is to purchase and deploy safe and effective vaccines that meet the World Bank’s Vaccine Approval Criteria, to strengthen relevant health systems that are necessary for successful deployment, and to prepare for the future.

It is of paramount importance for the government of Sri Lanka to avoid being unclear in the directions they give to the public regarding the process for vaccination. What began as an organised vaccine drive with over 60s being vaccinated first, steam-rolled out of control into a chaotic free-for-all situation, with health workers going on strikes on more than one occasion because privilege and VIP treatment was taking a front seat in isolated incidents reported in a few cities around the island.

The vaccines are tough enough to procure; it is not in the interests of any government at this time to further exacerbate the situation by sending mixed signals to an already alarmed and confused public. Control the chaos; it is the only means by which to survive.

The writer is a lawyer, teacher and political commentator based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. She can be reached on Twitter @writergirl_11