COVID 19: It is going to be Bad – Sri Lankans Need to Plan and Manage the Next 9 Months

At this critical point of time, we need to understand the problem; we need to disinfect; We need to minimize contact. It is important for the public to know that as at present, the best estimated date for receiving a tested vaccine is in 2021.

by Professor Sohan Wijesekera

COVID19 and the vaccine

By this time most people know about COVID19 and are aware that it is spreading at an alarming rate.  According to the media, most nations are affected and are under lock-down situations. While dedicating its physical and human resources, the Sri Lankan government and HE the president are appealing to the community to be vigilant and take all precautionary measures. However, most Sri Lankans do not appear to consider this decease as a significant threat. The partial lockdown approach of the government is used as an opportunity to visit friends, and places. At the point of completing this article, the government informed that one week from 20th -27th has been declared as a period to work from home. The state website mentions that this ruling is applicable to both public and private sectors.

It is very important that urgent steps are taken to enhance the public awareness on the gravity of the problem. Establishment of the national operations center is definitely a step forward. Long queues at shops to buy essentials, people standing next to each other especially in the endangered regions, shops selling non-essential goods being kept open, continuing work at some construction sites are clear indications about the inadequacy of public awareness. At this critical point of time, we need to understand the problem; we need to disinfect; We need to minimize contact.

A lockdown or a state of isolation creates many problems. Firstly, the crippling of national economy which has a significant reliance on the service sector.***

Then it is important to be aware of the length of time that we should restrict our activities and ensure self-distancing. The simple reason is that stoppage or slowdown of our activities would be detrimental to our ailing economy. When will we receive a vaccine for COVID19? It is important for the public to know that as at present, the best estimated date for receiving a tested vaccine is in 2021. It is no secret to the medical community and also to most of the general public that medicine does not appear overnight. World over, there are time-tested conditions to release medicine with minimum after effects. This time lag is the reason for the necessity of utmost care. In my opinion, we should not delay a state of emergency.

COVID19 has pushed most developed nations to close their cocoons by declaring lockdown situations. This implies that as a nation we are about to face a hard time. A good guess is that if we work hard then we would be able to limit this critical period to the next 6-9 months.

A lockdown or a state of isolation creates many problems. Firstly, the crippling of national economy which has a significant reliance on the service sector. The worst hit in our country would be the poor skilled and unskilled labour that depends on daily wages, the three wheeler drivers, and those who have borrowed money hoping to payback from the earnings of service provision.

In China, during the isolation period many workers were asked to work from home because their government could not afford to let its economy to get affected. It is encouraging to note that having realized the dangers ahead, today the government of Sri Lanka also decided to follow a work from home concept to reduce the physical contact of employees. However, it is important to note that this would not become a physical lockdown unless all Sri Lankans act with responsibility and concern.

An outbreak and probable issues

It is vital for the public to know the impact of an outbreak of Covid19 on our island nation. The decision makers would have to find answers to many critical questions and launch a well-directed planning machine to overcome the problems in this difficult period.

Firstly, we will need to look at the regular requirement of medicine for cardiovascular, cancer, diabetes and other similar illnesses. Do we have the stocks that would last a few months? In case of a short supply, will we be able to access our regular suppliers and would that be sufficient? Will the locked down countries continue to produce and deliver? If there is an assurance, then for how long?

Secondly, we should consider the worst case COVID19-scenario which spreads due to our ignorance or carelessness. In such a situation, COVID19 cases would rise exponentially. This means that the supplies for the health sector would have to match unprecedented demands. This would necessitate continued supplies of disinfectants, test kits, testing and hospital facilities, quarantine centers plus continuously working dedicated medical teams for a sufficiently long period. In a situation where normalcy prevails, a country would target hospitals only for approximately 1% of its population. Thus it is certain that if the outbreak continues, then we need to find alternatives. In many countries medical doctors have been requested to be ready to perform at any level of service without considering professional status.

The third in the list is the food supply during isolation. If this problem continues over several months, then even those with money would find that there is no supply. Would the other countries come to our rescue? We need to be aware that such countries are already in their cocoons. Regarding the stocks in the local market, we already witness vendors exploiting the situation not only for food but also for medicine. Some nations have already indicated that their food stocks would be sufficient for 6 months.

The fourth is the water supply. Our water supply service providers are vested with the responsibility of providing safe water for drinking, bathing, cooking and handwashing. Many in our urban areas do not have safe groundwater. Pipe borne water supply is the only source in our urban clusters. How about our community water supply schemes? Are our source areas well protected? Do we have sufficient chemical supplies for water treatment? What would be situation if we run short? We are already facing a severe drought. In the recent past, water supply authorities were already facing a short supply of water bowsers. What would be the situation if the drought continues? We now have to face the unimaginable uncertainties created by COVID19 and these have to be superimposed on the “reasonably-known” uncertainties of climate change.

The issue list would get worse if the fuel supplies run short. diesel and petrol form the backbone of our electricity and transport sectors. The above list of problems is not to scare anyone but to caution and then to plan forward. As our president stated we are a capable nation and we are a determined nation. We need to be intelligent and we need to plan well. Panic should not be our motto.

No Regret and Low Regret Options

Until we receive the vaccine, the solutions such as good care, self and social isolation would be our best option. These have proven effective especially in the case of China. Medical advice on good care, includes; seeking local or western advice to avoid catching a cold or flu, carefully selecting appropriate food, stop smoking etc. Understanding the gravity of COVID19 and following the preventive instructions would not only control the spreading but also enable authorities to manage the essentials that the nation has to import.

No-regret options are measures or activities that will prove worthwhile even if no disaster occurs. Low-regret options are low-cost options that can potentially bring large benefits under a disaster situation and will have only low costs if the disaster does not happen.****

Our national machinery must ensure that all its cylinders are firing, the transmission systems are well oiled and it is steered in the right direction at the best possible speed. At first, there should be a well-directed public awareness program by using all available media and experts.

In a situation of disasters beyond our control, the most effective option is building resilience and especially by urgently resorting to either “No-regret” or “Low-regret” options. No-regret options are measures or activities that will prove worthwhile even if no disaster occurs. Low-regret options are low-cost options that can potentially bring large benefits under a disaster situation and will have only low costs if the disaster does not happen. This is the time which requires planners and engineers to extend their vision and tools to seek flexible options by anticipating imaginable surprises.

An outbreak of Covid19 forces us to consider a case of uncertainty much worse than the climate change. The best option is for us to learn from the way we were planning to battle climate change. However, extrapolation of such knowledge needs to consciously consider the increased intensity of spreading shown by COVID19.

A vaccine for COVID19 which is the most opted solution to build resilience, is further away from our reach. This is because such a vaccine would be accessible only after the needs of developed nations are fulfilled.

Resilience with Water and Food Security

There are many other no-regret options to build resilience. The first step is water security. We must take steps not only to save water from the treated supply but also the water you receive from the rains. Internet provides many options to build domestic infiltration systems and rainwater harvesting systems. The state must also deploy experts to educate the public on methods for the maintenance of soil moisture and groundwater enrichment. Groundwater anywhere in our soil will be a strength to the national well-being.

We need to take a look at the resilience in our traditional rural living, based on sustainable self-containing systems and then learn to manage the country and our households. Our rural households in village clusters contained all essentials for survival. The paddy field, the jak and coconut trees, shallow wells, and vegetables in the garden etc., could easily enable a family or even a village to survive a situation of either a forced or self-isolation. Therefore, the second best step towards resilience is to ensure food security. In our urban settings we may not have large gardens but we can easily use this lockdown time to pot a vegetable or two for our consumption. Such actions would become handy if the critical period continues over a long period of time. The government should also urge the public to start growing for food. If the critical period extends then this will contribute to a food crisis and if otherwise, a revived culture of agriculture would certainly contribute to our national food security.

We can resort to water saving agriculture to ensure both water and food security. In water scarce situations effective root zone watering would be the best option to grow healthy plants. As an example, the daily water requirement of a plant such as chillies which has a root zone 6” in diameter and 9” deep, growing in loamy soil and exposed to the sun would be approximately 60-70 milliliters.

Other than taking precautionary measures, the state must focus on achieving water and food security; simply because they are the next best options for survival.

The state must not only educate its citizens to ensure prevention of an outbreak of COVID19 and contribute to food and water security, but it should also initiate a soul-searching exercise. National water management agencies must reevaluate the uncertainties and challenges associated with the situation. This must be done especially from a point of view of the national economy under a “Covid19 Lock-down” scenario. The available and anticipated supply and demand must be carefully studied to allocate water resources for drinking, agriculture and environmental sustainability. Historically, most of the country would not receive rains until next September. The water management agencies need to carefully study the spatial variability of rainfall and exercise their brains and physical strengths to store as much water as possible. This has to be done by planning the water releases at appropriate times, and by keeping the reservoirs ready to capture the maximum amount of water. The national agencies must immediately step forward for a national drive that aims water and food security. We have a plethora of agencies to ensure national water and food security. In my opinion they should not wait for the president to give directives.

We need to take precautions to prevent an outbreak. I am advocating a continuous two weeks (14 day) physical lock down. Until the government uses its authority, it is the responsible citizens who should realize, practice and convey the message to their friends and others. The state has addressed both the public and private sector and it is the duty of those concerned to take most rational decisions because this is an unforeseen crisis situation without a tested solution. The state wants the public to work from home and contribute to the best of their ability. It is very easy for many to say that this is not a possibility. My appeal is that at this point of time every one and especially the managers of public and private sector agencies must think out of the box and innovate methods to work from home. The message is; Try to do your best to work from home; Contribute to water security and food security. I am sure our public will rise up to the occasion to keep the economy afloat. We need to show the world that we are a nation of the highest calibre.

Professor N.T.Sohan Wijesekera, Senior Professor, University of Moratuwa. He is the Chairman, Construction Industry Development Authority. Read more about his works


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