Keynote Speech delivered by Foreign Secretary Admiral Professor Jayanath Colombage at the GPPAC Workshop on The implication of COVID-19 pandemic for South Asia: Civil Society Perspectives organized by the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) on 26 November 2020

Keynote Speech delivered by Foreign Secretary Admiral Professor Jayanath Colombage at the GPPAC Workshop on The implication of COVID-19 pandemic for South Asia: Civil Society Perspectives organized by the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) on 26 November 2020

Ayubowan,

Thank you, Professor Gamini Keerawella, for inviting me to be with you this morning. I'm really happy to be with the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies. You have selected a very pertinent topic; ‘the impact of Covid-19 in South Asia’.

The Region of South Asia, which, depending on how you define it, is home to approximately 1.7 billion people, which has high potential, is fast growing and a futuristic region. It is essential to address the core issues that are really impediments to the progress of this region. In the current context, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed a great threat to the region as the virus has engulfed almost the entire world. Today’s discussion will elaborate and explain the Implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for South Asia; the Civil Society Perspectives. If we have a close look at the commencement of the spread of COVID-19, indeed, the COVID came late to South Asia, but it hit hard on South Asia. In order to understand this context better, it is essential to analyze the statistics. When focusing on the statistics of COVID-19 pertaining to Sri Lanka today, the numbers are hard, but if analyzed a little further, at least by giving percentages, the picture seems to be not that bleak.

As of this morning on 26 November 2020, a total number of 20,967 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Sri Lanka. It needs to be highlighted that out of this number, the so-called imported cases, however is only 7.7%, which proves that there is only a very small percentage of imported cases to be reported in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka experienced and now experiences few COVID-19 related clusters. To name some of them in order, the Navy cluster, the Kandakadu cluster, the Minuwangoda and Peliyagoda clusters. Out of these clusters however, unfortunately, the Minuwangoda and Peliyagoda clusters seem to be spreading faster making the total percentage of the infected number to 85.1%.

In the initial phase of COVID-19, Sri Lanka managed it extremely well. However, when the second wave hit, the number of infections rose in a blink of an eye. It is said that the COVID curve is always doing the hammer and dance. In this context, Sri Lanka was able to hammer it down in the beginning, but now the dance is taking place. The Sri Lankan Government together with the responsible authorities work day and night to bring this dancing COVID situation to a hammered stage again.

While further analyzing the numbers, the attention is drawn on other statistics. It is a noticeable fact that the total recovered rate of COVID-19 positive cases in Sri Lanka stands at 74%. The attention is also drawn on the death rate with regard to COVID-19 which is only 0.4%, which is of course not even close to half of a percent. Of course, Sri Lanka saw fewer deaths due to COVID-19 related complications which were unstoppable. Further, as of now in the hospitals, Sri Lanka treats about 5,400 cases. The good news behind this is that, in ICU beds and ventilators there are only 02 patients who are being treated, which indicates a percentage of 0. 0095%.

It is important to consider Sri Lanka's strategy, while examining the South Asian region. The top pillar of Sri Lanka’s strategy is ‘prevention’. Sri Lanka restricted the ports of entry and took much effort in preventing COVID-19 coming into the country. The Sri Lankan Government together with the responsible authorities planned on how to act immediately to prevent COVID-19 spreading out to the society. While many countries had given up fighting against the COVID and letting it to settle down on its own, Sri Lanka worked hard for her citizens standing by the motto ‘Life Matters’. Sri Lanka understands the fact that protecting the Right to Life is of critical importance and undertook this as a humanitarian mission.

Moreover, Sri Lanka based her strategy on the “3Ts”, that is Testing, Tracing and Treating. About Testing, in the initial stage there were only about 30-40 tests per day, but within about a week, the number was slightly increased to 300 per day and now it has gone to about 15,000 to 20,000 per day. On Tracing, Sri Lanka has not used technology a lot. It was basically on human intelligence that the tracing was conducted, this was done with the assistance of police, public health inspectors, and Grama Niladharis. Then about Treating, it is an open secret that there is no proper treatment or a cure for COVID-19. However, the fortunate fact is that a majority of people who are admitted to the hospitals due to COVID-19, survive and come out even without any specified treatment in this regard.

Looking at the measures, Sri Lanka has taken, restricting the mobility and minimizing infections is important. Sri Lanka has really done very well in the initial phase of COVID-18 for about 7-8 months thanks to the restriction of mobility. Meanwhile Sri Lanka was in the process of identifying the vulnerable groups, communities, areas and took control measures targeting them. COVID-19 is a pandemic and it’s a public health emergency and with the possible control measures Sri Lanka enhanced her capacities and capabilities in the health system to fight against this sudden pandemic. And then, Sri Lanka followed WHO regulations to the letter without deviating from the recommendations of the WHO.

Meanwhile, there were several issues with the restriction of mobility while the country was on the phase of a lockdown. Sri Lanka somehow managed the distribution of food, medicine, financial aid and relief packages. While taking action on the closure of businesses, universities and schools, Sri Lankan Government’s immediate attention was drawn to online learning and the concept of Working from Home. In most work places in both the public and private sector, around 25% of people are mandated to physically report to work with this concept of Working from Home.

In the meantime, Sri Lanka made immense effort in repatriating Sri Lankans back home. So far, Sri Lanka with the help of the Sri Lankan Missions abroad and other relevant authorities have handled repatriation of about 46,500 Sri Lankans from 126 different countries which is indeed a great achievement for a small country. In addition to that, Sri Lanka had to take the medicine, test kits, and all that is needed for carrying out testing from various countries. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka is not involved in the process of producing medicines, especially for COVID-19 treatment.

Focusing on the multidimensional threat posed by COVID-19 and the implication to South Asia, it is clearly visible that the COVID-19 has given huge challenges to our capacities, especially in the areas of health, economy, and also in our food production.

As the devastating impacts of COVID-19 on the region’s economies linger, South Asia is set to plunge into its worst ever recession in the coming year 2021. As a result, informal workers who earn daily wages are at risk and millions of South Asians may fall into extreme poverty. The Tourism industry in Sri Lanka which is one of the top income revenue earners has come to a virtual zero right now while the hotel industry has become very vulnerable. In addition, many projects that had been embarked upon for the progress of the country had to slow down their process.

The ‘psycho seismic shock’ which is a kind of a shock because one has never experienced this kind of a pandemic in their lifetime, is noted to be one of the worst results of this COVID-19 pandemic. If recalled similarly, people had this kind of a shock when Sri Lanka was hit by the Tsunami in 2004. Because of this psycho seismic shock, people tend to become restless, agitated and act as if they have lost all hope. This negative mindset disables the vision to progress in one’s mind and that is going to impact the social progress of the country immensely.

On the other hand, some people try to stigmatize the COVID-19 positive persons and tend to corner them from the society. The media should be really blamed for going beyond basic media ethics and creating this kind of psychological impact on the people who are actually suffering. The people who have contracted with the virus need the support and the good prayers from all, they do not want the stigmatization.

The question in everyone’s mind is ‘Will COVID-19 change everything?’.  The world was on a journey of globalization, but now we hear about ‘slobalization’. Discussions are heard of globalization versus slobalization, and nationalism against internationalization, and also doubting the abilities of international organizations. It is a well-known fact that the WHO was criticized by leading powers and their funds were withdrawn. The world faces a different situation and maybe things will change. The world experiences large scale disruption to global supply chains. The impact on the airline industry is huge. Now, the whole world is waiting for the vaccine to come. It is a doubt whether this vaccine will also be caught up or dominated by the so-called medicine mafia. Affordability of this vaccine to less developed countries like Sri Lanka, availability of this vaccine for countries like Sri Lanka and the South Asia, as we are not producing it, also pose several questions in our minds.

The vaccines are developed, tested and produced in the US, UK, Germany, Russia and China. Hence, it is really a question as to what will happen with the vaccine in time to come. Also, it is a hypothesis as to whether the vaccine will cure or prevent the COVID-19. As it takes some time to see the after effects of this treatment, the world is yet to witness the success of this much-awaited vaccine.

COVID has forced us to rethink, especially our economic model, and also forced us to rethink our approaches to the public health issues. This is a very important aspect and Sri Lanka is going through a transition like any other country. Here, the responsibility which lies on the shoulders of the Foreign Ministry and foreign relations is that the focus is on promoting economic diplomacy while practicing international political diplomacy. Sri Lanka wants to focus her shift to economic diplomacy because the development of the country based on an export oriented economy are among the high expectations. A transformation from import dependent economy to export oriented economy is needed. The focus is on the dire need of changing our production and our industries. Sri Lanka in the beginning did not produce a single Personal Protective Equipment because we didn’t have any necessity. But now Sri Lanka is in the process and producing PPEs and exporting to the European and American markets. Hence, COVID has given us a chance to think that we need to change.

Talking about agriculture, Sri Lanka is paying great emphasis on agriculture. With this COVID pandemic, 400,000 hectares of land has been cultivated additionally in Sri Lanka this year and a bumper harvest is expected in the months to come. Sri Lanka is focused on an agri-based, export oriented, economic model.

Let me now focus on what the civil society can do in a pandemic like this. The civil society, have a great responsibility in creating awareness on how to enhance social resilience, which is the fact number one. Secondly, how to mitigate the social, political and geopolitical impact is also the role or the task for the civil society. The third one is how do you unite the people, not divide because of COVID.

On preventive measures and identifying best practices, the models of best practices can be seen from various countries. We need to share the best practices among other countries. We need to identify what best practice we can implement and also enhance social capacities. The civil society has high capacity in any country, any society and we need to mobilise these capacities to battle this COVID-19.

Another key role that the civil society can engage in is harmonizing efforts between the Government and the public sector, the civil sector, and the NGOs. These are the measures that the civil society can take. These facts have been identified based on opinion and experience gained in the evolution of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka.

Then finally, as a region, it is of utmost importance to enhance two things; one is food security and the other one is medicine security for the South Asian region. Again, sharing best practices and addressing conflicting issues in the region is also important. Presently we are bogged down with border conflict for long years. Right now, the COVID is killing people in higher numbers than the war, much more than the conflicts do. But we are still talking about conflicting issues within the South Asian region. We need to understand which one is actually the worst case that needs immediate attention.

The final thought is that COVID-19 is projecting a vital question. ‘What is a superpower? Is a superpower defined as the militarily mighty, economically powerful, or an internationally powerful country or is it a country which can protect the lives of its own citizens?’ In this context, Sri Lanka is indeed a superpower.

Thank you

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