By Gamini Weerakoon
(Gamini Weerakoon is a former editor of The Sunday Island,
The Island and Consulting Editor of the Sunday Leader)
Sri Lanka can truly claim to be a front runner in the war against the coronavirus pandemic with 2,984 infected cases reported and only 12 deaths while the pandemic is raging across the world with 24,662,073cases and 836,346 deaths by August 28.
The world’s most powerful country, the United States, has recorded 6,048,404 cases and 184,834 deaths while the world’s second most populous country, India, is accelerating its deadly pace — 3,392,295 cases and 61,725 deaths. Some reports doubt the accuracy of the Indian statistics due to the vastness of the country and the number of its people.
Unlike Lanka’s victory in the ‘Terrorist War’, the COVID-19 War’s heroes are neither being declared nor are there any direct claimants.
The global Covid war is undoubtedly the deadliest war fought by humanity. The enemy was not known and there were no weapons to fight it with. Yet, our doctors, nurses, attendants, manual workers went into battle with the only protective weapon, they thought they had, the flimsy facemask. Many did not even have that at the start.
Like in a military conflict, they were on the frontline facing the deadly virus. They risked not only their lives but those of their family members, too, because after long hours of work in hospitals they went back home with the risk of carrying the virus home.
How many of these brave warriors fell victim to this virus is not known to the public as yet. They should be declared national heroes as those in many in other fields have accorded with such titles and materially rewarded.
These medical workers worked as a team and cooperated with each other showing a degree of cooperation not usually witnessed amongst them in the pre-Covid times. And they had a captain, Dr. Anil Jasinghe MD, Msc, MD (Med Adm), MPA, the then Director General of Health Services. We have not known him or spoken with him but on TV he effused an image of a typical professional in a tie and simple attire. His speeches on TV — flanked by flamboyant khaki uniformed officials of the services — were the point with a single objective: control of the disease.
In this column on July 5 this year, we said that with the general election a month away, a new brand of heroes – COVID-19 heroes — were being marketed as those who saved Lanka from the Covid pandemic. Indeed, this claim was made in the election campaign and it did not include this intrepid band of medical personnel.
We wrote: “To the discerning public, the true heroes of this pandemic are those who worked on the frontline and if a superhero is called for, we recommended Dr. Jasinghe.”
We did so because in these times when you can’t help not bumping into a pickpocket or like on the street, who is also a proclaimed ‘hero’ of some sorts, there could be plenty of claimants for Covid hero awards. The real heroes of this war against an unknown enemy should, as a poet said, cannot be forgotten: unheard, unwept and unsung.
But where is Dr Jasinghe now? He has been promoted as the Secretary to the Ministry of the Environment. A secretary to a cabinet minister is a post in the highest rungs of the administrative ladder. But there is also the cynical view that this is an instance of a square peg in a round hole and the promotion in reality is a ‘kick upstairs’ to accommodate someone else with the title ‘the Hero of the Covid War’. Dr Jasinghe’s expertise is in public health and not on the environment. But to be fair by the doctor and all concerned, he deserved the promotion.
It could be argued that Dr Jasinghe’s expertise in the spread of communicable diseases is essential for environmental protection purposes. The spread of communicable diseases such as malaria, filaria, and dengue is connected with the environment and knowledge of which he possessed as a medical professional would be vital in the performance of his new job.
However, as we are all aware, the Covid pandemic is still not over though it appears to be under firm control in this country.
The threat looms over the Palk Strait. On April 26, we wrote in this column: “While Sri Lankan government officials are backslapping one another on the success achieved so far in containing the pandemic, a threat with devastating potential could be developing just 22 miles away across the Palk Strait in neighbouring India. The COVID-19 virus is stepping up each day in the nation of more than one billion people and has spread right across the sub-continent. If a devastating coronavirus bomb builds up in India and there is a Covid vacuum in Sri Lanka, such a difference could unleash havoc here. This is a challenge that our Virus Warriors have to anticipate without basking in the glory of what has been already achieved.”
The Covid virus is now swamping the whole of India, more so the southern states such as Tamil Nadu. Already an infected Sri Lankan who had been resident in a refugee camp in Tamil Nadu had smuggled himself across the sea and been detected by the authorities. The Sri Lanka Navy is on the alert for illegal migrants across the sea, recent press reports from the North have said.
Daily reports speak of increasing warmth of relations between the new Rajapaksa Government and New Delhi and Indian assistance on this vital issue would be welcome. It is also an opportunity for heroes in the COVID-19 Virus War to make their claims.