Defence Secretary Maj.Gen. (Retd) Kamal Gunaratne said the prompt interventions made by the military and Police with the support of the intelligence agencies, the impact of coronavirus, compared to other countries, has reduced to a greater extent in Sri Lanka with a significantly low death toll.
He said Sri Lankan military’s contribution to combat new coronavirus would set a good example to other nations on how effectively country’s military could be utilised with health workers to mitigate disease related calamities.
Maj.Gen. Gunaratne in an interview with defence.lk said in a life-and-death situation, the military and the Police personnel were contributing to contain the spread of coronavirus to maintain the national security.
Following are the excerpts of the interview.
Q. Defence Military is actively engaged in combating COVID-19. How do you evaluate their contribution ?
A: It is totally a different battle that the military has stepped into combating coronavirus pandemic, which is a calamity. The military has to fight with the enemy that will destroy the entire nation if not properly fought with. Therefore, the military is saddled with a huge responsibility to ensure national security whether it is a threat or an attack from terrorists, pandemic or natural disasters.
Similarly, even in a pandemic too, the military is tasked to ensure national security. In order to combat coronavirus while assuring national security, the Defence and Health sectors are working together in the mechanism implemented under the directives of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to combat spreading of the coronavirus.
In addition, all other Ministries including the Public Administration, Home Affairs, Provincial Councils and Local Government are working together to control the threat. With the prompt intervention made by the military and Police, the impact of coronavirus, compared to other countries, has reduced to a greater extent in Sri Lanka with a very low death toll.
Q: However, some interested parties claim that we could have managed the situation better if we had plans for quarantine early. Do you agree that the authorities concerned had taken it light at early stages?
A: I refute such allegations. There are people as a habit they criticise everything that a Government does. They even pin point a minor mistake while we are going through severe hardships to deliver effectively.
Since the inception, we shouldered our responsibility when the first batch of students came to the country from Wuhan, China. We set up country’s first quarantine centre at the Military Hospital Diyatalawa.
But, when we received initial directives from the Government to start quarantine for those who returned from Iran, South Korea and Italy, we didn’t have a place ready for the task. However, Sri Lanka Army (SLA) led by Commander Lt,Gen. Shavendra Silva shouldering a greater responsibility, organized quarantine centres with immediately to cater the requirement by having fully pledged quarantine centres.
Therefore, having understood the gravity of the rapidly spreading coronavirus globally, we started the quarantine process from March 10. Our main focus was sending the returnees from those countries hit by the virus directly to quarantine centres from the Bandaranaike International Airport, Katunayake.
However, we faced it as a challenge as many of those returnees avoid coming to quarantine as they wanted to be with their families during their short stay in the country. Therefore, they were reluctant to come forward to quarantine centres as they also didn’t aware of the deadliness of the virus.
Q. According to Army Commander, there are over 19,000 people directed to ‘home quarantine’. Do you plan to get the assistance of military intelligence to monitor whether they are undergoing quarantine genuinely in their homes?
A: People assume that the entire treatment process ends after admitting a coronavirus positive patient to the Infectious Disease Hospital. But the full investigation starts from there with the involvement of the intelligence agencies including Military Intelligence (MI). These officers are having sleepless nights searching people who had close contacts with coronavirus infected patients for the last few weeks, their whereabouts and also those who are evading quarantine.
The MI officers will also get all mobile contacts of patients from the respective service providers and also the places that they have visited last.
Q: But some people accuse the military claiming that their privacy is at stake when their mobile phone details are traced.
A: Here, the national security is important to protect the entire country from the coronavirus. We are doing this only to trace the people who have close connections with coronavirus infected persons and those who are still evading quarantine.
The best example is those coronavirus positive patients who have found from Ja-Ela and Beruwala. Our intelligence agencies including MI, Naval and Police are working round-the –clock to find those who had close links with the infected people. When we find them, we ask them to be self-quarantined in their own houses and we inform their details to regional Police authorities, who will visit their houses with Public Health Inspectors (PHI) to give health instructions while pasting a sticker giving a warning to the residents in the area to isolate them for 14-days to prevent coronavirus spreading further in that locality.
Q.At the very beginning the response from the returnees from coronavirus hit countries was critical and they were evading the quarantine process. What is the situation now?
A: Yes, I agree that they had a totally different picture about the quarantine process at the inception. Since the Government was still busy putting plans to face the coronavirus threat, we couldn’t pay much attention to the returnees, who arrived the country between March 1 to 10 from coronavirus hit countries like Italy, South Korea and Iran. To get them into the quarantine process the Defence Ministry announced them through media to contact 119 giving them a deadline to get them registered for quarantine.
We received information of about over 22,000 and those information were passed down to regional Police stations to take necessary actions. Police and PHIs visited their houses to keep them house quarantine. This is how we took immediate actions to control the rapid spreading of the virus.
The Government is aware of some allegations levelled against us claiming that we don’t have a proper mitigation plan. If we didn’t have a system, by now the impact would have been similar to Italy. The methodology that we have implemented has proved to be successful when compared to the situation, today.
Majority who have contacted the virus are returnees from coronavirus hit countries. But later under this registration system, many of them volunteered to reveal the symptoms on their arrival to Sri Lanka and this made us to direct them directly for medical advices or quarantine.
While the system is in place, there are people, who are still evading quarantine process. One example was the Atalugama incident where one person who was hiding from getting exposed until it became a disaster, which led to a total lockdown of the entire village with 26 houses and 176 people.
Another person who died had been admitted to two hospitals endangering healthcare workers. If healthcare professionals are being sent to quarantine centres, the healthcare system would be paralysed and this is one reason why we requested the public to volunteer to come forward if they suspected to have any symptoms of coronavirus spelled out by the medical experts.
The entire Government machinery led by the President, medical doctors, health staffers, military and those who are in distribution chains handling delivering essential items to people, are risking their lives to serve the public.
Every person has a responsibility and a duty in this critical juncture. Still they have time to be genuine and come forward for medical help if they suspected that they have coronavirus symptoms and also to follow the security and health guideline given by the authorities to stay at home to prevent spreading of this highly infectious virus.
I have also noticed people are gathering, even inside the totally locked Atalugama village. When a village is locked down, it doesn’t mean that they can mingle with people and roam around freely. It means the villagers are strictly instructed to be confined to their homes.
Q. Some alleged that the quarantine facility set up at the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) Hospital is for VIPs and foreign embassy staff. Is it true?
A: I strongly refute that allegation and I am very sad to see how people spread false information over social media while the Government is fully dedicated to protect the country’s people.
KDU Hospital is the only university hospital in the country and the KDU Vice Chancellor Maj. Gen. Milinda Peiris informed me that they could provide its ICU beds and facilities for corornavirus positive patients if necessary. We have decided to allocate some facilities for diplomats in foreign mission if they required. They are not VIPs as it was claimed and this hospital is open for ordinary people despite their social status and ethnicity.
Prior to this coronavirus outbreak, over 800 patients received OPD treatments at the hospital without discrimination.
Q. Despite strong warnings, still some interested parties and individuals posting false information on social media.
A. Yes, I also noticed somebody saying people have died in Sri Lanka due to coronavirus and the government is trying to cover up the story. Those are the depiction of either petty political agendas or animosity that they have, or rather to have some fun over distressed citizens.
But they cannot just escape as our intelligence agencies are fully alerted to identify them and direct them to law enforcement authorities. This disease doesn’t know any difference – race, religion, region, ethnicity, poor or rich- but it is a serious threat to all communities, globally. The Government will not hesitate to take whatever the possible measures to protect the country and our people and also will take tough legal action those who disrupt the system by spreading false rumors and misleading information
Q. Travel restrictions plus curfew have impacted daily life of the masses. Will there be a new plan to give them relief during curfew to attend their day-to-day requirement ?
A. Yes, I do agree people have to undergo hardships. Imposing curfew can be done in two folds – one is curfew under emergency law and the other is Police curfew. Curfew under emergency law is absolutely a lockdown, in which nobody can come on streets and it is imposing to combat terrorist attacks. In Police curfew, people have time to buy essential items and attend banking. This is curfew
Initially, we maintained a relaxed curfew policy not to put much pressure to people, however since they have taken it lightly and moved freely, we were compelled to impose islandwide curfew to restrict their movement to contain the spread of coronavirus. We also started arresting people and taking their vehicles into custody for violating curfew law.
In some days, I have also noticed traffic congestion in Dehiwala and Paliyagoda during curfew. People’s behaviour forced us to impose curfew strictly for their own good to control the spread of coronavirus, which would lead to a calamity, if not taken prompt and strict preventive measures.
When the military and healthcare workers are struggling to control the virus being spreading rapidly like in most of the other countries, we think the public has a greater responsibility to support us by heeding to laws and regulations, which have been imposed to protect them.
It is very unfortunate to see the irresponsible behaviour of some people who attacked our military, which is committed and dedicated to protect our people. Remember, they risk their lives for the people of this country.
If people heed to health and security advices to ‘stay at home and follow social distancing’ to reduce the risk of spreading the virus and following the recommendations of the health authorities, we would be able to relax the prevailing curfew.
Q. You are a member of some important committees appointed to look into the smooth functioning of the Government machinery to combat coronavirus and also the welfare of the people. What is the progress of those initiatives?
A: After a few coronavirus positive patients reported from Sri Lanka, the Government started implementing programs but it took another few days to formulate a proper mechanism to run the Government machinery smoothly.
Meanwhile, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has appointed a special Presidential Task Force (PTF) to coordinate and monitor essential services to deliver goods to community under former Minister Basil Rajapaksa. I am also in that committee, which comprises of over 40 Government officials to look into this mechanism. The Disaster Management Centre (DMC), which is under my purview, is too engaged in this process and it has its own mechanism to work in coordination with Government Agents, Assistant GAs, Divisional Secretaries and Grama Sevaka in all districts and divisions.
Therefore, having merged all these elements, PTF has an enormous capacity to cater to the requirement as all these 40 members are top Government officials and they have similar capacities to contribute to the PTF. For an example; Ministry Secretaries of Public Administration, Finance, Commanders of Tri Forces, Inspector General of Police, Commissioner of Labour Department and Chairman of Consumer Affairs Authority are also in this committee. This mechanism is functioning well now.
We got complaints of some people misusing previously prescribed medicine prescriptions to visit their relatives in other areas when curfew was relaxed. Since we have seen there is a possibility of spreading this virus, we formulated a mechanism to distribute medicine via State Pharmaceuticals and Pharmacies registered under the National Medicines Regulatory Authority which has the capacity to reach their customers.
However, we got some complaints saying that there are some shortcomings in the system and we took immediate remedial measures to rectify those lapses to provide relief to people.