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Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Public Statement on the Government management of the COVID-19 response in Sri Lanka

Image courtesy of Peoplesworld.org/Earanga Jayawardena/AP

Public Statement on the Government management of the COVID-19 response

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global crisis, that is still evolving. Despite early efforts that were successful in containing its spread, Sri Lanka is not immune to it. This is an unprecedented crisis that must be responded to through collective and sustained efforts and with attention paid to human dignity, equal treatment and the multiple requirements of vulnerable communities. The efforts must range from consistent and continued prevention of spread, to treatment. It must also address the economic challenges that vulnerable communities experience at this time as a result of the pandemic.

We are deeply disappointed with the overall response of the government to the recent outbreak of the virus centering around the Brandix factory in Minuwangoda. The most vulnerable – the factory workers – who toil to earn much-needed foreign exchange for this country, have been treated with utter contempt and a basic lack of dignity. On October 11th night and 12th early morning, workers were rounded up for quarantine, taken to the quarantine centres without any explanation, and their medical conditions were spoken of publicly. The media as well as government spokespersons reporting on the pandemic regularly stigmatise factory workers as threats and have paid little or no regard for their privacy. This is all the more notable, when other members of staff, situated in different levels within the same corporate have been treated very differently. As reported by the company itself, staff members returning from India were quarantined in well-equipped hotels and allowed to self-quarantine. This is in stark contrast to the factory workers from Brandix and other factories, currently being quarantined.

Brandix has been extremely evasive with the details of what exactly happened in the Minuwangoda factory, or the measures such as Government recommended health regulations adhered to ensure the health and safety of all of its employees and not just a privileged few. We believe that Brandix could not get away with this level of evasion without support from the highest levels of the government.

The government must recognise that the discriminatory practices it is adopting with regard to managing the COVID pandemic, is ultimately putting all the people of the country at risk. It is essential that the government be more transparent and accountable in how it manages the pandemic and prioritise the health and wellbeing of all the people of this country. In its eagerness to declare ‘victory’ in managing the pandemic, the government is missing the woods for the trees. The virus is not an enemy to be conquered using a military strategy. It is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions, the likes of which the world has not experienced in recent times. What is required at this point urgently is a humanitarian response that brings together all the different sectors to respond to the many dimensions of this crisis. It must be informed and managed/lead by medical health professionals and available science when responding to COVID-19, rather than political expediency.

We make the following recommendations:

1. Recognise that responding to COVID-19 is a long-term issue and Sri Lanka cannot afford to relax. Constant vigilance and careful planning by professionals and experts are required.

2. Increase PCR testing outside of existing and identified clusters so as to ascertain if or not there is community spread, and expedite the release of test results.

3. Prevention of spread will necessarily require certain restrictions on people’s freedoms – especially mobility and association. However, the implementation of restrictions should not lead to the blatant discrimination of specific communities and individuals, especially those from marginalised, under-privileged and vulnerable communities.

4. Quarantine sites are currently over-crowded, poorly serviced and not conducive to preventing the spared of the virus. Instead, some of them may further increase the spread. It would be far better to self-quarantine contacts and those who test positive under the strict monitoring of local health personnel.

5. Only those who require treatment should be hospitalised, thereby minimising the pressure on health services.

6. Essential service personnel such as those in the health sector, transport, food and medicine distribution and law-enforcement must be provided with the fullest support to carry out their duties effectively. This includes the provision of PCR equipment, special transport arrangements, and if required lodging and food, and special allowances.

7. Recognise the extreme vulnerability of factory workers, especially in the FTZ, as demonstrated during this outbreak and make appropriate accommodation. In the FTZs, workers endure:
a. Rigorous working conditions that place meeting production targets ahead of health concerns;
b. Cramped living conditions where risk of virus spreading is high;
c. Exclusion from community services, resulting in FTZ workers being marginalised from support services and stigmatised by communities when they do fall ill;
d. Lack of understanding by authorities including employers of the conditions under which the workers live. For instance, most workers exist on daily provisions – they are unable to stock essentials for days. This has two consequences: constant movement in the community in search of essentials as well as severe hardship when movement is curtailed.

8. Therefore, we propose specific interventions to protect workers in sites such as the FTZ.These include:

a. Strictly enforced health guidelines for employers and employees if factories are to continue functioning. If workers are expected to continue to work, employers must be held responsible for their living arrangements as well. These include safety measures for transport, lodging, purchase of essential goods, and support for their families. If employers are unable to provide these services, they should not be allowed to keep factories open.
– Provision of quality standard medical services, leave, etc.
– In the event, they contract COVID-19, proper medical care, medical insurance, paid leave, etc.
b. The practice of ‘out-sourcing’ has given employers room to wriggle out of bearing responsibility for those working on their sites especially by claiming that some tasks were undertaken by out-sourced manpower are not categorised as their employees. Employers must be held responsible for all categories of workers functioning in their factories/offices including ‘out-sourced’ workers.
c. Linking workers to local health and social services. They must be registered with relevant Grama Niladhari and be eligible for the same services provided to the community in general.

9. Prioritise health services. Ensure to the extent possible, uninterrupted services, especially in public hospitals, clinics, etc. during this period. A shortage of essential drugs is being reported even in some of the key hospitals causing serious problems for patients living with non-communicable diseases in the community – increasing their vulnerability to COVID as well. Ensuring uninterrupted health services also requires that health personnel be given all support to carry out their duties without fear.

10. The countries that are most successful in navigating through this pandemic are those that have secured the TRUST of the people. Trust is built on confidence and not on fear.
We the undersigned appeal to the government to be responsive to the needs of the people and change course immediately. If not, what is becoming evident is the ineffectiveness, inadequacy as well as inhumanness of the current response with devastating consequences especially for under-privileged sections of the country. It is ironic that these are the very groups whose support was essential for this government to gain the mandate that it did at both the Presidential and General elections.

22nd Oct. 2020

1. A. Ajitha
2. A. Rahman
3. Abiramy Sivalogananthan
4. Amali Wedagedara – University of Hawai’i, Mānoa
5. Amalini De Sayrah
6. Anithra Varia
7. Anthony Jesudasan – Human Rights Defender
8. Anuratha Rajaretnam
9. Anushaya Collure
10. Ashila Niroshi Dandeniya
11. Chamila Thushari
12. Chandra Devanarayana
13. Chandrika De Silva – Freelance Journalist
14. Chintaka Rajapakse
15. Damaris Wickremesekera
16. Dee Jayasinghe
17. Deekshya Illangasinghe
18. Dilhara Pathirana
19. Dr. Ameer Ali – School of Business and Governance – Murdoch University, Western Australia
20. Dr. Jehan Perera
21. Dr. Leonie Solomons
22. Dr. Ranil D. Guneratne
23. Dulan de Silva
24. E.M.B Menike
25. F. Zackariya
26. Francis Costa Priyankara
27. Francis Raajan
28. Gayathri Gamage
29. Geethika Dharmasinghe – Cornell University, New York
30. Godfrey Yogarajah
31. Herman Kumara
32. Ishara Danasekara – www.vikalpa.org
33. J.A.N.N. Priyantha Fernando
34. Janakie Seneviratne
35. Joe William
36. Juwairiya Mohideen
37. K. Hemalatha
38. K. Nihal Ahamed
39. K. Saranhan
40. K. Sathiyaseelan
41. Kalani Subasinghe
42. Kamala Vasuki – Feminist Activist, Batticaloa
43. Lakmali Hemachandra – Attorney-at-Law
44. Lal Wijenayake – General Secretary, United Left Front / Wame Wedikawa
45. Linus Jayatilake – President, United Federation of Labour (UFL)
46. M. Nirmala
47. Mahaluxmy Kurushanthan
48. Maithreyi Rajasingam
49. Marisa de Silva
50. Melani Manel Perera
51. Mujeebur Rahman (LLB)
52. N. Girithy
53. Nagulan Nesiah
54. Nilshan Fonseka
55. Niyanthini Kadirgamar
56. P. Deepan
57. Paba Deshapriya
58. Padma Pushpakanthi
59. Philip Dissanayake
60. Philip Setunga
61. Prof. Ajit Abeysekera
62. Prof. Kanchana N. Ruwanpura – University of Gothenburg, Sweden
63. Punitham Selvaratnam – Women for Justice and Peace in Sri Lanka
64. Rajany Rajeshwary
65. Rasika Mendis – Attorney-at-Law
66. Rev. Dr. Jayasiri Peiris
67. Rev. Fr. Aloysius Pieris, S.J.
68. Rev. Fr. F.J. Gnanaraj Croos (Nehru) – Mannar
69. Rev. Fr. Jeyabalan Croos
70. Rev. Fr. Nandana Manatunga
71. Rev. Fr. Reid Shelton Fernando – Retired Catholic Priest
72. Rev. Fr. V. Yogeswaran
73. Rev. Sr. Noel Christine Fernando
74. Rev. Sr. Rasika Pieris HF
75. Revd. S.D.P. Selvan
76. Ruwan Laknath Jayakody
77. S. Easwary
78. S. Ithayarani
79. S. Mariyarosalin
80. S. Nithika
81. S. Tharsan
82. S.C.C. Elankovan
83. S.T. Ganeshalingam
84. Sabra Zahid
85. Sachini Perera
86. Sakuntala Kadirgamar
87. Sampath Samarakoon – Editor, www.vikalpa.org
88. Sandun Thudugala
89. Sandya Salgado
90. Sarah Arumugam – Attorney-at-Law
91. Shreen Saroor
92. Srinath Perera – General Secretary, Free Trade Union Centre
93. Suchith Abeyewickreme – Social Activist
94. Sugath Priyantha
95. Sunanda Deshapriya – Journalist and Human Rights Activist
96. Swasthika Arulingam – Attorney-at-Law
97. Sylvester Jayakody – General Secretary, CMU
98. Tisaranee Gunasekara
99. Tharmika Sivarajah
100. V. Shamini
101. V. Sinthuka
102. V.V. Ganeshananthan
103. Vanie Simon
104. Vidura Munasinghe – Attorney-at-Law & Senior Researcher, LST
105. Vraie Cally Balthazaar

106. Affected Women’s Forum, Ampara
107. Alliance Development
108. Aluth Piyapath
109. Ampara District Women Network (ADWN)
110. bakamoono.lk
111. Centre for Justice and Change (CJC)
112. Ceylon Mercantile Industrial & General Workers Union (CMU)
113. Dabindu Collective
114. Human Elevation Organization (HEO)
115. Human Rights Office (HRO)
116. Lanka Solidarity
117. Law and Society Trust (LST)
118. Left Voice
119. Liberation Movement
120. Mannar Women’s Development Federation (MWDF)
121. Movement for Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR)
122. Movement for Plantation People’s Land Rights (MPPLR)
123. Muslim Women’s Development Trust (MWDT)
124. Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum (MWRAF)
125. National Fisheries Solidarity Organization (NAFSO)
126. National Peace Council (NPC)
127. Praja Abhilasha Network
128. Progressive Women’s Collective
129. Revolutionary Existence of human Development (RED)
130. Right to Life (R2L) Human Rights Center
131. Savisthri National Womens’ Movement
132. Shramabhimani Kendraya
133. Social Institute for Development of Plantation Sector (SIDPS)
134. Standup Movement Lanka
135. Suriya Women’s Development Centre
136. United Federation of Labour (UFL)
137. Upcountry Civil Society Collective (UCSC)
138. Vallamai (A movement for Social Change)
139. Women’s Action Network (WAN)
140. Women’s Development Foundation, Kurunegala


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