Sri Lanka was one of the few countries in South Asia to take proactive measures as the coronavirus pandemic spread, yet its fight against the virus has still hit political and economic roadblocks. As of May 20, the country has reported a total of 1,027 coronavirus cases and nine deaths.
Sri Lanka’s first coronavirus case was confirmed in late January, when a Chinese tourist was hospitalized after falling sick. As the number of cases rose, the government decreed a nationwide curfew starting March 20. The curfew played an important role in reducing community transmission and enabling better surveillance, noted Deepa Gamage, a consultant epidemiologist at Sri Lanka’s health ministry. The government also deployed large numbers of armed forces to aid the civilian government’s fight against the pandemic, particularly by building quarantine centers and conducting contact tracing. Sri Lanka eventually lifted its curfew on April 20, but then quickly reinstated it after a spike in new cases, largely within the Sri Lankan navy.
Overall, Sri Lanka’s pandemic strategy has been effective. Thanks in part to help from abroad, it can now test more than 1,000 people per day. China donated 20,000 test kits, 100,000 surgical masks, and 50,000 pairs of medical gloves. In addition, Australia pledged 10,200 pairs of protective overalls and 200,000 gloves for Sri Lankan defense forces involved in the fight against the virus. India has also stepped in by providing thirteen metric tons of essential medicine and medical gloves.
The pandemic has important implications for Sri Lanka’s domestic politics and ethnic relations. As of this writing, the Sri Lankan parliament remains dissolved, concentrating unprecedented power in the hands of the central leadership with no democratic opposition. Given the strict restrictions on movement, the parliamentary elections scheduled to take place on April 25 were postponed. Meanwhile, religious tensions were inflamed when several Muslims were forced to cremate their dead, contrary to Islamic tradition. Sri Lanka’s social fabric had already been under added strain since the 2019 Easter bombings.
The coronavirus has seriously weakened Sri Lanka’s economy. The tea and garment industries—which produce some of the country’s top exports—have come to a grinding halt. While the tea industry is aiming to ameliorate the impact by reviving regular tea auctions, which would provide the government with foreign exchange reserves, the garment industry faces the threat of mass unemployment due to loss of cash flow. Meanwhile, Sri Lankan tourism has seen a massive dip owing to border closures. Nearly two-thirds of Sri Lanka’s workforce is informal, and the restrictions on mobility have severely affected workers’ daily earnings. To provide support, the government has announced an allowance for workers from the informal sector. It remains to be seen if these economic strategies can see the country through a prolonged lockdown, as domestic politics grow fractious and ethnoreligious tensions escalate.
Raghuveer Nidumolu is a Knowledge Transfer program coordinator at Carnegie India.
Interview with Jayanath Colombage, Additional Secretary to the President of Sri Lanka for Foreign Relations and Director General of the Institute of National Security Studies
How does Sri Lanka perceive the role of international institutions in combating this pandemic?
International institutions like the World Health Organization (WHO) are the leading multilateral authority for handling a pandemic, but its credibility is now under threat. Given that this coronavirus is a new strain, WHO officials needed time to identify its RNA and behavior before they could recommend ways to tackle it. Although international institutions are important, they take time to respond effectively, so individual countries must do what they can to prepare for future pandemics.
Like many developing countries, Sri Lanka has received loans in the past from institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Asian Development Bank. These institutions can help countries weather the pandemic by declaring a moratorium on such loans, postponing repayment until their economies can bounce back.
Given that South Asia is the most densely populated region in the world, what are the opportunities and challenges for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) amid this pandemic?
The initiatives undertaken by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi—including recent video conference calls and a coronavirus development fund—have pulled SAARC out of three years of relative hibernation. The organization can now better serve as a platform for South Asian countries to come together and face this disastrous situation together.
For a country like Sri Lanka, SAARC can provide various opportunities. Sri Lanka’s top export markets are in Europe and the United States, where trade has collapsed because of the pandemic. Sri Lanka and other South Asian countries would benefit from a regional approach to economic ties rather than relying totally on a globalized world. During the pandemic, such an approach is especially important for the production and distribution of test kits, personal protective equipment (PPE), and other medical supplies. The region—and, indeed, much of the world—already depends heavily on India’s exports of medicines and pharmaceuticals.
How has the Sri Lankan government handled the coronavirus outbreak?
When the coronavirus was spreading in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa set up a committee to study the crisis and make recommendations on prevention, testing, and treatment measures. The committee took into account WHO guidelines and regularly monitored the situation in China. These measures helped Sri Lanka promptly detect its first patient. The government brought back Sri Lankan students from Wuhan and other parts of China and sent them to quarantine centers almost immediately.
Currently, with the Sri Lankan parliament dissolved, the government has made decisions more quickly. The president, the prime minister, and a team of fifteen cabinet members are now directly involved in coronavirus response strategies—monitoring the situation, consulting experts, and issuing directives and guidelines.
Given Sri Lanka’s history of civil strife, will it be easy or difficult for the government to employ military aid alongside civilian government initiatives?
The Sri Lankan military was only called in when there was a need to set up quarantine centers and provide medical assistance. The military was also involved in contact tracing and in producing and sourcing ventilators, ICU beds, PPE, and other supplies. No other organization in Sri Lanka would have been able to take on those tasks as readily.
When the virus hit the country, it did not respect ethnicity. Although initially there were some protests in Tamil-dominated areas when medical camps were being set up, resistance to military assistance cooled as the gravity of the pandemic set in.
How has the pandemic impacted Sri Lanka’s informal economy? What steps, if any, are being taken to address this issue?
Financial assistance is being provided to workers in the informal sector, which has been hit hard by curfew measures and mobility restrictions. The government has also allowed a six-month moratorium on loan payments and plans to provide more economic relief through reduced interest rates. Sri Lanka is also keen to revive critical economic sectors like the tea and garment industries that produce a major share of the country’s exports and generate substantial foreign exchange revenue. In the future, focusing development attention on agriculture and small- and medium-sized enterprises will reduce the economy’s dependence on global markets.