Editorial: A challenging year | Sunday Observer

Editorial: A challenging year

There has never been a year like 2020 unless we go back 100 years to 1920, when the Spanish Flu raged around the world, eventually killing 50 million people. A century later, we have not progressed much in terms of battling these sub-microscopic strands of DNA called viruses. It was on December 31, 2019 that the world was made aware of a new variety of Coronavirus that could potentially be deadly. Just three months later, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a Global Health Emergency and a pandemic, also giving it the name ‘Covid-19’.

Covid-19 has so far infected 78 million people worldwide, killing 1.7 million of them. Case numbers in Sri Lanka are close to 40,000. All continents including Antarctica have been affected by the contagion, which shows no signs of slowing down.

In fact, a new variant of the virus has been detected in the UK in the final days of the current year, which is believed to be 70 percent more transmissible, though not necessarily more virulent. Covid-19 caught the world unawares and not many countries were prepared to handle a pandemic, except for a few countries in Asia and Africa which had previous experience with diseases such as SARS, MERS and Ebola.

The virus virtually shut down our lives this year. Most countries including Sri Lanka introduced strict curfews and lockdowns to limit the movement of people, a measure that largely worked.

The basics of defeating viruses had hardly changed in the past 100 years – minimising contact with others (hence the term social distancing), hand hygiene (washing hands frequently with soap and water and applying sanitiser where the former is not possible), using face coverings which limit the transmission of droplets carrying the virus both ways, avoiding large crowds and non-essential travel. These are among the guidelines that health professionals have advocated as measures that can prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Sri Lanka managed the crisis very well to the extent that life almost returned to normality for around three months until the second wave emerged. The credit for this commendable achievement should go to the Government, the health sector, the Security Forces personnel and other essential workers who worked 24/7.

To its credit the Government also introduced a series of relief measures for a host of sectors from three wheeler operators to private bus crews whose livelihoods were disrupted by the pandemic. The Government also promptly began changing the import-driven economic model that has been followed for more than seven decades, opting to develop a localised economy to meet the economic and fiscal challenges arising from the pandemic. For example, it banned imports of many essentials that can be locally produced, a welcome measure for an economy hit hard by the pandemic.

Sri Lanka also earned plaudits for continuing with its democratic traditions even amid the pandemic. The General Election was postponed twice, but the National Election Commission was able to hold a successful poll on August 5, which was won in a landslide by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

This marked a return to political stability where one party held both the Executive and the Legislature after nearly five years of turmoil where the President and the Prime Minister pulled in different directions imperiling the very process of governance. The near two-thirds majority obtained by the SLPP enabled the President to push through with legislative reforms such as the abolition of the 19th Amendment, with the passage of the 20th Amendment.

However, Sri Lanka suffered another setback with the emergence of a ‘second wave’ of the Coronavirus at the beginning of October. While the origin of this cluster has now been traced to a Ukrainian national who had contact with hotel owners and garment factory workers in Minuwangoda, it is not too difficult to imagine how the pathogen spread so swiftly.

By this time, most people had abandoned health safeguards such as washing hands, wearing masks and social distancing. Even some sections of the media had simply stopped the Public Service Announcements (PSAs) in this regard.

Thus the virus spread like a wildfire throughout the country from the two major clusters in Minuwangoda and Peliyagoda. Still, the health sector and the Security Forces have done a remarkable job so far under trying circumstances to contain the virulent contagion. But they alone cannot succeed without public cooperation. In fact, we should be prepared to live with the virus for at least a couple more years under ‘New Normal’ circumstances such as wearing face masks.

But the year was not all about bad news. Humanity once again shows what it is capable of doing if it comes together, which unfortunately happens rather rarely. Governments, companies, universities and others poured billions of dollars into research on Covid-19. Ever since scientists in Wuhan, the epicentre of the pandemic, posted the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus online for anyone to study for free, scientists around the world have been engaged in a battle to find a cure and a vaccine.

While viral diseases cannot be cured per se (only the symptoms can be treated), several promising treatments have already been introduced. But even more importantly, it spurred a worldwide drive to invent vaccines that can prevent Covid-19 in the first place. For the first time in history, two vaccines were developed in as early as three months, though public clinical trials and regulatory approvals took a few more months. The world now has a real hope of defeating this virus in the New Year, which is a reason for optimism.