"We do not need vaccines we have other methods of controlling it." That was Vasudeva Nanayakkara thundering in parliament one day in November 2020. He was responding to questions asked by the Opposition regarding the government’s preparations to combat the spread of the Coronavirus in the country.
But now, just a little over six months later, he is appealing to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and even the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), to convene a conference to ensure adequate AstraZeneca vaccines are made available to financially strapped nations. What’s more, he even tells them that the shortage of the vaccines is a violation of human rights! That’s rich, coming from a man who belongs to a political party that constantly declares that Human Rights is a Western concept, and Sri Lanka can manage its own affairs.
In Sri Lanka, it’s a crisis. AstraZeneca vaccines were rolled out to first responders and to military personnel etc., sometime in January this year. It was later expanded to ages 60 and above as per the World Health Organisation (WHO) protocol. When it was made available to civilians, it was only to residents of the Colombo and Gampaha Districts of the Western Province. While the Presidential task force set up to combat the virus claimed that the largest number of positive cases was reported from Colombo, with hardly any random PCR testing taking place elsewhere, there were no real statistics regarding the spread of infection in the country.
Carefully controlled information gave people a sense of security when the first wave hit, and the government rode into a parliamentary election, boasting of its prowess of ridding Covid-19 from the country. But the virus was lurking around, and now the third wave has hit the country and the government with a vengeance. Numbers testing positive and dying are increasing daily, and those are not contained to the Western Province alone; the government and its media lackeys who told the public that Sri Lanka was the best country in managing the crisis, now have to bite their own words.
The government decided to roll out vaccines to those above thirty years of age, in clear violation of the WHO protocol. And while mere mortals stood for hours outside the vaccination centres in Colombo and Gampaha districts, the rich and powerful jumped queues to get their shots. That was also the first round of vaccinations, and many were reluctant to subject themselves to a vaccine that most knew little about. Others believed, simply standing in the queues would be an exposure to the virus. So, while some fought their way to get vaccinated, others decided against it.
The situation is different now. Infections are spreading and people are dying; and almost everyone wants the vaccine. The worst off are those who received the first jab of the AstraZeneca. It is almost four months now, and they are yet to receive the second dose. All because the government bungled the roll-out the first time around.
Again those with connections have got their second dose. Doctors suddenly had multiple spouses and in-laws who required the shot. Others ignored the travel restrictions in place going from Colombo in the Western Province to Galle in the Southern Province to get the second dose. Now a magistrate has ordered that the names of those who travelled to Galle be submitted to the Courts. But while this group and the health officials who organised the vaccination drive may face the music, all others who jumped queues and helped family and friends get ahead of the crowd go scot-free.
The shortage of AstraZeneca vaccines has only compounded the issue. Had the government carefully managed the two batches the country received, one from India and one through the WHO, those who got the jab all those months ago would not be in the dilemma they find themselves in. The authorities are now talking about Pfizer as the second shot, though none have arrived in the country yet.
And while Sri Lankan’s anxiously await their second dose, Reuters quoting Ministry of Health data shows that to date 2,830,470 doses have been administered in the country. Meanwhile in the USA and Canada governments are offering attractive prizes to motivate the public to get vaccinated.
In the USA, prizes range from free Uber rides to tickets to sporting events. The Governor of Ohio is offering a million dollars each to five over 18’s who are vaccinated. And to those between the ages of 12- 17 who get vaccinated, there is a chance to win a four year scholarship to an Ohio Public University, where tuition, room and board and books would be paid for.
In Canada, Alberta’s Premier Jason Kenny is offering three one million dollar prizes to residents who at least get their first shot. This is despite Canada reporting on June 15 that 64 percent of the population has received a first shot. Canada has now edged out Israel, which reported 63 percent vaccinated.
That’s the tragedy! While governments’ in the developed world are offering various attractions to get more of their people to protect themselves from the coronavirus, and overcoming the anti-vaxxers concerns, Sri Lankans are desperate, not only to receive the second dose but also the first. A larger percentage is yet to receive the first dose, while government ministers discussed importing super luxury vehicles for themselves.
Tiny landlocked Bhutan, with a population of less than 800,000 has since March this year vaccinated more than 90 percent of its adult population. Granted their population is far less than Sri Lanka’s 22 million, yet, Bhutan is a country where such an exercise is hampered by tough hilly Himalayan terrain. But Bhutan has, with the use of helicopters and volunteers persevered and vaccinated its people. While there has been only one corona related death, the number of infected is less than 2000. Says the UN Resident Coordinator, Gerald Daly, in his blog ‘The government coordinated its approach and reached out to all of these remote communities often by helicopter, with vaccines, which were then often distributed on foot by health workers, sometimes walking from village to village, through ice and snow.’
What a contrast from Sri Lanka’s performance!