Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 Response: Successes & Shortcomings

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SEATTLE, Washington — Like the rest of the world, the coronavirus has dealt Sri Lanka a serious blow. Although in close proximity to numerous COVID-19 hotspots, Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 response has had tremendous success due to a robust structure for healthcare surveillance, testing and extensive foreign aid.

Development Gains Pre-COVID-19

Located off the coast of India with almost 22 million people, Sri Lanka is a middle-income country. In 2019, its gross domestic product per capita was $3,853 in comparison to India’s $2,104. Much of Sri Lanka’s recent economic growth has been as a result of the transition from a rural, agricultural economy to an urban one. Manufacturing and services are now at the heart of Sri Lanka’s economy.

Between 2010 and 2019, Sri Lanka witnessed a 5.3% average economic growth rate. Additionally, it has had substantial success in poverty alleviation. The poverty ratio decreased from 15.3% in 2006 and 2007 to 4.1% in 2016.

While these developments are promising, much of the population subsists just barely above the national poverty line. In 2019, 11.5% of Sri Lankans were categorized as poor or near-poor. This means that a significant number of the population could slip below the poverty line relatively easily from economic shocks, natural disasters or global pandemics.

The economic growth rate has decreased substantially due to COVID-19. The pandemic has further curtailed fiscal limitations. Important development spending in education, social protection and health is lacking, preventing the increases in GDP that will be important for further poverty reduction.

Poverty Alleviation in the Past

General industrialization via the service sector and construction jobs and a more robust tourist industry following the conclusion of a 27-year conflict in 2009 provided an initial economic boost that contributed to significant poverty alleviation. Increased connectivity to urban centers due to more extensive road networks helped facilitate the agricultural to urban transition.

Furthermore, Sri Lanka has prioritized providing free healthcare and government-provided education. This has allowed for both substantial reductions in child mortality, HIV and malaria and improved maternal health and gender equality. Additionally, most Sri Lankans live within 1.9 miles of a healthcare facility. Access to a well-established healthcare system has been integral to Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 response.

Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 Response

Sri Lanka has seen one of the slowest rises in coronavirus cases around the world, with only 3,000 confirmed cases at the end of August 2020. Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 response came quickly after the first reports of the virus in China in December 2019. To achieve a low death rate and effective containment of the virus, the Ministry of Health swiftly identified the risks and the need for heightened communication with the public, quickly mobilizing pandemic readiness plans. By the time the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared COVID-19 a public emergency in March, Sri Lanka had already established prevention tactics.

Included in Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 response was a rapidly implemented sequence of control strategies primarily limiting human mobility. Extensive contact tracing, strict lockdown measures, immediate bolstering of key hospitals in strategic locations, rapidly scaled laboratory testing and immediate closure of schools kept transmission rates low.

Furthermore, Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 response had a concerted effort to help the most vulnerable members of their society. Free ambulance services to anyone with potential COVID-19 symptoms and mobile door-to-door delivery of key services, including food, medication, prescriptions and pensions, ensuring that those with limited resources were able to survive a lockdown.

While the country is in the process of transitioning to a more urbanized economy, the poorest sector of the population remains in agricultural industries. To prevent socio-economic collapse for these vulnerable groups, agricultural and economic relief was a high priority in Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 response. Despite strict lockdown measures, agricultural workers could continue their work throughout. Sri Lanka determined that rice mill workers were essential, helping to prevent future food shortages and insecurities. Daily wage earners and impoverished and vulnerable households received regular social welfare payments. Many nonprofits and volunteers quickly mobilized food relief for the poorest people.

Foreign Aid During COVID-19

While these measures were generally very effective, Sri Lanka needed foreign assistance to scale up testing procedures, provide personal protection equipment and increase technical capacity to reach the whole population. The World Bank fast-tracked $128 million in order to carry out the Sri Lanka COVID-19 Emergency Response and Health Systems Preparedness Project. The project primarily strengthened capacity for contact tracing, case finding and reporting as well as better-equipped health workers and facilities.

China, along with several other countries, donated personal protective equipment and test kits to improve case-finding. The United States promised $1.3 million to protect healthcare workers and strengthen testing facilities. USAID, through UNICEF, provided medical supplies to support high-risk COVID-19 patients in need of neonatal or maternal care. The Korea International Cooperation Agency also provided grant money to facilitate safe education in line with COVID-19 procedures.

Other foreign aid focused on sanitation, water, hygiene and infection prevention in high-risk communities. Moreover, Sri Lanka should receive a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as one is available, through the work of the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility, in partnership with UNICEF, WHO, the World Bank and several other public health organizations.

More Work Necessary

Foreign aid specifically directed at the most vulnerable and marginalized in society has been lacking. Due to the pandemic’s widespread nature across socio-economic boundaries, most of Sri Lanka’s foreign assistance has gone toward benefiting as many people as possible by increasing testing capabilities and providing more protective equipment. As a result, the most vulnerable Sri Lankan communities, which are often separate from urban centers and have limited infrastructure to connect them to vital services, do not receive the same attention.

Because expectations have determined that COVID-19 could worsen Sri Lankan financial stability, the county’s macroeconomic stability will be in jeopardy for the foreseeable future. Given Sri Lanka’s historically successful efforts at poverty reduction, it should monitor the resiliency of the programs already in place benefiting the poor.

Samantha Friborg
Photo: Flickr

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