Covid-free environment for polls, a team effort - SLMA | Sunday Observer

Covid-free environment for polls, a team effort - SLMA

16 August, 2020

The Sri Lanka Medical Association President Prof. Indika Karunathilake reflecting on how the Association was able to successfully maintain a disease-free environment at the recently concluded parliamentary elections gave the following comments in an online interview with the Sunday Observer Health journalist.


Q. The Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) was the main technical contributor in enabling the National Election Commission of Sri Lanka to conduct a Covid-19 free election at the polling stations across the country. How was the Covid-free voting process planned?

A. The SLMA worked in close collaboration with and supported the National Election Commission of Sri Lanka to conduct a disease-free election by strict adherence to Covid-19 prevention guidelines. The process witnessed at all polling stations islandwide was planned and designed through a series of meetings, starting on June 5 , when the SLMA was invited by Chairman, Elections Commission Mahinda Deshapriya to discuss the health measures needed to prevent the spread of Covid-19 during the parliamentary elections 2020, the goal being to minimise the risk of the novel Coronavirus transmission during the election campaigns the election.

Q. Your Association also introduced new guidelines and recommendations on how to keep the polling stations disease-free in collaboration with the Ministry of Health. What were they?

A. The guidelines covered the entire election process and based on preventive measures such as maintaining physical distancing, non-touch techniques, wearing masks and hand hygiene. To highlight some of the salient features they included the following : All elections officers addressed by a health official regarding the preventive measures to be undertaken to safeguard them and the voters. The queues of voters maintained the physical distancing requirements of one metre, marked on the floor or the road. Hand washing facilities/ or alcohol-based sanitisers provided to each voter before entering the main voting room. All identification documents checked using a non-touch technique. Ballot papers, to be handed over using a non-touch technique. A piece of equipment to apply ink on the voter’s finger, using a non-touch technique.

Voters were encouraged to bring their own pens. After marking the ballot paper and voting, voters were again directed to a hand washing station with soap and water provided with a hand sanitiser. The counter surfaces used to mark the ballot paper frequently decontaminated using 70% isopropyl alcohol spray every 10 minutes.

Q. Was your team able to monitor if they adhered to during the entire election process island wide?

A. Yes. We set up aHealth centre at the Elections Commission to monitor, process and address any health related issues.

Q. Managing the health desk at the national operation room at the Election Commission must have been a difficult task. What did it involve?

A. We used different techniques. The idea of health screening at counting centres was proposed by us. Medical screening was an essential precaution.We set up medical screening at all counting centres by coordinating with the regional health directors and Medical Officers of Health. That way we were able to help the Election Commission to resolve and manage health and Covid-19 related issues and complaints on the day of the election.

We also inspected several polling booths and health screening centres at counting centres to ensure a Covid-free environment. The counting process was considered a higher risk than the voting process since it takes a long time and mostly happens in a crowded, poorly ventilated setting.

It was important to apply as many precautions as possible considering the risk and the logistics. At the main centres, advanced technology with image and thermal sensors too were employed.

Q. Given your limited facilities as an independent body you must have faced some challenging moments? What were they?

A. Frequent deviation and lack of adherence from prescribed precautionary measures were observed during the campaigns. The delay in the gazette of regulations to be followed also hampered the power of health authorities to intervene.

Q. The SLMA also produced a video as part of its contribution towards training and educating the officers and the general public. Tell us more about this concept.

A. We were able to produce a detailed video to demonstrate the actual process at the polling station. This helped to train and educate the officers participating in the election and the public. The video was telecast in Sinhala and Tamil in all electronic, print and social media reaching an audience of over one million with very positive feedback.

Q. One of the key concerns on the election process was allowing voters still under institutional and home quarantine. Combining voters’ rights and health issues can be a tricky business. Your comments?

A. Yes, a key concern on the whole election process was allowing voters still under institutional and home quarantine. We were able to come up with several options and plans to secure their voting rights on the day of the election.

Q. Finally, your observations on the recently concluded 2020 parliamentary election process?

A. Overall it was a smooth and well-coordinated process. The implementation of precautionary health measures was of a very high standard. The Elections Commission and all stakeholders deserve credit for this achievement.