Tri forces in the forefront battling Covid-19 | Sunday Observer

Tri forces in the forefront battling Covid-19

26 April, 2020

Sri Lanka’s tri forces – the Army, Navy and the Air Force have been in the forefront, working abreast with the health staff and community health workers 24/7, fighting an unseen enemy unleashed by the Covid 19 global pandemic for the past two months.

Their untiring work has contributed immensely to contain COVID-19 and flatten the curve within the borders of Sri Lanka. As the Army Commander Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva who is also the Head of the National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID 19 Outbreak (NOCPC) described it, the security forces are active in the ongoing quarantine work, isolation process for villages, community responsibilities, detection of positive cases and tracing contacts, helping to conduct PCR tests and diagnosing work, and prognosis for coming weeks.

The decision to deploy the army to arrest the community transmission was taken by a team of top officials led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa considering their manpower and logistical capabilities and resilience to respond in a calamity such as this.

Their work in the quarantine front to contain community transmission has been immense and earned them kudos from all quarters of society.

Since the first emergency quarantine centre set up within days by the Army in Diyatalawa for the 33 students flown from Wuhan, China at the very outset (February 1), and it’s success story, the Tri-forces have set up 52 quarantine centres island wide.

The first leg of the quarantine process began with a rescue mission, Deputy Director -Directorate of Preventive Medicine and Mental Health Services Colonel Seveen Semage who over sees the quarantine centres said in retrospect. None of the 33 students who were whisked away from Wuhan soon after the outbreak, contracted the deadly virus. Had there been feet dragging by the Government and other stakeholders when the matter was raised, their story would have ended in tragedy, he said.

The second leg of the quarantine process began on March 10. At first Sri Lankan migrant workers flown back from Iran, South Korea and Italy arrived at the centres. Later the Government decided to bring down the stranded travellers and workers from other destinations, heeding to their desperate pleas. During this phase over 3,500 were sheltered in 46 camps. This included 31 foreigners who volunteered to take part in the quarantine process. The centres were manned by the SL Army, Navy and the Air Force.

While some of the people who arrived at the centres at this leg, completed only 14 days of quarantine, others who were tested positive had to stay longer, in some instances, up to over 30 days. Despite the inconvenience, the people cooperated. They did not make the already burdened life of the security personnel, extra hard. It is not to say there were no resistance at all.

At first, the returnees protested against state quarantine at military run centres. But with time they realised the sacrifices the military personnel were making to save lives, during this deadly pandemic.

“Among these 3,500 people we detected 36 Covid 19 positive cases. If they returned to their families undetected, the impact on society would have been devastating, “Col. Semage said.

Our main task then was to stop Covid 19 from entering the country and make sure the quarantine staff do not contract the virus. During this phase, one of the army officers on duty at a quarantine centre was tested positive. He was isolated from the others and he recovered without developing any complications. Compared to the rates of health workers getting compromised in developed countries, Sri Lanka’s story has been positive so far.

Those who were quarantined at the centres were asked to self quarantine in their homes for a further two weeks after two people were tested positive for Covid 19 following their initial 14 days qurantine at military run centres. “We realised subsequently that the incubation period for Covid 19 can be more than 14 days in some cases and prompt action was taken to contain this threat,” he said.

Col. Semage said Sri Lanka’s strict and regulated measures ensured that the death rate was at a minimal whereas countries like Italy, Spain, the US and UK recorded unprecedented numbers of severe cases and fatalities.”I’m glad to say that after that initial glitch, all returnees cooperated with us at the quarantine centres, despite the inconvenience.”

He said the early detection of Covid 19 cases has been the single most crucial factor to prevent fatalities in Sri Lanka. At the quarantine centres, we check their fever regularly and keep a close watch. Anyone developing severe symptoms are immediately attended to and transferred to the IDH for specialist care.

The seven deaths of Covid 19 patients in the country so far were late arrivals and the 44 year old man who died at a quarantine centre had hidden his symptoms for nine days, according to Col. Semage. When the man was finally tested positive for Covid 19, he had already developed pneumonia and was drifting towards the point of no return.

According to Col. Semage above all, the challenge was to feed 3,500 individuals comprising mostly adults and make Koththamalli (coriander seed) drinks twice a day. “Those who were trained to hold lethal weapons, easily switched to spoons, pots and pans, and soon became experts in culinary art,” he said referring to soldiers, sailors and airmen manning the centres, especially those on kitchen duty.

According to him the third leg of the Covid 19 operation is now on. During this phase locals from locked down areas where Covid 19 cases were detected will be quarantined. Nearly 2,500 such cases are currently being quarantined in 20 centres, developed and manned by the Tri Forces. Among them are 1,200 people from Bandaranayakapura and 300 from Maradana. “In low dense areas like Atalugama in Bandaragama the village can be locked down and people can be allowed to self-quarantine but in high dense areas such as Bandaranayakapura, the people must be quarantined in centres for it to be effective,” Col. Semage explained.

At present 40 such quarantine centres are in operation countrywide, five manned by the Air Force, six by the Navy and 29 by the Army.

This group consisting of drug addicts, proved to be the most challenging. “We had to deal with their withdrawal symptoms and that was not easy”, Col.Semage recalled. In general, the quarantine centre staff had to care for pregnant mothers, people with chronic illnesses who needed special medication and children with special needs. “Our psychologists and psychiatrists always had long days, given the isolation can be a period of mental stress even for the healthy individual,” he said.

The military has also received 20 out of the 33 Lankan passengers stranded in airports in destinations worldwide, when the global pandemic unexpectedly shut down those airports. They arrived from London, Ethiopia, Oman, Qatar and Singapore. The others of this group are yet to arrive in the country. The Government facilitated their passage in cargo planes transporting essential goods to the country.

He said the fourth leg of the quarantine operation, too, is currently in progress. It began with the student returnees from Pakistan. A batch of 113 students and military personnel returning from a training stint were brought down on Wednesday and a group of 102 stranded students arrived from India on Thursday. Nearly 6,000 such Lankan students have registered with the Foreign Ministry to return home. “We are ready to quarantine these people free of charge and make sure they are safe and the country is safe from this deadly pandemic,” Col.Semage added.