Those who either travel to or return to Sri Lanka are subjected to a special security procedure due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Dr. Rohini Sakunthala Senevirathne who returned to Sri Lanka recently shared with us her experience of this special procedure.
Q: As a medical practitioner who was abroad, what was your opinion of Sri Lanka's efforts to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic?
A: I saw that several successful policies had been implemented in containing the spread of the disease. Compared to other countries, Sri Lanka took several decisions early. I believe that the government following the collective advice and directives of medical practitioners, especially in practicing social distancing, the quarantine process and limiting arrivals through airports was a big win for the country. We can all be proud of this fact. But after I arrived in Sri Lanka, I realized that due to several malpractices, there could be an instance where all this effort could go to waste.
Q: Does that mean that although decisions are taken wisely, their implementation is poor?
A: Over the past few months in the UK I saw how this could affect the public, how the public can be protected from this as well as the consequences of failing to protect the public. They produced honest and accurate statistics about the pandemic and continued to inform the public. They acted fast to correct their initial mistakes. Sri Lanka had the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and prepare better to tackle this pandemic. I observed three instances where travelers and returnees to Sri Lanka are at risk. These three areas are quite weak.
Q: What precautions did you take as you prepared to travel to Sri Lanka during the height of the pandemic?
A: I heard of reports that if you wish to travel to Sri Lanka, you must obtain a medical report clearly stating that you have not contracted the Covid-19 virus, which has to be tested three days prior to the travel date. Unofficial reports said that the airlines would likely enforce this rule in boarding passengers as well. Therefore most of us were subjected to a PCR test; however some haven't had the opportunity to get tested.
Some returning from Europe or Canada had not tested themselves due to various reasons. Although Sri Lankan airlines were able to segregate the travelers as passengers who obtained a PCR test and passengers who did not, there was no such attempt to separate us. Either they had no scientific knowledge or training regarding this aspect. Their attitude was to deal with the repatriation, and then to deal with a problem if one arises. Otherwise, there was no means of precaution taken at this point.
Q: Did you choose to travel with Sri Lankan airlines?
A: No. Due to a decision by the government we didn't have permission to travel to Sri Lanka through another airline. We are not sure as to why such a decision was taken. It was an issue for a lot of people. As well as Sri Lankan airlines, flights belonging to other carriers too were available. Flights belonging to Qatar Airways still arrive in Sri Lanka regularly, at least three times a week. A majority of us who arrived in the Sri Lankan airlines flight that day had already purchased tickets from other airlines.
Several of those flights for which some of us had purchased tickets did arrive in Sri Lanka at the time. But we were forced to purchase a Sri Lankan airlines ticket at four times the cost and travel on the stipulated date. Therefore 270 passengers who travelled close to each other were posed a risk. It is unfair to a certain degree. Several had to deal with loss of jobs and reduction in salaries. Therefore we had the question as to why we were forced to travel this way. There was also a great risk in repatriating 270 passengers together.
Q: Repatriating this group together, was it in line with efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19?
A: When a group travels together aboard one flight, it is easier to direct them towards quarantine. That much is clear. But we had an issue as to why it had to be a flight of Sri Lankan airlines. If we had tickets purchased from other airlines, which were already travelling to Sri Lanka, and if we were brought as groups of 60 or 70, there is no difference. How travelling aboard a Sri Lankan airlines flight is related to Covid-19 was a question. We felt that the decision was taken to supplement some other financial requirement. Neither did this action give us extra security, nor was it a cost-saving exercise.
Q: What were the preparations at the Sri Lankan airport like?
A: Although indicating a two meter-distance with stickers and similar measures are quite simple, we didn't observe any preparedness like that to direct the arriving passengers. These things can be implemented quite easily. Even though the World Health Organization has said that the spray of disinfectants have no proven efficiency, the passengers were grouped for over two hours until the luggage was disinfected. If there was an infected person or several persons amongst this group, the risk of healthy persons contracting the disease was greater.
We saw that the employees were wearing personal protective equipment which is admirable. But if there are efforts underway to repatriate some 40,000 more individuals, their safety should also be considered. If one of them contracts Covid-19 it is a risk for themselves as well as the country.
Q; How was the PCR test conducted at the airport?
A: Once immigration was cleared and we retrieved luggage, I observed some issues in the manner the PCR test was conducted. When taking a swab for the test, both the passenger and the health official conducting the test should be protected. The process is carried out in a vehicle-like mobile unit. The health officer is behind a glass partition safely and rubber gloved hands are extended outwards to take the swab. Because of this separation the health officer is not exposed to any passenger. Once the swab is given to the passenger, the passenger returns it to the person wearing the gloves. However these pair of gloves weren’t changed from passenger to passenger.
In a PCR test, the swab is inserted deep into the nose as well as the throat. This may induce vomiting. Respiratory droplets which are even visible to the eye are then transferred to the examiner’s hands. The precaution they had taken in this instance was to clean the pair of gloves with an alcohol-like spray, by rubbing the hands together. But I doubt that this is sufficient to disinfect any bacteria that may have ended up on those gloves. What I observed was that this process may transfer bacteria to another passenger when the officer hands out a swab. I observed that passenger’s safety wasn’t optimal in this instance.
Q: You had chosen to pay for a hotel and quarantine yourself at this venue. What was that experience like?
A: I was prepared to pay for a single room in a hotel where I planned to self-quarantine. Before I departed for my trip I inquired several doctors as to where I should station myself. Then I called a particular hotel that was set out for the quarantine process. When inquired the hotel told me that they were expecting some of the passengers from my flight to self-quarantine at their hotel as well. But when we arrived in Sri Lanka we were informed that we would be taken to a different hotel, and if we did not agree with the process we could agree to the free quarantine facilities provided by the government. At this point we only knew that we would be taken to a hotel. We didn’t know what kind of place it was, or what kind of facilities it would have.
The only options I was offered was to choose if I’d like to pay for my quarantine process or if I’d take the free quarantining option. As I didn’t want to expose myself to any risk by being in the midst of a large crowd, and as I had the ability to afford this expense, I chose the paid option. As a doctor I knew what quarantining was. Therefore I needed those facilities. There should be no contact with another person, the toilet and bath facilities should be available for a single person’s use and isolation is a must. If I were to take ill, there should be the ability to go to a hospital soon, a doctor should be available in the premises for any need. There should be a way to inform family members. I was expecting a facility which would be able to provide me with these things.
Q: What was your experience afterwards?
A: We were brought to the hotel via bus. We waited in a car park for some five hours as there was no road to access this hotel. The only way to get there was via boat. There were 86 people with luggage waiting to travel to the hotel. We don’t know who thought that this was a wise idea. If a person took ill at this venue, there was no ambulance or wheelchair available. We would have had to wait for the boat. We have spent Rs. 175,000 for this period, Rs. 12,500 per day. We could have made our peace with this expenditure, but the quarantine facilities should have been available. Once we got to the hotel after five hours there was a military administrative officer as well as a doctor.
After we were advised on how to spend our days at this facility, they never asked us if we had any questions. However a few of us raised our concerns. One person wished to stay in a single room. The email this person had received indicated a price of Rs. 7,500 per day. When that person inquired about this, the military officers reprimanded this person.
“You have come aboard planes and are now ruining the country. If you don’t have the money, you should have gone to the government facility. Not only are you ruining the country, but you’ve also got the gall to question the process” the doctor said. We were appalled as to why we were treated in this manner. Because of all this, I inquired with the doctor if it was possible for me to transfer to a more secure location.
I was informed to stay where I arrived. They informed me that they were not responsible to transfer any of us to a different location, except a government run quarantine facility. I told them to inquire about a responsible officer about my request and returned to my quarters. We were very tired by this point. In a short while I received a telephone call to my room saying that even if I just stay a day, I would be charged the amount for 14 days. I had no need to come to this specific hotel, nor had I signed any agreement in this regard. I told them that I came inside as I needed a protective space to rest, I would pay for the facilities I use, and that I am not prepared to pay anything for facilities I did not use.
Q: Were you able to transfer to the hotel that you earlier wished to quarantine at?
A: After about 6 hours, at about 8 pm I received a call asking me to prepare for the journey. I was terrified to go anywhere at this time. I didn’t know who would accompany me or to which place. Going by the way they treated us this far, I was honestly scared to go anywhere. I was afraid to travel anywhere to an unknown location with unknown people. I informed them that I was unable to go at that time and that I will be prepared to go in the morning. Then I was told that if I didn’t come, they would inform the police. I requested the person to call the police, where I thought I could inform the police about this situation. I was confident that I would be more secure with the police. The police were not called. So I decided to stay the whole 14 days there.
The doctor who reprimanded us was not registered with the Sri Lanka Medical Council. I got to know that he was a graduate of a Russian university. I am disappointed that an unregistered doctor was appointed to care for us at a facility like this. If he acted in a responsible manner, we wouldn’t have had to search about his credentials. I also got to know that 13 persons onboard the flight with us were allowed to quarantine at the hotel that I had requested earlier. How this happened, we don’t know. We weren’t given that choice. We were informed that only this hotel was designated for us.