Sri Lanka fought and won the battle against the COVID-19, by implementing strict measures and full lockdown of the country. This is post is about the key struggles the island nation faced during that time and how we saw the situation unfold, from our rented apartment in the capital Colombo - our thoughts, fears and hopes during the two months we were stuck inside.
We landed in Sri Lanka on 12 March 2020 and we planned to spend almost two months here before flying to Thailand on 2 May. These were the only fixed dates we had, the start and the end of our time here, the rest was still to be decided. As we had plenty of time to explore the country we wanted to stay in Colombo for the first few weeks, do some touristy things occasionally, but mostly relax and take it easy. Then go on a tour around the country and back to the capital, a week or so before our flight out. Sounds good, doesn't it? As you already know, things went a bit sideways...
Considering that we were going to spend several weeks here, we chose a nice apartment for our stay. Centrally located, a stone throw from the ocean and within walking distance from some of the attractions. The amenities included AC, small kitchen, water filter, washing machine, a comfortable bed, a balcony and regular housekeeping. Our host, we will call him Mr F here, seemed nice, very responsive and helpful, even before we arrived. We were really lucky with our choice, little did we know at the time, we were going to spend several months stuck inside, instead of the planned couple of weeks.
Before the lockdown
10 March: First local coronavirus case
The first confirmed case of a Sri Lankan national infected with COVID-19 was detected. The 52-year-old tour guide most likely was exposed to the virus while working with a group of Italian tourists. For reference, the first case in the country was registered months ago - on 27 January a 44 year old Chinese national was admitted to the National Institute of Infection Diseases after airport screening detected she had a fever. The patient fully recovered and was released from the hospital on 19 February.
12 March: Landing in Colombo
We arrived in Sri Lanka. There was a lot of talk about the virus, and many people wore masks at the airport, but nothing suggested that in a few days the world would change drastically. At the Colombo airport, they had introduced a temperature check for all arriving passengers, as well as several new forms about current health state and previously visited countries. We had to wait on two different queues before Immigration.
16 March: Initial protective mesaures
The first round of measures against the pandemic was mild and presented as just a minor inconvenience for us - Sri Lanka declared a "work from home week". All non-essential services were ordered to stop operations, government agencies, malls, museums, temples and so on were closed. At that time it just sounded like a week without sightseeing, not a problem.
Interesting fact, even before COVID-19 grew into a pandemic, in February, the Sri Lankan government set maximum price on disposable face masks.
17 March: Credit relief
In one swift move, the president shifted the burden from businesses affected by the coronavirus to the financial institutions by ordering "that debt should not be collected for six months and working capital to be provided at 4 percent interest”.
Day 0 (19 March): It is about to start, we did not see it coming
While walking back to our room in the evening, we stopped by at a supermarket to get some soda and there we encountered a very strange situation. Small crowds, literally tens of men buying alcohol - some just a couple of beers, some grabbing baskets full of liquor. All the checkout lines were just men with bottles. Along the way, it was the same thing happening in several other shops. Knowing very little about the people here we chalked it up to cultural differences, maybe it was a payday or a normal thing before a weekend. Wish we knew the true reason, a total ban on alcohol sales after midnight, one of the many steps Sri Lankan government took to control the developing COVID-19 situation.
The Bandaranaike International Airport was closed today, initially for a week, later the period got extended multiple times. Only passenger arrival flights are affected by the order. Cargo, humanitarian, emergency and other special flights were allowed to continue, so were passenger departures.
The early days - full of hope
Day 1 (20 March): It's gonna be just 3 days...
Our friendly host Mr F, at the guesthouse we were staying at, let us know that there would be a curfew starting at 6 pm today for a period of 3 days - until Monday 23rd. It would mean that everything would be closed, and people are not allowed to go out without a good reason and written permission from the police. No taxis, no supermarkets, no restaurants, no pharmacies. What Sri Lanka called "curfew" was, in fact, a complete and total lockdown. He suggested we stock up on food and anything we might need for a few days.
The news did not seem too concerning. So far, it had been a few days of "work from home", extending it with a few more days of stricter measures made sense. It would mean a change of plans for us, but staying inside for a while did not bother us much.
We went to the supermarket in the evening and there were just a few more people than usual - we stocked up on biscuits, eggs, milk and some noodles. Our life is travel and we were expecting to be able to continue our trip through Sri Lanka soon, so getting too much extra food didn't make sense. Just to be on the safe side, we got enough to last us 4-5 days, but not more.
On the way back a young man yelled at us "Corona! Corona!" from a passing tuk-tuk. At that time many foreign tourist were experiencing similar behaviour from the locals. It wasn't in any way worrisome, but still unpleasant.
Day 2 (21 March): This thing is more serious than expected, can we go to Thailand?
The curfew got extended with an extra day - no worries, we thought, one more day is not that much, we can stay inside a little more. We were still envisioning a week or, at most, two of lockdown, but things were changing by the hour, not only in Sri Lanka but in every part of the world and it was time to start rethinking the original travel plan.
We began to ponder whether it hadn't been wiser to stay in Thailand when we had a chance. Why Thailand? Well, we had been there many times, we knew the country a lot better and their healthcare system is better than Sri Lanka, which would be important in case of an outbreak. We felt it would have been a better place to get stuck in. Our original flight there at the end of the Sri Lanka adventure was to be on 2 May, but it got cancelled. We decided to try and get to Thailand earlier and booked a flight at the start of April.
While waiting for this flight, things changed in Thailand too. They introduced a new policy and all visitors needed a negative COVID-19 test to enter the country, plus an appropriate insurance policy. Luckily, we extended ours just before the pandemic was announced - so no problem there. The virus test proved a bit of an issue, however. We tried calling hospitals to check if we can get tested, then our host got involved and he made some calls on our behalf, but we were out of luck - no testing unless there were symptoms. We contacted the Thai Embassy in Colombo, but they were not able to help us either. Well, in the end, it was resolved unexpectedly - the flight got cancelled, and it became clear we would be staying in Sri Lanka for the time being.
It was an uncertain time for all tourists and travellers - whether to go home or stay in place, flights cancelled left and right, countries were urging their citizens to go home as quickly as possible. You would book a flight, it would be cancelled and the next one would be more expensive, but it would be cancelled too. People were complaining on the Internet, trying frantically to get to their final destinations.
It was uncertain for us too - we had two flights cancelled already and to top it off Australia was closing its borders. Should we go home? We spent many hours trying to decide what would be the best course of action and whether we needed to go back or not. Eventually, we decided to stay here and wait it out.
Day 4 (23 March): Got some food!
No shops were open that day, but Mr F was going to order groceries over the phone and offered to get us some. In our minds, we were going to stay in for maybe another week, we even wondered if it is worth getting the extra food, but took him up on his offer and got some eggs, sausages and crackers that turned out to be everything we had for several days afterwards.
Facebook is not a great place to find useful information, but the three or four groups for travellers in Sri Lanka we had joined to get inspired about our trip proved to be helpful in those times. This is where we learned that we are required to register with the local police - the government wanted to monitor all foreigners in the country. The process was quick and painless - one email with our information and one phone call and we were set.
Day 5 (24 March): Last 8 hours of freedom
Today the curfew was lifted for 8 hours starting at 6 am, so people have a chance to buy food. At the moment the expectations were that this would happen several times a week. The next curfew lift was scheduled just three days ahead - on Friday 26th.
Mr F brought us the essentials we had ordered with him the previous day, so we didn't have to wait in line. We decided to go out anyway to see if we can get some more stuff from the supermarket and check the situation outside. Went out around noon, expecting the lines to have dwindled already and with more than two hours until the curfew we thought our chances were pretty good. Foolishly optimistic thinking! The line in front of the supermarket was about 100 people, stretching several blocks thanks to the space people were keeping between each other. Everybody was wearing masks, or something on their face - like a scarf, a man had two handkerchiefs tied together. The army was keeping things in order - just walking around, machine guns in hands - nobody had to speak, everybody understood what is expected.
We waited for about 10 minutes in line and after some rough calculations, it was obvious that less than a quarter of the people waiting have a chance to enter the store before it closes and everybody has to go home. We left the line and walked past several smaller shops and restaurants, all of which were closed and as a final stop decided to try the McDonalds nearby. It looked promising before getting there - no people queueing outside and lights on inside. At the door, we were greeted by an employee, who told us that only the drive-through is open. Heading home we realised that what looked like a mid-sized traffic jam was actually the line of cars waiting to get burgers and fries.
Day 6 (25 March): "Foreigners go home!"
In those early days, there was a lot of uncertainty. Some tourists complained on Facebook that they were being kicked out of their hotels for being foreigners. There were more negative attitudes towards tourist who were seen as bringing the virus into the country.
We didn't expect our host to kick us out, he even assured us he is willing to keep us as guests. But we were in the country for less than fourteen days and the thought of people like us being shipped to quarantine centres did cross our minds. We made sure all our devices and power banks were fully charged at all times. Just in case.
Day 7 (26 March): Food worries
Lockdown was supposed to be relaxed for a few hours tomorrow, when we would have been able to go out and buy some provisions. Unexpectedly, today it was announced that no curfew lift is going to happen as it was pushed till the week after. Later on, this one was gonna be changed again and eventually the restrictions stayed in place for a little over two months.
We stayed positive throughout the whole time, but looking back now, those few days at the start of the lockdown the situation was quite uncertain and food was a bit of an issue. We did have supplies, but only for a short time and even though the local news said there are supermarkets delivering, we had no luck there - websites were overloaded, placing an order was not possible. We started rationing what we had, dubious how long it was going to be until we were able to get groceries. Our host offered us home-cooked rice and curry, we really appreciated his kindness and it was good to have the security of knowing that at least, we were not going to go hungry.
The long pause
Day 8 (27 March): Supermarket troubles
We got woken up by a call early morning - Mr F had managed to get through on one of the online shopping stores and asked us what we needed. Even at that time of the lockdown, we did not want to order too much - after all this could not continue for much longer, couldn't it? We opted for some eggs, sausages, crackers and a bag of onions - the only available vegetable. The choice was extremely limited and to prevent people from hoarding maximums were set on product quantities, so even if we wanted we couldn't order more than a few days worth of food.
To understand the full extent of the situation with online shopping here, you should know that for regular supermarkets it was nonexistent before the virus hit. There were online stores, but smaller, and more specialized - electronics, cosmetics, organic food, places getting smaller traffic volumes and easily manageable by a few people or even a single person.
Putting up a fully functional online store for a major supermarket usually takes months of planning, development, testing. Once the lockdown was in place though, the pressure was put on the big supermarket chains to come up with something usable. The government permitted just a small number of companies to sell and deliver food, but the question of how to manage this was not a simple one.
Grocery providers struggled a lot at the beginning. Whatever websites were working, got overloaded quickly, not made for the kind of traffic a whole country is generating while trying to access them. Alternative systems were implemented - food orders were accepted via phone or email, through Facebook and Whatsapp messages where people submitted grocery lists or in some cases spreadsheets with product codes. Those apps are not made for this kind of purpose, so I imagine it must have been quite hard to manage queues of thousands of Whatsapp messages, probably manually entering the information in internal systems and then trying to fulfil successful deliveries. As can be expected, in the end, you would get whatever was available, rather than exactly what you have chosen.
Another issue for the supermarket chains was that many of their workers were stuck in their home towns and villages where they had gone in the initial days of the curfew. Not only did they have to deal with the whole "how to make online purchasing and deliveries" question, but their staff was reduced. To supplement their workforce the government allocated military personnel and even volunteers helped with packaging and deliveries. One of our orders was delivered by a young family in what was obviously their personal car - a middle class, almost new, sedan which could not have been further from a supermarket delivery vehicle.
Instead of offering their full inventory, some implemented a system of essential packs. They would sell bundles of food staples - for example, 2 kg rice + 1 kg dhal (lentils) + 1 can fish for a set price or a pack of several types of fruits and vegetables. There would be several bundles like that available, just different quantities - a lot less effort involved in packing and ordering.
Despite the unusual and unexpected situation the country was put in, it was impressive how online shopping was developed from the ground up in about a month. By the middle of the curfew period, there were several working, if basic and sluggish, online stores, that were completing orders with varying delays and accuracy.
Day 9 (28 March): Chart of infected and relations
To give you an idea of how seriously Sri Lanka was taking this problem just take a look at this small part of a document.
This is a chart called "Exposure History of Covid-19 diagnosed cases of Sri Lanka as on 27/03/2020" and is published by the Epidemiology Unit at the Ministry of Health & Indigenous Medical Services. The first column shows the exposure nature for this patient, the second is the gender and case number and the last indicates the number of close contacts this person had while contagious. The most interesting bit is the lines in the second column, indicating known connections between infected people.
Keep in mind this chart is only the publicly available information. I think it is fair to assume the epidemiology unit has more data, meticulously collected by immigration, police, army, medical facilities and special task forces, all used to control the rapidly developing situation. A great effort, which many countries can only wish were able to do.
First registered COVID-19 death in Sri Lanka.
Day 10 (29 March): The menu is: rice, fish
To be able to operate, a restaurant had to have special permission and implement a safe system for preparing and delivering the food, no dine-in patrons allowed, of course. Because of that, at this point of the curfew, there were almost none open. Today Mr F supplied us with the phone numbers of three restaurants doing deliveries - a burger place, Dominos and KFC, not much, but it was something.
Before the lockdown, there were two major apps for ordering food - UberEats and PickMe. They are quite similar - both give you the option to choose from a list of local restaurants and order from one of their varied menus. The choice for most Colombo areas was between tens, if not hundreds, of places - fast food, bakeries, pizza, local cuisine, Chinese and many more.
With the start of the curfew, both apps had completely stopped their service, sombre messages about the lockdown showing instead. Today, however, PickMe got the green light to resume operation. Yay! The list of "restaurants" had shrunken to measly two - first option was LitroGas - supplier of cooking gas, the second - a small supermarket. The app is not built to be used as a supermarket store, the inventory of such cannot be properly entered or shown to the user, and to go around this the choice was limited to 3 basic packs of food - each containing rice, lentils, canned fish, in small, medium and big sizes.
Even with the admittedly short list of grocery options, PickMe was a lot better than the not so reliable at the time online supermarkets. Every order we placed with it came through within 4 hours, and we were stocked with rice and lentils for days and did not have to worry about food.
Day 11 (30 March): Shocking bill
Mr F messaged us in the morning asking to meet us urgently. He had received his electricity bill and it was shockingly higher than expected. He showed us bills from previous months and it was obvious that we, staying inside 24/7 with the aircon on, were consuming more electricity than usual. His budgeting plans were not working in this situation and after discussing it we agreed for him to give us the basic rate for the room and us to pay the electricity usage on top of that. Eventually, it turned out to be several more dollars per day, but the interesting thing here is the high cost of electricity in Sri Lanka. Pricing is progressive or as Mr F put it "If you use a little bit it is very cheap, but if you use more it is very expensive". If the usage is above the bare minimum price goes to 46 LKR/kWh which is A$0.38 or roughly double what we were paying in Melbourne.
Five new coronavirus cases today, a number similar to the previous days, brought the total for the country to 122. Second fatal outcome.
Day 12 (31 March): Big Brother is watching (or calling)
Our host told us something interesting - a police officer from the local station was checking up on us daily. Per protocol, he was supposed to do it twice a day, but sometimes he just called to confirm our status. Although we were registered with the police, this came as a surprise for us. Another sign that the authorities are taking things very seriously, keeping an eye on every tourist in the country cannot be an easy task. We never met this police officer in person, but he called us too several times - very polite and friendly, he let us know to call the station if we had any problems.
They were probably most concerned about us exhibiting any symptoms that might be pointing to us having the virus. Especially in the first weeks, there was a lot of uncertainty and fear around the developing situation and we, the foreigners, were seen as the main group who brought COVID-19 to Sri Lanka.
Day 13 (1 April): Fruits! Veggies! Police!
Great news today! A truck was out on the street selling fruits and veggies. About 50 meters from our house, people were gathering around the truck. While walking towards it I saw a police officer coming from the opposite direction. After a moment of hesitation, I decided to push forward, hoping I won't get in trouble for violating the curfew. We reached the truck at the same time, he looked at me and then at the other people for a bit, turned around and left. I don't speak any of the local languages, but it was clear that I was not the only one who felt relieved.
Technically we were not following the orders and there was news about hundreds of people getting arrested in the city daily for the same. But just a few steps out of the house shouldn't be a problem, right? We were all thinking it, but nobody was certain. The expressions on the other people's faces made me really sad. They were not scared, but worried and nervous, all talking in hushed voices. The police and the army didn't bother us and we all got some fresh bananas, oranges and even eggs!
Day 14 (2 April): Solitary fitness
We have never had our movement so limited for so long, and it didn't look like things would be improving soon. Gaining weight became a concern, I know, first world problem, but something we had to think about. To fight it, we added an hour or so of basic physical exercises like push-ups, squats, stretches. It turned out, exercising is achievable even in confinement.
Day 16 (4 April): Online shopping is not easy
Keels, one of the largest supermarket chain in Sri Lanka, opened their new website for online shopping, which was still in the testing stages. It was set to "open" at 6 am in the morning and would accept only 500 orders, once the quota is fulfilled it got disabled until the next day. The limited number of orders meant waking up before sunrise, accessing the website before it was time for it to start working and hoping to get through before it runs out of available slots. They did raise the quota gradually in the next weeks and we were eventually able to purchase some stuff. But not today. Or the next one.
The interesting thing with grocery prices was that even though supply was scarce, prices did not shoot up considerably as is quite often the case in such situations. As soon as the curfew was imposed, to control the market and avoid price gauging, the government implemented maximum retail prices on essential goods. Even if my personal list of essential goods might be different from "rice, lentils, turmeric, canned fish and onion" I think enforcing the ceiling prices on those by the government was a very smart move in a potentially calamitous situation.
The possibility of having to visit a pharmacy or a hospital for any reason was daunting, but thankfully we stayed healthy throughout the whole period. Medicines were still available, be it in very few selected pharmacies that remained open during the curfew. Hospitals were open for emergencies, for non-emergencies, a visit had to be organized through a doctor and the police.
Day 20 (8 April): Visa extended
Sri Lanka extended the validity of all visas with another month. No need for anyone to go to the Immigration to fill out forms and wait in line. With the upcoming expiration of our 30 days tourist visas that was good news. At this moment we were still uncertain what fees and when we would be eventually required to pay.
Day 22 (10 April): Good news?
No new COVID-19 cases today, the trend for the last days showed a decrease in new cases. Things are looking up, maybe the curfew restrictions would be relaxed?
Day 23 (11 April): Cremation policy enforced
An update on laws making cremation mandatory for people who have died or are suspected to have died from the coronavirus was announced by the health minister. This measure caused a serious disturbance in the Muslim community as cremation is forbidden by Islam. People have called this an unnecessary violation of their rights as per WHO recommendations bodies can be either burned or buried.
Day 24 (12 April): Sunset
It had been more than three weeks at that time, with only a couple of times going out, a short distance out of the front door to buy stuff from a fruit and veggies truck or to collect deliveries. From the balcony, we could see a narrow portion of the sea a little down the street, visible between the buildings, and that was it.
Our cozy apartment was comfortable, but we needed fresh air. After confirming with Mr F that it should not be a problem to go out and walk the 50 meters to the sea, that evening we went on our first walk in weeks. We sat on the shore, feeling the gentle breeze and watched the sunset, such a small thing, but it felt amazing.
From that day onwards we would go out around sunset, watch the daylight sink into the ocean and walk 30-40 minutes - up and down the street, again and again, just to get the blood flowing and our daily ration of fresh air.
Day 31 (19 April): The end of the lockdown? No.
Coronavirus cases had been steadily going down up until a few days ago, and the full lockdown was set to be relaxed tomorrow, replaced by a milder overnight curfew. Unfortunately, with several more new ones in the last couple of days, this did not come to pass, instead, the lockdown for the whole country was extended for another week.
Waiting for the lockdown to end the next week, only to get a further extension on Sunday, was something we experienced several other times, before the actual return to normalcy.
During our evening walk, we got to the intersection of our small alley with the main street towards the city centre. Just wanted to have a look around and while we were doing so a young soldier approached us. There was a military blockade on the intersection with three soldiers, all armed with machine guns. He asked us, very politely where we were going and if we needed any assistance. When I told him we were just looking he let us continue - no cars on the street, not even people walking. I don't chat every day with heavily armed men, it made me wonder if they ever need to use those machine guns. Maybe a machine gun is one of those things you don't need just because you have it, but if you don't have it you might need it.
Day 32 (20 April): The biggest cluster
A spike of new cases today. Sailors from a navy base were looking for a person with COVID-19 suspected of evading quarantine and in the process got unknowingly infected themselves. Before that was discovered, some of them went to their homes, further spreading the disease. The whole naval complex in Welisara, close to the capital Colombo, had to be put under quarantine in order to contain the outbreak, along with hundreds of others - relatives, acquaintances and anyone else, who have had contact with personnel from the base. This grew to be the largest cluster of coronavirus cases in the country and the lockdown stayed in place for more than a month extra because of it.
33 new cases for the day brought the total number to 304. For a long time, the death toll stood at 7.
Day 37 (25 April): More food!
Each week there were new choices added on UberEats and PickMe. It was obvious more and more businesses got the necessary permits and more drivers were available. Even then many restaurants opened for 3-4 hours a day, most had "special" restricted menus, but food was available - local meals, burgers, pizza, and many more. Delivery times improved too - in the first weeks the average wait was about 2 hours, now, some orders took less than 60 minutes to come to us.
Day 39 (27 April): Bad news from the navy
Two days of record-high number of new cases - over 60 and now the total is 588. Most of those are from the navy base of Welisara.
Is this the end of it?
Day 53 (11 May): Shopping in a real supermarket
Only 7 new cases today and a steady decline in numbers for the last week. Thanks to the improving COVID-19 situation restrictions began to ease a little. For the last week, new cases were recorded only in quarantine centres and military bases, so now, while curfew is still in place, some supermarkets and pharmacies are allowed to open in Colombo. Locals are allowed to go out on days of the week determined by the last digit of their ID card - 1 and 2 - Mondays, 3 and 4 - Tuesdays and so on. Walking distance from home, only when needed and of course - wearing a mask at all times. The rules for foreigners are not clear, but we decided to try our luck. Going shopping for the first time in months!
Armed with passports, masks and cash we headed to the nearest supermarket. The army post on the main street was still there, but just observing, they didn't stop us this time. A lot of traffic everywhere - less than normal, but compared to the empty streets from days ago the increase in both pedestrians and vehicles was big. Another change we noticed on the way was that some of the tuk-tuks on the road were equipped with a plastic sheet between the back (passenger) seat and the driver. Although not mandatory (yet) many drivers had installed this to protect themselves.
Walking past a hospital, we saw a doctor or a nurse in full protective gear: white hazmat-style suit, mask, gloves and a faceguard. Luckily for us, since the pandemic started we haven't visited a hospital and this was the first time we encountered this new reality in person. It is one thing to watch it online, but seeing this level of protection for a medical professional as the new normal sent a chill down my spine.
We were expecting a lot of people at the supermarket, but that was not the case. From the outside, everything looked as usual, except for the four police officers who were just lingering in the parking lot. The security guard at the entrance pointed us to a sink (foot pedal activated), placed outside - we had to wash our hands before going in. Next was checking our temperature, for some reason he pointed the thermometer gun at my mouth (covered by the mask), but after a couple of seconds nodded approvingly and we were finally inside the store.
It wasn't crowded at all and to my surprise, it was very well stocked. I expected the strict measures enforced in the whole country to have adversely affected the supply chains, but that was not the case. Fresh fruits and veggies, choice of meats and seafood, almost no empty shelves - everything looked close to normal. Probably not exactly as before the lockdown, but I would way 80% there.
On our evening walk, we again noticed significantly more people outside. I don't think it was a coincidence that the police was everywhere too, two patrols decided to have a chat with us. The first just wanted to make sure we have our masks on, the second asked us general questions, like if everything is ok and if we are staying nearby.
Day 54 (12 May): Another visa extension
Our tourist visas were extended automatically with another month. To pay all the fees we had to make an appointment by submitting a form online. As soon as the lockdown was over we would be able to go to the Immigration office to get another extension, if needed, and make all payments. This was a new system - only a handful of people were to be at the office at a time, no queues, no crowds, in line with the social distancing norms. We were still unsure what would be the fees or how long we could extend for.
Day 58 (16 May): Thailand is a no-go
Crushing news from Thailand - the total ban on all international travel is extended until the end of June. At least a month and a half until we get a chance to reach the Land of Smiles. On days like this, we deeply regret not staying in Thailand when we had a chance.
Day 59 (17 May): Next week, maybe?
Our future in Sri Lanka was looking brighter! As the number of active cases steadily continued to decrease more and more restrictions were getting lifted. Today, for a first time since the beginning of the lockdown Uber was live, offering rides during the daytime, albeit strongly advising to travel only if needed. Government offices and some non-essential businesses were set to open next week, there were even rumours that travel between districts may be on the horizon after a week or two if things kept going well.
Day 62 (20 May): Can we do some sightseeing?
Our landlord offered to help us organize a tour around the country. On paper travel for tourism purposes was not allowed, even for essential travel between districts special permits were required from a doctor and the local police station, but there were ways to get things done. At that moment we were a bit hesitant, as going down this path would have meant higher prices for everything, closed parks and attractions and to be 100% dependable on our tour guide. We always prefer a more DIY approach with a flexible schedule, so we were considering waiting a week more and hoping for trains, buses and travel to resume as normal.
Day 63 (21 May): Sad news
A tragic incident occurred in Maligawatta, a Muslim area of Colombo. Three people lost their lives in a stampede which was caused by a crowd gathered in the hope of collecting a cash handout. A local businessman announced his annual give away of 1500 LKR (8 USD) per person in celebration of Ramadan, a decades-old tradition in the Muslim community. Despite the full lockdown in the city, more than a thousand people were waiting in front of the businessman's factory. When the gates opened, three women were trampled to death by the unexpectedly large crowd, nine more people suffered serious injuries. The businessman and five of his associates were arrested for curfew violations. A sad fact is that many people have been left without income for months. It also has been reported that distributing the Government monthly cash handouts of 5000 LKR (27 USD) to millions of families living below the poverty line has also caused chaotic scenes in some places.
Day 68 (26 May): It is over. For now.
After 67 days of lockdown, today is the first day that things are starting to get back to normal. Curfew is now imposed between 10 pm and 4 am, during the day businesses are open, public transport is running, no more restrictions on movements. Except for the districts of Colombo and Gampaha, the highest-risk zones, travel between districts is allowed.
Things are not exactly as before - masks are compulsory everywhere, be it on the street, in the store or in the office. Social distancing is the new norm, all customer-facing businesses are taking precautions - extensive cleaning, special clothing, hand sanitizers at the entrances. Police are overseeing that everyone is complying with the rules.
We went out on a long evening walk and it was nice to see so many people outside. Some stores were open, restaurants were handling pick-up orders and traffic on the streets was almost as bad as usual.
Meanwhile, today is also the day with the biggest number of new coronavirus cases - 96. But there is nothing to worry about, they are all emerging from the quarantine centres around the country - 88 are Sri Lankans who recently returned from Kuwait and the rest are from the navy coronavirus cluster. The reality is that it has been almost a month without a case in society. The total number of cases reached 1182 with only 477 remaining active and 10 deaths registered.
We are publishing this article on 26 May 2020, after more than two months in confinement. At the moment the situation looks very promising, but it is not over yet. We hope that Sri Lanka continues its success.
We are especially thankful to our host Mr F and his family for taking care of us. Also, we want to thank all the military, police, medical staff, delivery drivers and everyone who worked during those difficult times, making sure we and the rest of the country are safe.
We will post more updates in the comments, you can join us there with your experiences or questions.