Living In A Country Without COVID-19

Sri Lanka crushed COVID, but I still have to be home by 11 PM

A normal day in Pettah vs the curfew. Not pictured: new normal. Photos by Nazly Ahmed

Sri Lanka has crushed COVID-19. We’ve had zero local cases for a month, outside of a contained outbreak in the Navy. It only takes one missed case but, knock on wood, we’re clear.

We’ve reopened, but that’s hardly news. It seems like everyone reopened at the same time, regardless of viral load. Places like Germany reopened when 164 people were still dying every day. We’ve had 11 deaths total. There are places reopening that experience our entire epidemic every single day.

Living in a country without COVID is, if anything, more restrictive than in a country with. It’s the paradox of paranoia. We crushed the curve because we were paranoid, and paranoia don’t quit.

How We Survived

Sri Lanka is not a rich country. We’re definitely not lucky. Paranoia is the only way we survived.

Sri Lankans are naturally paranoid. I’ve been told that everything from newspapers (paper cuts) to shawarma (?) will kill me. A common reason for parental prohibitions is BECAUSE YOU’LL DIE. Going out at night, wearing shorts, all fatal.

At a collective level, we’re also used to disaster. Terrorism, floods, tsunami, epidemics, civil unrest — they’re all pretty regular. We have an ongoing epidemic (dengue) which has hospitalized me and my immediate family multiple times. We had a major terrorist attack and curfews just last year.

Hence, when COVID-19 arrived, nobody had to explain or debate anything. The government said curfew and we went inside.

Sri Lanka shut our borders and the entire country down with less than 100 cases. It was this paranoia that made crushing the virus even possible. We simply had a smaller problem to deal with, and we had a huge response. With just a few imported cases, the entire country was put under curfew. My city remained under lockdown for two months. And this was a total curfew. Do not go outside. We couldn’t even go out for groceries, they had to be delivered, either through government trucks or supermarkets. We ended up arresting 33x more people (66,000) than we had cases (2,000).

A few companies got curfew passes, but overall the economy got hammered. But we didn’t. We survived.

How We’re Living

Now we’re effectively clear. The only cases are within the Navy, and that seems smoldering but contained. Even there we were paranoid. When a few people got sick they quarantined over 4,000 sailors and their families.

When they lifted curfew on May 26th, it was only from 4 AM to 10 PM. It’s every parent’s dream, everybody has to rush home like a 15-year-old. When we reopened 100% masking was required, and everybody does it, from beggars to people driving to work; even people inside their own cars. Every shop requires hand-washing and temperature scans before you enter.

Most importantly, our borders are still closed. This completely strangles our vital tourist economy, but we’re doing it. They’ve now set up full PCR testing for all entries (which America used diplomatic privileges to evade), but we’re otherwise preserving our gains. We’re not even letting in many Sri Lankans from the Middle East yet, which we really should do.

The result is that Sri Lanka is an island. We only import cases that we control, but otherwise, there is no connection to the outside world. We do this at tremendous cost, but everyone gets it. We’re staying safe.

What effects my life most is that we still haven’t re-opened schools. Other countries have said that kids aren’t badly affected, but there are unexplained cases of terrible effects cropping up later. Sri Lankans are insanely paranoid about their children, so the schools stay closed. Instead, my toddlers have preschool Zoom classes, which is another circle of hell. We’re lucky if we can just keep my son’s pants on.

Even casual social relations have been really slow to come back. We’ve only recently had friends over, with all the doors and windows open and no touching or hugs. We only saw my 96-year-old grandmother after three months, out of an over-abundance of caution. She was so happy that I felt terrible neglecting her for so long. But we did it. For her and all the people like her. For each other.

The Paradox Of Paranoia

So now we’re relatively safe, and still very secure. If anything, we have less freedom. For places like Mongolia, Vietnam, China, Taiwan, and us, the tolerance is just on a different scale. We freak out if there’s one case. Other countries are nonplussed by 1,000.

I understand. I didn’t realize till this was over, but it’s exhausting. In Sri Lanka the lockdown created an entirely new class of beggars, many businesses were destroyed, many families fell entirely out of the middle class. We’re tired. Everyone is tired.

Some places, however, are sick and tired. It really seems like there was a two-week window for action. If you miss it you can never, ever catch up. You just give up.

Those places are talking about living with the virus, but that’s something we refused. It’s something we still refuse. That’s what living in a country without COVID-19 is like. That’s the paradox of paranoia. We can only relax… because we never relax.