Dr Lucian Jayasuriya
When Nimala and I left London on the evening of 15 March 2020, we never thought that on arrival in Colombo, the Government of Sri Lanka would give us a free pleasant holiday in the Vanni. We left in a hurry to beat the ban on travel to Sri Lanka from the UK. When we landed in Colombo at about 6 pm on 16 March, 19 of us who came from London were told by an airport official that we could either go back to London (for which they would provide free tickets) or be compulsorily quarantined. There would be no exceptions. All opted to stay in Sri Lanka.
We were taken by bus to a temporary medical cum emigration centre. All were sprayed with disinfectant before we were allowed into the centre. Passengers who came from an earlier flight were already there. We were provided dinner packets and bottles of water. A bus was there to take us. We identified our baggage, and they we put in a truck. Passengers were seated in the bus but it was not starting. We were told that they were waiting for passengers from another flight They ultimately came and were provided another bus. The Brigadier in charge did not know where we will be taken. He was awaiting orders. We left at about 2 am on the next day. We were taken for a cup of tea to an army building in Dambulla. We passed Anuradhapura and Vavuniya and turned off from at Puvarasankulam on the Vavuniya- Mannar Road to the Air Force Combat Training Camp Vanni, at about 7 am. This Camp was in the thick forest about 30 km from Vavuniya.
The reception centre outside the camp was headed by an Air Force doctor, Squadron Leader Buddhika Wanasinghe. He is a strict efficient caring person. Each person had to fill a form interviewed and given a block number and bed number. The Camp had seven blocks – prefabricated buildings with typical school dormitories, each housing 30 persons. The total in quarantine was 206. All had bunker beds. The upper bed was to keep the baggage. Each block had had its own wash rooms which were to be shared. Males and females were assigned separate blocks. However, considering our age and my medical history, Dr Budhika was kind enough to give us a room at the end of block 4.
The Camp had been specially renovated to accommodate us, as we were the first group to be quarantined there. In the toilets the squatting pans had been converted to commodes. The planning was so detailed that even the toilet for the occupant of each bed was indicated in a notice.
Military order was seen in the camp. Each block had a notice board giving the programme for each day, instructions regarding quarantine and prevention of Covid 19 etc.
Every day at 6.30 am there is an announcement telling that the medical team will come in half an hour. The team – the only doctor and a male staff nurse come in full protective kit. All inmates line up (except two of us) keeping one metre space for the staff nurse to take each person’s temperature by a digital thermometer. The doctor then gives an update of the Covid situation, a health education lecture and takes questions. Then he meets both of us for a short chat. He has a small office in block 3 where he sees patients.
Food was exceptionally good. An announcement was made before every meal which was served to each person in a box. Breakfast came at about 7.30 am. There was variety, quality and sufficient quantity with different combinations each day which included milk rice, rice, sandwiches, seeni sambol rolls, chicken sausages, eggs and cutlets. Lunch was rice with chicken or fish with two curries. A banana or apple or a slab of chocolate was desert. Dinner would be rice or noodles, spaghetti or bread. Morning and evening tea was served the latter with a short eat. Coriander was served at bedtime. The inmates who were mostly middle level workers from the Middle East were very satisfied.
Medicines that were needed were supplied by the doctor. If he did not have a particular medicine, he tried his best to get it from outside. If he failed, he found substitutes. For me nifedipine was substituted for amlodipine in consultation with my friend Dr Ruvan Ekanayake, Senior Consultant Cardiologist.
Surveillance for Covid 19 was by twice daily checking of temperature and on symptoms. Inmates were encouraged to inform the doctor about any cough or difficulty in breathing. Dr Buddhika told us that if any person had two readings of fever (temperature over 99.5 degrees F) and upper respiratory tract symptoms he would transfer him to District General Hospital Vavuniya. However, PCR testing was available only at Teaching Hospital Anuradhapura. Luckily, no person had to be transferred.
There was plenty of water from an overhead tank supplied by a well. Adequate hand washing with soap and water was strongly advocated. Each block had a sink dedicated for hand washing only.
Each block had a pleasant spacious garden right round. It was made up of old trees of the forest with foliage plants grown on fallen logs. It was a nice place to sit in the evening when the heat was less. Inmates were restricted to their block and garden. Dr Buddhika encouraged all to be physically active. He provided material for soft ball cricket and badminton.
No reading material was made available, on the premise that it would lead to many persons handling them. A lot of our time was spent of telephone calls and text messages. Although the Air Force Wi Fi was available to us the reception was poor. E mails could be accessed in the mobile but not in the lap top. However, sometimes it was possible to access news and teledramas in the lap top. Each ward had a large television.
Visitors were not allowed. The only visitors we had were the monkeys.
The cleaning of the block and the garden was by the inmates. It was gladly undertaken early morning with the many brooms and eekel brooms provided. Each block had a washing machine which was constantly used from early morning.
The inmates of our block were very courteous and respectful to a senior doctor and wife. They would not allow us even to move a chair. Some took the opportunity to discuss health matters with us.
The quarantine was strictly implemented. An inmate was not allowed to attend the funeral of his mother who passed away two days before the day we were to leave.
All were very happy when we were told that we could leave on 31 March morning.
The inmates were from all areas of the country. Dr Buddhika studied our destinations had discussions with us and planned a route and a bus for each of us. Transport was provided by the Sri Lanka Army. There would be six routes, with nine large buses and seven trucks to carry the baggage. We were to be in route 5 (Colombo), bus 8 with truck 6 for our baggage. The bags were packed in the trucks on 30th evening under Dr Buddhika’s direct supervision.
Early morning on 31 March Dr Buddhika handed over Quarantine Certificates to each inmate, which certify that the person ‘underwent the necessary Quarantine Process in the Puvarasankulam Quarantine Centre from 17.03.2020 to 31.03.2020. The certificate says that Quarantine Centre was managed in accordance with the legal provisions vested in the Director General of Health Services under the Quarantine and Prevention of Diseases Act No.3 of 1897. It is signed by the Chief of Defence Staff and Commander of the Army and the Director General of Health Services.
By 7 am on 31 March the Camp Commander and the media were present to record our departure. Few volunteered to speak and the speeches were recorded. All praised Dr Buddhika and the Air Force for the excellent and friendly way we were looked after. Boarding was according to the number of the bus. Each person was identified before be boarded.
The convoy led by the police and army left by 7.45 am and traveled fast through deserted Vavuniya, and Anuradhapura to Puttalam. There we stopped for tea cum lunch at about 11.30 am. We reached home late evening after dropping the passengers at the nearest police stations.
Although initially we were apprehensive, we soon came to enjoy our stay. It was an interesting experience of a life time. We were comfortable under the circumstances. The only irritant was the shared toilets, which were always wet.
Suspected Covid 19 patients were to be detected only by fever and upper respiratory tract symptoms. The PCR test on all inmates would have been the ideal.
Mandatory quarantining elderly persons with a history NCDs and incidents of acute episodes, who are not contacts of patients or even suspected patients, in a camp so far away from adequate emergency medical facilities does not seem justified. They could have been quarantined at home.
A NOTE from THUPPAHI
The photo at the outset has been inserted by the Editor, Thuppahi and does not replicate the conditions at the Camp where Dr Jayasuriya and wife were housed. So, too the other illustrations. Also take note of these other references