‘Show unity, empathy’: Maldives pres confirms coronavirus community transmission in emotional appeal

Maldives President Ibrahim Solih appealed for unity and empathy Wednesday, as he confirmed the first community transmission of coronavirus in the island nation.

A Maldivian who presented to a dedicated flu clinic tested positive Wednesday for Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus which originated in China in December.

Health authorities stopped short of calling it a community transmission case, citing ongoing contact tracing efforts, but said the patient had no travel history.

In a live television address, a teary-eyed President Solih said the patient had no travel history or known contact with a patient suffering from Covid-19 — confirmation that it was the first community transmission case of the coronavirus in the Maldives.

Community transmission means a patient had no known contact with another confirmed case or travelled from a country badly affected by the pandemic.

President Solih said his government had been working round the clock since the first week of January to prepare for all possible scenarios, including community spread of the virus.

“We are ready for a situation like this,” he said.

“I would like to assure my fellow citizens that the government’s highest priority is to safeguard the safety, health and well-being of our people. We will take all necessary measures to contain the spread.”

The president repeatedly appealed for calm and urged everyone to promote empathy and kindness.

“If we work together, for the good of the community, we will be able to overcome this situation,” he said.

“The most important step we can take against this disease, which has no cure yet, is to stay home and wash our hands regularly, as instructed by health experts.”

Capital Male is in a lockdown for 24 hours, as health authorities conduct contact tracing in one of the world’s most densely populated cities.

The lockdown bans all public activity and transport in capital Male and its suburbs of Hulhumale and Villimale for a day. Any movement in and out of the city and its suburbs as well as the neighbouring industrial islands of Thilafushi and Gulhifalhu are also banned.

On March 8, Maldives reported its first cases of the novel coronavirus, as two hotel employees tested positive for Covid-19 at a luxury resort in the archipelago.

Eighteen more cases — all foreigners working or staying resorts and liveaboard vessels except five Maldivians who had returned from abroad — were later identified.

Wednesday’s case, detected in Male, puts the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Maldives to 21.

However, 16 out of the 21 have made full recoveries. Three Maldivian patients are being treated at designated quarantine facilities, whilst another two had been repatriated to their home country of Italy.

The Maldives announced a state of public health emergency on March 12, the first such declaration under a recent public health protection law.

The public health emergency declaration has allowed the government to introduce a series of unprecedented restrictive and social distancing measures, including a nationwide closing of schools, colleges and universities. Non-essential services and public places in the capital such as gyms, cinemas and parks have also been shut.

Restaurants and cafes in the capital have been asked to stop dine-in service and switch to takeaway and delivery.

A nationwide shutdown of all guesthouses, city hotels and spa facilities located on inhabited islands is also in effect.

All international airlines have also suspended scheduled operations to the Maldives, as the island nation enforced a blanket suspension of on-arrival visa in late March in a bid to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Even before the visa suspension, the Maldives had closed its borders to arrivals from some of the worst-hit countries, including mainland China, Italy, Bangladesh, Iran, Spain, the United Kingdom, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Visitors from three regions of Germany (Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia and Baden-Württemberg), two regions of France (Île-de-France and Grand Est) and two regions of South Korea were also banned from entering the country.

All direct flights to and from China, Italy, South Korea and Iran were also cancelled.

Cruise ships and foreign yachts were also banned from docking at any of the country’s ports.

The coronavirus outbreak has hit the Maldivian economy hard, as travel restrictions and other preventive measures affect the country’s lucrative tourism industry, which contributes the bulk of the island nation’s state revenue and foreign reserves.

Before the pandemic, the government had been bullish about tourism prospects, targeting two million, high-spending holidaymakers this year after last year’s record 1.7 million.

However, tourist arrivals saw a year-over-year decline of 22.8 per cent in the first 10 days of March. Officials say the number of tourist arrivals to the Maldives could drop by half in 2020.

With arrival numbers falling and the visa suspension in effect, several resorts across the Maldives had been closed.

Tourism has been the bedrock of the Maldives’ economic success. The $5 billion-dollar economy grew by 6.7 per cent in 2018 with tourism generating 60 per cent of foreign income.

However, the government is at present projecting a possible 5.7 per cent economic contraction this year — an estimated $778 million hit.

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