Sri Lanka Rotary uses ingenuity, invention to protect communities against COVID-19

Rotarians, Rotaractors, and Interactors worked together in a nationwide project that promoted behavior change and initiated safety standards for businesses

by Ryan Hyland

Rohantha Athukorala felt helpless. It was April 2020 when Sri Lanka was on lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, and he wanted to do something immediately to help the country slow the spread of virus.

“The lockdown was so sudden and absolute. It was hard not being in control of what you can and can’t do,” says Athukorala, a member of the Rotary Club of Colombo Reconnections, Sri Lanka. “Especially for us Rotarians who pride ourselves on helping our communities in desperate times.”

But sheltering in place had its advantages, he says, providing the time and opportunity to connect with fellow members online. Their discussions sparked ideas about what they could do to help people understand how to stay safe from the coronavirus.

Promoting safety though social media

Athukorala started by contacting club and district leaders, talking with government officials, and listening to business leaders. In late April, he launched Stop the Spread, a comprehensive effort to reduce new infections through behavior changes.

Our Interactors have been fantastic and made a real difference in getting crucial information out to the public.

Rohantha Athukorala

Rotary Club of Colombo Reconnections

He asked the more than 5,000 Sri Lankan Interactors to lead the campaign and be community advocates for specific behaviors such as wearing masks, washing hands, and social distancing. Interactors used their social media networks to blast daily messages about staying safe from the virus, and posted relevant communications from the Ministry of Health.

To complement the Interactors’ communication, Athukorala worked with the country’s Ministry of Sports and the National Olympic Committee to get top athletes to become ambassadors for Stop the Spread. More than 280 athletes — including stars in cricket and rugby, as well as Olympians — participated in videos and graphics that were posted on social media.

Stop the Spread also promoted safety protocols through a certification process for businesses. Athukorala and fellow Rotary members created the certification with the Sri Lanka Standards Institution that enabled companies that are compliant with certain safety guidelines to be certified as a COVID-19-controlled environment. Protocols such as mandatory mask wearing, temperature checks, and social distancing had to be in place in order to receive the certification. Nearly 300 businesses, educational institutions, supermarkets, and other retailers have passed the program’s rigorous audits and received certification, allowing customers and students feel safe while supporting these businesses.

When the lockdown order was lifted in early May, Interactors fanned out across their communities to visit businesses, homes, and public transport to give people educational materials and safety guidance. They became leaders in helping schools implement COVID-19 safety protocols, which allowed schools to open in early July.

“Our Interactors have been fantastic and made a real difference in getting crucial information out to the public,” Athukorala says, who was chair of the Sri Lanka Tourism Bureau and served as the chief business development officer for Sri Lanka at the United Nations.