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‘Patient 206': Man blamed for nearly half of all Sri Lanka’s coronavirus cases speaks out

Sri Lankan auto rickshaw driver Prasad Dinesh
Prasad Dinesh, linked by officials to nearly half of Sri Lanka’s more than 2,600 coronavirus cases, sits in his house in Ja-Ela, Sri Lanka, on July 1, 2020.
(Eranga Jayawardena / Associated Press)

For months he’s been anonymous, but now Prasad Dinesh, linked by Sri Lankan authorities to nearly half of the country’s more than 2,600 coronavirus cases, is trying to clear his name and shed some of the stigma of a heroin addiction at the root of his ordeal.

After Dinesh, 33, tested positive for the coronavirus in April, navy sailors were sent to his village as part of a military-led task force appointed to deal with the pandemic. When they tried to force Dinesh’s contacts into quarantine, chaos ensued, followed by a chain of events that led to at least 1,100 additional coronavirus infections.

These cases, officials declared, all stemmed from a single person: Dinesh.

Referring to him only as “Patient 206,” government officials lambasted Dinesh on TV and social media, blaming him for at least three clusters of coronavirus cases, including about 900 navy sailors who were infected after some took part in the operation in Dinesh’s town, Ja-Ela, about 12 miles north of the capital, Colombo.

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Dinesh, however, says his drug addiction, which is considered a crime in Sri Lanka, makes him a convenient scapegoat.

“I can’t accept that I am responsible for infecting so many, including the navy sailors,” Dinesh told the Associated Press, after he had returned home following his release from a monthlong stay at a hospital.

One of the biggest challenges in trying to contain the coronavirus is that an unknown number of people are spreading it when they don’t even seem sick themselves.

Before the pandemic reached Sri Lanka, resulting in an island-wide lockdown, Dinesh worked as an auto rickshaw driver. But now he’s unable to find work.

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“No one gives a job when they realize that I am Patient 206,” he said.

Police spokesman Ajith Rohana said Dinesh had undermined Sri Lanka’s fight against COVID-19. “He is the turning point and has done huge damage to our country,” Rohana said.

Authorities say that on April 5, Dinesh was caught by village residents for a robbery and handed over to police. Dinesh hasn’t contested charges that he and others broke into a house in a nearby village to take coconuts they could sell in order to buy heroin.

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At the police station, Dinesh had a fever as well as a leg injury sustained during the robbery, so authorities admitted him to a nearby hospital, where he tested positive for the coronavirus and stayed for 31 days. The police who made the arrest, Dinesh’s friends and more than 100 people in his neighborhood were ordered to quarantine at home.

But not everyone complied.

Afraid that the virus would spread quickly in the densely populated area, Sri Lanka’s navy sent in sailors to help health workers. As the sailors approached, some of Dinesh’s associates panicked.

“They were climbing trees, they were trying to jump over a fence, trying to have a bath, trying to jump into a canal,” Adm. Jayanath Colombage, a former navy commander and member of the national task force to combat the coronavirus, said in a TV interview.

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Of the 28 people seized from the community and quarantined, 16 tested positive. Two weeks later, some sailors involved in the operation tested positive, too.

Navy spokesperson Lt. Cmdr. Isuru Suriyabandara defended the navy, saying it had deployed well-trained troops with protective gear who were quarantined for 21 days after the operation.

Mask-wearing in public has become an increasingly pressing and politicized issue as the economy reopens and cases surge across the nation.

The first sailor infection was reported April 22. He had gone on leave in a town about 140 miles northeast of Colombo. That prompted provincial health officials to isolate 12 nearby villages.

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The next day, 30 other sailors tested positive.

With the virus spreading to different parts of the country where sailors were on leave, authorities ordered troops from all branches of the military to report back to their camps.

Some 4,000 navy sailors were quarantined inside a single camp, while more than 200 relatives were taken to navy-run quarantine centers. At least 15 villages were isolated in different parts of Sri Lanka for about two weeks, and about 1,300 other people underwent self-quarantine.

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Ultimately, about 900 navy sailors tested positive, with about 50 other infected people also part of that cluster. Two other clusters also blamed on Dinesh had at least 150 coronavirus cases, according to authorities, making for a total of at least 1,100 infections laid at Dinesh’s door.

That’s nearly half of Sri Lanka’s nationwide confirmed caseload of 2,665, including 11 deaths.

“What to do? It is our fault for using drugs?” he said, referring to his heroin habit.

Dinesh said he had been using heroin since 2002 but never became “a severe addict.” During the coronavirus lockdown, however, he used the drug more regularly, and joined three other users in the robbery to raise money to buy more heroin.

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The coronavirus is dealing a blow to the illegal drug trade, disrupting supply chains in China of chemicals used to make such drugs as fentanyl.

Authorities have used the fallout from the raid on Dinesh’s village to increase anti-drug crackdowns in slums and urban apartments. Officials say some 300,000 people — about 1.5% of the population — are addicted to drugs.

Dinesh, however, says he is no longer part of that stigmatized group. One beneficial result of being infected with the coronavirus, he said, was that his hospitalization helped him to kick his heroin habit.

He said he had body pains for about two days. “I did not suffer severe withdrawals because I was not a severe addict,” he said.

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“I have now completely given up [drugs],” he said. “I don’t even smoke a cigarette. I am always with my two kids now and play with them. I feel good.”


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