Sri Lanka reopens its airports, despite a surge in cases and chaos around a shaman’s tonic.

By Emily Schmall and Aanya Piyari

Workers preparing for the reopening of Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Wednesday.
Workers preparing for the reopening of Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Wednesday.Credit...Chamila Karunarathne/EPA, via Shutterstock

Emily Schmall and

Sri Lanka reopened its airports to foreign arrivals on Thursday for the first time in 10 months amid a surge in new coronavirus cases, including that of a minister photographed drinking a shaman’s tonic that some in the island nation believe protects against the disease.

Thousands of people defied Covid-19 restrictions in central Sri Lanka for a shot of the tonic touted by the holy man Dhammika Bandara as lifelong protection against the virus.

Mr. Bandara said the recipe for the tonic, which includes honey and nutmeg, came to him in a trance from the Hindu goddess Kali. TV networks that support the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa have given Mr. Bandara airtime to promote the tonic.

Sri Lanka’s health ministry is conducting clinical trials into its potential benefits, according to Chatura Kumaratunga, the commissioner of Ayurveda, an ancient form of alternative medicine rooted in the Indian subcontinent.

In the meantime several lawmakers have become ill even after drinking the tonic. “The minister who had the tonic had only one dose,” Mr. Bandara told The New York Times, adding that it had to be taken twice a day for two days to work.

Coronavirus cases in Sri Lanka have surged from about 3,300 in October to more than 55,000. At least one case of the more contagious variant of the virus first found in Britain has been reported.

Dr. Haritha Aluthge of the Government Medical Officers’ Association said the surge was partly a result of the throngs who visited the central district of Kegalle for Mr. Bandara’s tonic.

“There were no local cases in Kegalle before this incident,” he said.

But general complacency and greater movement across the island were also driving up numbers, he said.

After a trial run with a group of about 1,500 Ukrainian tourists last month, Sri Lanka decided to welcome back all foreign tourists, hoping for a much-needed boost to its tourism-dependent economy. Tourists, however, have to show negative PCR tests, are limited to 55 hotels across the country and must be accompanied by government officials for the first two weeks of their trips.