“I have a 10-month-old baby. I couldn’t even buy her medicine when she was ill last week,” said Gunarathna Vaani, who lives on the outskirts of Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo.
“There are no medicines on the market. Even basic tablets like acetaminophen or benadryl are not there. I had to borrow medicines from my neighbors to treat per baby,” she told DW.
Vaani pointed to empty shelves in the market and explained how she struggles to get powdered milk for her child, and how difficult it is to get gas and kerosene to cook food.
She worked as a tailor earning about 500 Sri Lankan rupees (€1.31, $1.36) per day. But now she is out of work amid the economic turmoil.
“It’s going to be very difficult to make ends meet. We’re getting help from my brothers and that’s how we survive for the time being. I don’t know how many days this will take, because people who help us are also having a hard time,” Vaani said.
“My husband can’t work. He had an accident last year that left his right hand paralyzed. He can’t move it. Now I don’t have a job either.”
Vaani’s is not an isolated case in the South Asian country.
A serious economic crisis
Many of Sri Lanka’s 22 million inhabitants face acute shortages of food, fuel and medicine as the island faces one of its worst economic crises since independence in 1948.
The economy was battered by the COVID pandemic that devastated the tourism industry — a key revenue generator for the country — and hit other major sectors, as well as foreign remittances.
At the same time, the government accumulated a mountain of debt by borrowing heavily from foreign investors and countries.
It also implemented ill-timed tax cuts and temporarily banned the import of chemical fertilizers to encourage organic farming, a move that backfired when
farmers could not grow enough crops, leading to food shortages.
The heavy debt burden and eroding foreign exchange reserves have created a balance of payments crisis, making it difficult to finance essential imports such as essential medicines.
Health system succumbs to shortages
The worst is the unavailability of medicines, said Jaya Kannika, a mother of three who lives about two kilometers (1.24 miles) from Vaani’s home.
Her mother, who suffers from diabetes, does not have enough medication to control her blood sugar.
“When we went for a health check three months ago, they gave my mom some medicine and told her to only take it when she needed to because they didn’t have enough medicine in stock,” Kannika told DW.
“When I felt sick last week, I didn’t go to the hospital because I know they won’t treat me,” she added.
The vast majority of Sri Lankans cannot afford treatment in private hospitals and instead rely on the government’s universal health system. But with a shortage of essential medicines and the cancellation of surgeries, the system is on the brink of collapse, hitting ordinary people hard.
Kannika has three daughters aged 8, 12 and 13.
“Sometimes they ask me to buy things I can’t afford. It hurts me as a mother. One of the teachers helped my oldest daughter buy books for her education. We couldn’t afford to send them to school too she said, blaming the family’s problems for rising costs across the board.
According to Bloomberg Intelligence, consumer price inflation in Sri Lanka, already at 30%, is expected to accelerate to 46% in the third quarter.
High food prices leave people hungry
Rising food prices have also forced people like Baakiyam, a 71-year-old who lives alone in Nuwara Eliya district in the country’s central province, to go hungry.
“I used to work as a day laborer. But now there isn’t much work. Sometimes I eat, sometimes I don’t. I can’t afford to buy a lot.”
Soaring inflation, shortages of essential items and prolonged power outages have fueled public anger against the government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his influential family.
Clashes broke out this week between supporters and opponents of the government, with several people dead, including a member of parliament from the ruling Sri Lankan People’s Front Party (SLPP), and hundreds injured.
After violence erupted, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa – the president’s older brother – resigned and sought shelter at a naval base.
To bring the situation under control, the government has imposed a state of emergency and curfew, as well as granting sweeping powers to the military and police, including orders to shoot looters on the spot.
Security forces patrolling armored passenger cars appear to have largely restored order, but the situation remains tense across the country.
Crippling Debt Levels
President Gotabaya has defied calls to step down and vowed to form a unity government instead.
But the opposition has so far refused to join and has called for the presidency’s powers to be cut short.
The central bank governor said on Wednesday he would retire in weeks unless political stability is restored to the country.
Sri Lanka has $8.6 billion in debt this year and Colombo must strike a deal with creditors and the International Monetary Fund to stabilize its finances and end crippling shortages of essential goods.
Many everyday people say they are afraid to talk about their situation for fear it could negatively affect them and their community.
Kannika said she hopes things will change, but doesn’t see that happening in the near future.
Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru