Hospital protests across Sri Lanka

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Nurses in Sri Lanka protesting outside a hospital in Colombo

The All Ceylon Health Trade Union Federation (ACHTUF) held a series of protests opposite main hospitals across the country from 12 noon on Monday 20 June.

Announcing the action last week, ACHTUF General Secretary Mahinda Guruge said that they were protesting against the reduction of health staff and allowances, the increasingly severe medicine and equipment shortages, transport issues that health workers face, and the drop in the standards of food given to patients.

‘We will hold protests at all main hospitals. We will also start educating patients on why we are protesting’, he said.

Guruge said that the mismanagement and lethargy of the government and officials of the Health Ministry have driven the unions to protest.

‘Everything is in a state of collapse. The food we provide to elderly and children who are undergoing residential treatment is of subpar quality.

‘We know that nutrition plays a big role in recovery. That is why we try to give a nutritious meal at hospitals. Now we often give them just rice and coconut sambol’, he said.

Guruge said that most health workers, from specialist doctors to junior staff, find it difficult to travel to work for want of fuel.

Gas stations did not offer health workers fuel on a priority basis despite a government assurance, he said.

‘The government had declared health as an essential service, but how could people even come to work?’ he asked.

Earlier last week, President of the Association of Medical Specialists (AMS) Dr LakKumar Fernando condemned Health Minister, Keheliya Rambukwella and the Health Ministry for not taking measures to ease the crippling effects of the current fuel crisis on medical specialists and other healthcare workers.

In his letter to the Health Minister, Dr Fernando said that reaching the workplace has become a near impossible task for all medical specialists, and other healthcare workers, due to the worsening fuel crisis.

The lack of fuel not only affects routine work, but also makes it impossible for most health workers to return to hospitals out of working hours if they are called in for an emergency.

‘If health staff can’t make it to their workplace on time, this can have life and death consequences. When there is a medical emergency, one can’t go by bus or train,’ he said.

‘Since there are no visible solutions to the fuel crisis in the near future, AMS will be compelled to advise our members to “work from home”. However, this will put many innocent lives in danger in certain instances, which is sadly due to reasons way beyond the control of health staff.’

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s military opened fire to quell rioting at a fuel station, officials said on Sunday, as unprecedented queues for petrol and diesel were seen across the bankrupt country.

Troops fired in Visuvamadu, 365km (228 miles) north of Colombo on Saturday night as their guard point was pelted with stones.

Army spokesperson Nilantha Premaratne said: ‘A group of 20 to 30 people pelted stones and damaged an army truck.’

Police said four civilians and three soldiers were wounded when the army opened fire for the first time to contain unrest linked to the worsening economic crisis.

As the pump ran out of petrol, motorists began to protest and the situation escalated into a clash with troops, police said.

Sri Lanka is suffering its worst economic crisis since independence, with the country unable to find dollars to import essentials, including food, fuel and medicines.

The nation’s population of 22 million has been enduring acute shortages and long queues for scarce supplies while president Gotabaya Rajapaksa has for months resisted calls to step down over mismanagement.

Sri Lanka has deployed armed police and troops to guard fuel stations.

A motorist was shot dead by police in April at the central town of Rambukkana when a clash erupted over the distribution of rationed petrol and diesel.

Police said clashes involving motorists erupted at three locations over the weekend.

At least six constables were wounded in one clash while seven motorists were arrested.

The government has declared a two-week shutdown of state institutions and schools in a bid to reduce commuting and conserve depleting fuel stocks.

The impoverished country is also facing record high inflation and lengthy power blackouts, all of which have contributed to months of protests.

Four out of five people in Sri Lanka have started skipping meals as they cannot afford to eat, the United Nations has said, warning of a looming ‘dire humanitarian crisis’ with millions in need of aid.

The World Food Programme began distributing food vouchers to about 2,000 pregnant women in Colombo’s ‘underserved’ areas as part of ‘life-saving assistance’ last Thursday.

Sri Lanka defaulted on its $51bn foreign debt in April and is in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout.

The United Nations warned last Friday that Sri Lanka’s unprecedented economic crisis could develop into a dire humanitarian crisis, with millions already in need of aid.

‘We are concerned that this could develop into a full-blown humanitarian emergency, and we are taking action to address that concern,’ Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN humanitarian agency OCHA, told reporters.

The UN and its partners are appealing for $47 million to address the immediate needs of the 1.7 million of the most vulnerable people and those most affected by the crisis, he said.

Months of daily blackouts, long queues for petrol and record inflation have made daily life a misery in the South Asian island nation of 22 million people.

Many people are now ‘going without adequate food’, Laerke said, also warning that ‘families’ access to health services, protection and children’s education is at stake.’

The UN’s children’s agency Unicef’s representative in Sri Lanka, Christian Skoog, said 17 per cent of children under five in the country were already malnourished and stunted even before the crisis, and 56,000 children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition.

‘Potentially they could all be at risk of dying … the Sri Lankan economy is on the brink of collapse.

‘We call for international solidarity with the people of Sri Lanka,’ he added.

Meanwhile, the country’s central bank governor, P Nandalal Weerasinghe, claims that Sri Lanka could have avoided its current economic turmoil if it had gone to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout sooner and that the delay in seeking outside help was a mistake.

‘If we had taken the decision to go to the IMF earlier, if we started the debt resettlement process one year before, we could have managed the situation without this kind of suffering in this country,’ he claimed.

A recent survey by the United Nations World Food Programme found that around two thirds of Sri Lankan households have been forced to reduce their food intake.

Weerasinghe said Sri Lanka is experiencing its worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.

A team from the IMF was due to arrive in Colombo for talks yesterday, with Weerasinghe a key participant in meetings this week.

The fall in the value of the Sri Lankan rupee, rising global commodity prices and a ban chemical fertilisers (which has now been lifted) helped to push annual food price rises to more than 57% in April.

At the end of last month, the country’s Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera called on farmers to grow more rice, saying: ‘It is clear the food situation is becoming worse.

‘We request all farmers to step into their fields in the next five to ten days and cultivate paddy (rice)’.

At the same time, the government raised taxes to help shore up its finances.

The World Bank has warned that as many as 12 other countries, including the Maldives, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Senegal, Egypt, Ghana and Pakistan are at risk of default over the coming year.