How coronavirus is affecting Sri Lanka

5 March 2021

Food and hygiene packages have been distributed to women-headed households

Food and hygiene packages have been distributed to women-headed households, households including people living with disabilities, daily wage earners, and families from minority religious and ethnic groups who are often subjected to exploitation and discrimination.

Olwen Maynard, from CAFOD's Sri Lanka and Middle East Team, explains the measures taken by the goverment in Sri Lanka to contain coronavirus, the effects of this on people's lives, and how CAFOD is responding.

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What was the situation in Sri Lanka before coronavirus hit? 

Sri Lanka still struggles to move towards peace, following the end of a decades-long civil war in 2009. Sinhalese Buddhists make up the majority of the Sri Lankan population, with significant communities of Tamil and Muslim ethnic minorities.

In April 2019, several bomb blasts across Sri Lanka killed 253 people and injured many more in churches and hotels. The attacks caused deep trauma to the population and inflamed existing inter-faith tensions. Nearly two years on, the search for justice and reparations for the victims continues.

Economically, Sri Lanka is classed as a middle income country. However, this status ignores large pockets of poverty in the war-affected north and east, in the central tea-growing areas and in the deep rural south.

In July last year, the World Bank downgraded Sri Lanka to a lower middle income country due to a drop in per capita income for 2020. A further downturn is expected once impacts of Covid-19 are factored in making life for the poorest in Sri Lanka even more precarious.

How has the government responded to coronavirus? 

Whereas it was looking as if the pandemic in Sri Lanka had been successfully contained, in early October 2020 a cluster of infections was detected in a garment manufacturing factory in Gampaha, north of Colombo, and became the start of a ‘second’ wave of the virus. 

Outbreaks were also detected on construction sites and in prisons illustrating how those who live and work in more congested conditions are at disproportionate risk of contracting the virus.

A strict curfew was immediately imposed in Gampaha, as well as local lockdowns all over the country as infections started to rise in all districts. 

Of the over 80,000 known to  have been infected the vast majority have recovered, but the number of fatal cases rose sharply over the first two months of 2021, and at the start of March stood at 483 deaths. Containing the pandemic remains vital, due to limited capacity of the health services to cope with a major outbreak. 

"Many families dependent on day labour suffered severe hardship under the curfews, as they immediately lost their income and thus the means to buy food and essential supplies."

Olwen Maynard, Sri Lanka and Middle East Team

A government policy of imposing cremation for people who died from coronavirus caused great distress to the Muslim community and other faith communities. The government has recently lifted this requirement after much pressure from inside and outside the country.

A first delivery of vaccines from India reached Sri Lanka on 28 January, and vaccinations have begun with health workers and security forces given priority.

Despite the continuing infections and restriction measures, Sri Lanka’s international airports were reopened in late January and efforts are being made to reboot tourism: 4,000 tourists had entered the country by 19 February, mostly from Ukraine, Kazakhstan and India. 

What challenges are there to surviving lockdown and fighting coronavirus? 

For Sri Lankans dependent on a daily wage, lockdowns have been extremely difficult. Travel is often restricted and people are not permitted to cross into neighbouring districts.

Our network of local experts have to abide by restrictions which limit the numbers of staff permitted to go to the office, as well as the number of community people they can meet at any one time.

Some ongoing work has been slowed with many activities delayed, but in January, a local partner used Zoom to bring together 500 religious leaders and civil society activists in a National Inter Religious Symposium on Building a Pluralistic Society. This virtual meeting reasserted the importance of social cohesion, and called for an end to discrimination. 

How has CAFOD responded to coronavirus in Sri Lanka?

With the support of the Catholic community in England and Wales, our local experts and volunteers were able to:

  • Give out emergency food and hygiene supplies to poor families unable to buy their own.
  • Support interreligious committees and citizens’ groups to share accurate information on how to prevent infection and stigmatisation of particular communities.
  • Identify people in particular need of government support, push for fair distribution of aid and lobby for debt relief for farmers.
  • Encourage poor families to grow vegetable gardens at home.
  • Support PPE and awareness in schools to ensure a safe environment for children when the schools reopen.
  • Work with trade unions and workers’ groups to ensure legal protections for workers, and help for informal workers.

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With the global pandemic now into its second year, many Sri Lankans are still struggling to make ends meet. Like us they can’t wait to get back to normal, but they need that “normal” to mean the hope of things getting better than before. So our networks or local experts and partners are working with them to address the underlying issues which trapped them in poverty, and divided them along ethnic and religious lines.   

How are we helping to build a 'new normal'?

Protecting our common home

Large-scale development in Hambantota, a very poor rural district in the south of Sri Lanka, is encroaching on the natural habitat of the wild elephants, driving hundreds of them into the villages and farmlands.

In the last three years both people and elephants have died, and crops have been damaged. By funding a local advocacy group, you are helping to support the protests of the farmers’ groups, who are demanding that a wildlife reserve, properly fenced and managed, be established to contain the elephants.

One way the protest has been publicised was to get the local children to draw and paint pictures illustrating their families’ problem for display in an open-air art festival. 

Dignity in burial

A policy of imposing cremation for people who died of COVID, with no scientific evidence to back it up, caused great distress to the Muslim community and other faith communities.

The government at long last lifted this requirement in February, following much pressure from inside and outside the country, but it has rejected the Muslim community’s proposals for suitable burial places. All COVID burials must take place on Iranaitivu, an island off the coast. 

This decision will create a stigma for the island and its population of Catholic Tamil fishworkers, who were forced to leave their homes during the civil war and only managed to return a few years ago. 

This is seen as yet another discriminatory action against the war-affected Tamil minority, and an attempt to set the Tamils against the Muslims. Local Catholic clergy are working alongside the national fishworker pressure group, supported by CAFOD, to protest this rule. 

What gives you hope? 

Throughout the months of curfew we have listened to our partners and have come to understand how well they understand and respond to the very complex needs of the people and communities they serve. 

Innovative ways of working and new projects have been developed as they adapt to deliver their essential work while adhering to coronavirus restrictions.

It was also very heartwarming to hear how concerned they were for the families who had no food, and how they and other concerned people were doing everything they could to provide assistance, often using their own personal resources.

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