How coronavirus is affecting Sri Lanka

9 July 2020

Food and hygiene packages are distributed

Food and hygiene packages have been distributed to vulnerable families in Batticaloa, Hatton and Mannar districts of Sri Lanka as part of the coronavirus response.

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.

Last year, 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.

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. On 1 July 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? 

On the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the government issued restrictions on entry into Sri Lanka, and recent arrivals were quarantined, and a nationwide curfew was imposed from 20 March. A national taskforce was established by the government, and welfare assistance was provided to families registered under existing welfare schemes.

However, 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. Though farmers and fishworkers were largely allowed to continue working during the curfew, they faced many difficulties and were often unable to market their produce, and a lot of spoilable food had to be thrown away. Farmers tend to work on credit, and their indebtedness has worsened during the crisis whilst incomes were lost. 

Curfews began to be eased through May and June, and have now been lifted. Travel difficulties and restrictions on organising meetings and gatherings continue, and masks have to be worn in public.

"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

What challenges are there to surviving lockdown and fighting coronavirus? 

As of 6 July the confirmed number of cases stands at 2,076, with 11 confirmed deaths. Containing the pandemic will remain vital, due to low capacity of the health services to cope with a major outbreak. 

For Sri Lankans dependent on a daily wage, lockdown was extremely difficult. In advance of a curfew during which they would be unable to work, families needed to buy extra food to keep them going while in lockdown at home. Some could only manage this by pawning their belongings. Many ordinary people came together to collect and distribute donations of food and hygiene items to their struggling neighbours.

Sri Lanka had been due to hold parliamentary elections in April, in advance of which the Parliament had been dissolved in early March. Due to the coronavirus outbreak the elections had to be postponed, thus leaving the country without a sitting Parliament pending the elections, now due to be held on 5 August. There will be challenges to holding elections so early in the pandemic recovery period, whilst movements and contact are constrained.

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 have been able to:

  • Give out emergency food and hygiene supplies to poor families unable to buy their own.
  • Support interreligious committees and citizens’ groups to disseminate  accurate information on how to prevent infection.
  • 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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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. 

It was 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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