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Last handful of fish: Crisis pushes more Sri Lankans into poverty

Last handful of fish: Crisis pushes more Sri Lankans into poverty
05.11.2022 08:52

In her outstretched palms, 49-year-old Nilanthi Gunasekera holds her family’s last remaining handful of dried fish – a reminder of Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis in decades.

She is just one of the millions of Sri Lankans battling a calamitous decline in living standards as they find themselves forced to skip meals, ration medicines and turn to firewood in place of cooking gas.


“Now fish is out of the reach of our family, and so is meat,” Gunasekera said, grasping the shards of fish. “For two weeks we couldn’t afford any meat or fish. This is our last protein.”

Nilanthi Gunasekera with a handful of dried fish, the only protein her family will have until next week


Hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, rising oil prices and economic mismanagement under previous governments, the island nation is in the throes of its starkest crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.

Rampant inflation, snaking fuel queues and shortages of essentials such as food and medicine have driven many Sri Lankans into poverty, while months of street protests ousted the previous president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in July.

More than a quarter of the population of 22 million is now struggling to secure adequate, nutritious food, the United Nations says.

Manel Peiris, 68, in her kitchen. ‘I am a heart patient and have to take medicine every day,’ she says. ‘Hospitals used to issue medicine for three months. But, with the onset of the economic crisis, hospitals don’t have medicine and so we are asked to buy from pharmacies.’


Manel displays her heart medication. ‘One month’s cost is around 3,400 rupees, which I can’t afford, so I buy only for one week at a time. Sometimes my husband has to borrow or get an advance from his workplace.’


“We really can’t afford to buy a gas cylinder or a cooker,” Gunasekera said, after thieves broke into her home and stole the family’s cooker and gas cylinder a few months ago. “So now we are forced to cook with firewood.”

As desperation grows, the government of president Ranil Wickremesinghe is seeking a multibillion-dollar bailout in talks with the International Monetary Fund and is tapping major allies, from India and Japan to the United States.

Ramani Priyani Nisshanka, 62, in her home after she switched off the lights to save on the electricity bill. ‘My husband fell ill around a year ago,’ she says. ‘Now it’s very difficult not only to spend on food but even to pay bills.’


But major financial assistance is still months away, making tough austerity measures likely, so few Sri Lankans will see conditions improve soon.

“Now I bathe at a public well more often in order to save money,” said auto rickshaw driver Sivaraja Sanjeewan, 31, adding that the rising cost of food made it very tough for him to pay water and electricity bills.

Vidyathipathige Nihal, 62, at his home next to a railway. ‘Just a couple of months back some robbers broke into our house and stole the small gas cylinder and the cooker we had… So now we are forced to cook with firewood,’ he says.


Nihal with two small plastic bags of chickpeas and rice, the only grain his family currently has


Shortages persist

As depleted reserves have dried up supplies of petrol, diesel and gas, lengthy fuel queues, sometimes persisting for days, have become a daily feature this year.

The shortages have brought a boom in demand for firewood.

Krishan Darshana said he had joined his father in breaking up logs to sell as kindling after getting laid off from a job in construction during the crisis.

“It’s very hard work,” said the 25-year-old, who now makes do with a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits as the day’s only meal. “But what else can I do when there are no jobs for us?”

Gamage Rupawathi, right, 60, her husband WA Susantha, centre, 45, and their son, Krishan Darshana, 25, at their home. ‘When I had fruit business I was earning a significant income,’ Rupawathi says. ‘But with the drawn-out lockdowns during the pandemic and now this economic crisis I don’t have money to restart my fruit stall.’


Susantha holds a cup of plain tea and two pieces of biscuit, the only food he has for the day


Times are also tough for those with health problems.

“Government hospitals have run out of medicine, so they ask us to buy from pharmacies – but we don’t have any money,” said Krishan’s mother, 60-year-old Gamage Rupawathi.

She suffers from asthma, excess cholesterol and arthritis, but now finds she has just three days of drugs left.

“After this is over, what do I do?” she asked tearfully, gesturing to an inhaler she uses twice a day to help her breathe.

Children suffer

With education already disrupted by the pandemic, children were among the worst hit by the economic crisis that followed as parents scrambled for supplies and authorities worried about growing risks of malnutrition.

“Our main concern is the education of our children,” said Gunasekera. “But we are unable to buy even exercise books.”

Her husband has to beg his employers for the money to buy them, she added.

Oshada Fernando, 11, poses with the kite that his uncle made for him


‘With the economic crisis we haven’t bought any toys for our son,’ says Oshada’s mother


Some parents find it hard to scrape together the fares for children’s trips to school, while others cannot afford to buy them even simple treats, such as ice cream or sweets.

Oshada Fernando played with a homemade kite his uncle fashioned from bamboo scraps and shopping bags. His parents were unable to afford a gift for his birthday last month.

“I was wishing for a racing car,” said the 11-year-old. “I hope at least for my next birthday I get this as a present.”



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