Colombo, Oct 11 (Bureau) Since Sri Lanka announced in April that it will default on its foreign debt, its 22 million residents have lost access to most medicine and medical supplies, setting them on course for a humanitarian disaster, a report published on Tuesday said. The report by ReliefWeb, a humanitarian information project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, was quoted as saying by The Island newspaper that unlike Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Sri Lanka’s crisis grew slowly and has garnered few international headlines. But Sri Lankans are suffering amid the harshest economic crisis the country has confronted since gaining independence in 1948, it said. With the country’s foreign reserves depleted, the nationalized healthcare system cannot afford to import medicine and medical supplies in sufficient quantities, it said. Sri Lanka relies on imports for about 85 per cent of its pharmaceutical needs and about 80 per cent of its medical supplies.
The country imported $815 million in medicine in 2021, but by May had only about $25 million in foreign reserves to pay for imports of any kind. Last week in Sri Lanka, Direct Relief staff participated in an extensive series of meetings with Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and much of the country’s healthcare leadership while overseeing the arrival of what may be the largest donation of medicine to the country since the crisis began. “For the next six months, they’re (Sri Lanka) expecting a catastrophic number of deaths,” said Chris Alleway, Direct Relief’s manager of emergency response and new initiatives, who led the Sri Lanka meetings. The 3,500-bed National Hospital of Sri Lanka in Columbo, which usually has 1,300 medicines in stock, is now down to requesting only the 60 most essential medicines, the newspaper reported. With anesthesia in short supply, most general surgeries in the country have ceased, including kidney transplants.
Cancer patients have lost access to medications needed to fight the deadly disease. Diabetes patients must secure and bring their own glucose meters for blood sugar check-ups. Many hospitals are stocked out of basic items like bandages and cotton balls. The stockouts are forcing rural clinics to close their doors and refer patients to larger facilities in urban areas, which also are overwhelmed by the flow of patients. Due to a severe fuel shortage, the country’s fishing fleets cannot go far out to sea, slashing the supply of fish that is a significant source of protein in the country, including at its largest children’s hospital, it said. Sri Lanka is also losing clinicians as they migrate to other countries with more opportunities, while its medical colleges see the number of applicants for medical education decline sharply. Responding to the crisis spurred by Sri Lanka’s default in June of this year, Direct Relief has delivered eight humanitarian shipments totaling 27 tonnes and 16 million defined daily doses of donated medicine. The largest shipment from Direct Relief to Sri Lanka — 18 tonnes of medicine and medical supplies requested explicitly by Sri Lanka’s government — arrived in recent weeks.