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

COLOMBO, Aug 30 (Reuters) – In her outstretched palms, Nilanthi Gunasekera, 49, holds her family’s last handful of dried fish – a reminder of Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis in decades.

She is just one of millions of Sri Lankans who are battling a catastrophic decline in their standard of living, as they find themselves forced to skip meals, ration medicines and turn to firewood instead. cooking gas.

“Now the fish is out of our family’s reach, just like the meat,” Gunasekera said, grabbing the fish shards. “For two weeks we couldn’t afford meat or fish. It’s our last protein.”

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Hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, rising oil prices and economic mismanagement under previous governments, the island nation is in the grip of its most severe crisis since gaining independence from Britain in 1948.

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

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More than a quarter of the population of 22 million now struggle to get adequate and nutritious food, according to the United Nations.

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

As desperation grows, President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government is seeking a multi-billion dollar bailout in talks with the International Monetary Fund and appealing to major allies from India and Japan to the United States.

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

“Now I bathe more often in a public well to save money,” said rickshaw driver Sivaraja Sanjeewan, 31, adding that rising food prices made it very difficult for him to bathe. payment of water and electricity bills.


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

The shortages led to a boom in demand for firewood.

Krishan Darshana said he joined his father in breaking logs to sell as kindling after he was made redundant from a construction job during the crisis.

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

Times are also tough for those with health issues.

“Government hospitals are running out of drugs, so they are asking us to buy some from pharmacies – but we have no money,” said Krishan’s mother, Gamage Rupawathi, 60.

She suffers from asthma, cholesterol and arthritis, but now finds that she has only three days left of medication.

“After it’s over, what do I do?” she asked tearfully, pointing to an inhaler she uses twice a day to help her breathe.


With education already disrupted by the pandemic, children have been among the hardest hit by the ensuing economic crisis, as parents rush for supplies and authorities worry about growing risks of malnutrition.

“Our main concern is the education of our children,” Gunasekera said. “But we are not even able to buy exercise books.”

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

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

Oshada Fernando played with a homemade kite made by his uncle from bamboo scraps and shopping bags. His parents couldn’t afford a present for his birthday last month.

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

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Reporting by Kim Kyung-Hoon and Santhush Fernando in Colombo; Written by Alasdair Pal; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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