Shortages leave bankrupt Sri Lanka's hospitals empty

The island imports 85 per cent of its medicines and medical equipment


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Photos: AFP
Photos: AFP

Published: Tue 26 Jul 2022, 8:15 AM

Entire wards remain dark and nearly empty in the National Hospital of Sri Lanka, the country's largest hospital, with a few remaining patients leaving untreated and still in pain, and doctors being prevented from even arriving for their shifts.

An unprecedented economic crisis has dealt a severe blow to a free and universal healthcare system that just months earlier was the envy of the country's South Asian neighbours.

Suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure that inflamed her joints, Theresa Mary travelled to the capital city Colombo for treatment at the National Hospital. Unable to find a ride for the last leg of her journey, she had to limp the last 5km on foot. She was discharged four days later, still finding it difficult to stand on her feet, because the dispensary had run out of subsidised painkillers.

"Doctors asked me to buy medicines from a private pharmacy, but I don't have money… "My knees are still swollen. I don't have a home in Colombo. I don't know how long I have to walk," Mary, 70, told AFP.

Though the National Hospital normally caters to people in need of specialised treatment all over the island nation, it now runs on reduced staff, and many of its 3,400 beds lie unused. Supplies of surgery equipment and life-saving drugs have been almost exhausted, while chronic petrol shortages have left both patients and doctors unable to travel for treatment.

"Patients scheduled for surgeries are not reporting… Some medical staff work double shifts because others cannot report for duty. They have cars but no fuel," said Dr Vasan Ratnasingham, a member of a government medical officers' association, to AFP.

Sri Lanka imports 85 per cent of its medicines and medical equipment, along with raw materials, to manufacture the remaining share of its needs. However, the country is now bankrupt, and a lack of foreign currency has left it unable to source enough petrol to keep the economy moving, and enough pharmaceuticals to treat the sick.

"Normal painkillers, antibiotics and paediatric medicines are in extremely short supply. Other medicines have become up to four times expensive in the last three months," a pharmacy owner K. Mathiyalagan told AFP.

He explained that his colleagues had to reject three in every 10 prescriptions because they lacked the means to fill them.

"A lot of basic medicines are completely out of stock… Doctors prescribe without knowing what is available in the pharmacies," he added.

Health ministry officials declined to comment about the present state of Sri Lanka's public health services, on which 90 per cent of the population depends.

Doctors working in government hospitals say that they have been forced to curtail routine surgeries to prioritise life-threatening emergencies, and use less effective substitute medicines.

"Sri Lanka's once-strong healthcare system is now in jeopardy," UN Resident Coordinator Hanaa Singer-Hamdy said in a statement.

"The most vulnerable are facing the greatest impact."

The World Bank recently directed development funds towards Sri Lanka, in order to help pay for urgently-needed medications, such as anti-rabies vaccines.

India, Bangladesh, Japan and other countries have helped with donations for the healthcare sector, while Sri Lankans living abroad have pitched in by sending home pharmaceuticals and medical equipment.

The new President Ranil Wickremesinghe warned that the country's economic crisis was likely to continue till the end of the next year, due to which Sri Lanka was staring at the prospect of an even worse public health crisis to come.

Hyperinflation has driven food prices so high that many households are struggling to keep themselves fed. According to the World Food Programme, nearly five million people— 22 per cent of the population— need food aid, with more than five out of every six families either skipping meals, eating less, or buying lower-quality food.

If the crisis drags on, "More infants will die, and malnutrition will be rampant in Sri Lanka," added Dr Vasan Ratnasingham.

"It will bring our healthcare system to the verge of collapse," he concluded.


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