The economic crisis has hit Sri Lanka’s hospitals, which are now almost empty

Patients dependent on Sri Lanka’s public health system are even struggling to get to hospitals due to the country’s fuel crisis – AFP

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Patients dependent on Sri Lanka’s public health system are even struggling to get to hospitals due to the country’s fuel crisis – AFP

Whole wards are dark and nearly empty in Sri Lanka’s biggest hospital, its few remaining patients are untreated and still in pain, and doctors can’t even arrive for their shifts.

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

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Suffering from diabetes and hypertension which inflamed her joints, Theresa Mary traveled to the capital Colombo for treatment at the Sri Lanka National Hospital.

Unable to find a carpool for the final leg of her journey, she had to hobble the last five kilometers (three miles) on foot.

She was released four days later, still having difficulty standing, as the clinic had run out of subsidized painkillers.

“The doctors asked me to buy medicine from a private pharmacy, but I have no money,” Mary, 70, told AFP.

“My knees are still swollen. I don’t have a house in Colombo. I don’t know how long I have to walk.”

The National Hospital normally caters to people across the island nation in need of specialist treatment, but it is now operating with reduced staff and many of its 3,400 beds are unused.

Stocks of surgical equipment and life-saving drugs are nearly depleted, while chronic fuel shortages prevent patients and doctors from traveling for treatment.

“Patients for surgery don’t show up,” Dr Vasan Ratnasingham, a member of a government doctors’ association, told AFP.

“Some of the medical staff are working double shifts because others can’t show up for work. They have cars but no fuel.”

Sri Lanka imports 85% of its medicines and medical equipment, as well as raw materials to manufacture the remaining part of its needs.

But the country is now bankrupt and a lack of foreign currency has prevented it from getting enough gasoline to keep the economy going – and enough pharmaceuticals to treat its sick.

“Normal painkillers, antibiotics and pediatric medicines are extremely scarce. Other medicines have become up to four times more expensive in the last three months,” pharmacy owner K. Mathyalagan.

Mathiyalagan said his colleagues had to reject three out of 10 prescriptions because they couldn’t afford to fill them.

“A lot of basic drugs are completely out of stock,” he added. “Doctors prescribe without knowing what is available in pharmacies.”

“On the Verge of Collapse”

Health Ministry officials declined to give details on the current state of Sri Lanka’s public health services, on which 90% of the population depend.

But doctors working in public hospitals say they have been forced to cut back on routine surgeries to prioritize life-threatening emergencies and use less effective substitute drugs.

“Sri Lanka’s once strong health system is now in jeopardy,” UN Resident Coordinator Hanaa Singer-Hamdy said in a statement. “The most vulnerable are the most affected.”

The World Bank recently redirected development funds to help Sri Lanka pay for urgently needed medicines, including rabies vaccines.

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

But new President Ranil Wickremesinghe has warned that the country’s economic crisis is likely to continue until the end of next year, and Sri Lanka faces the prospect of an even worse public health crisis to come.

Hyperinflation has pushed food prices so high that many households are struggling to feed themselves.

According to the World Food Programme, almost five million people – 22% of the population – need food aid, and more than five out of six families are skipping meals, eating less or buying lower quality food.

If the crisis drags on, “more children will die and malnutrition will be rampant in Sri Lanka,” Dr Vasan of the doctors’ association told AFP.

“It will bring our healthcare system to the brink of collapse.”

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