Hannah Ellis-Petersen in Colombo
As country’s situation worsens, supplies have dried up – leaving drivers queuing overnight and unable to make vital journeys
It was, said the doctor, an avoidable delay that would haunt these parents for ever. When their two-year-old daughter first refused to eat, then began to go yellow with the signs of jaundice and then fell into a seizure, Kanchana and her husband, living in the Sri Lankan region of Haldummulla, knew she needed urgent medical care.
But they faced a terrible obstacle. Sri Lanka is in the grip of the worst economic crisis in its history, declaring bankruptcy and with no foreign reserves left to pay for imports. As a result, the country has been unable to afford necessary fuel and in recent weeks, supplies have all but dried up. As the girl’s father searched for hours on Sunday for fuel for his tuk-tuk to drive her to hospital, he was faced with one empty petrol station after another.
Eventually, when they arrived at a local hospital just a few kilometres away, their two-year-old was in such a critical condition she had to be transferred to an emergency treatment unit at the larger Diyatalawa hospital. But it was too late; she was already dead on arrival.
Shanaka Roshan Pathirana, the judicial medical officer of the Diyatalawa hospital who conducted the postmortem, confirmed that the length of time in getting the infant to hospital had led directly to her death.
“The depressing memory for the parents that they could not save their baby just because they could not find a litre of petrol will haunt them for ever,” Pathirana said in a social media post, which accused the government of failing to protect the lives of vulnerable people.
Pathirana spoke directly to the Guardian to confirm the details of the incident but said he was not authorised to speak to the media beyond his social media post. Kanchana, the baby’s mother, said she was too distraught at her daughter’s death to say anything more.
It was a haunting reminder that as Sri Lanka’s economic crisis drags on without respite, the human cost continues to mount. The newly appointed prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, warned last week: “the worst is still to come”, with medicine shortages worsening daily and food shortages predicted to be on the horizon. Already, many in the country can barely afford one meal a day as food inflation has soared to a record 45% and the country’s currency has become the worst-performing in the world.
Sri Lanka’s economic crisis has also precipitated a political crisis that continues to destabilise the country. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is accused of catastrophic economic policies and mismanagement that drove the country to bankruptcy, has continued to refuse to bow to mass protests and resign. While a new prime minister was appointed this month, the government is seen by many as weak and without the backing of the people.Advertisement
Nowhere are the woes of Sri Lanka more visible than the queues that continue to form outside petrol stations, often more than two miles long, long into the night as the island grapples with rampant fuel shortages and prices that have risen 137% over the past six months. For the drivers and tuk-tuk owners, petrol is their livelihood; without it they cannot survive. To worsen matters, on Tuesday the government announced an unprecedented fuel hike of 20-24% on petrol and 35-38% for diesel.
“No matter how much you work, it’s now never enough to cover the costs of the petrol,” said Ruwal Ranasinghe, 40, a tuk-tuk driver from Pethiyagoda.
As darkness fell over Colombo on Monday night, D M Sameera, 39, a driver from Kesbawa, about 15 miles away, settled in for what would be his 33rd hour waiting in a queue for petrol outside a station in the city’s Havelock town area.
His desperation was palpable. The previous morning he had driven to two different petrol stations and waited for hours, each time getting to the front of the queue just after petrol ran out. Eventually, he had parked outside this station on Sunday afternoon, kept there for more than 24 hours by the promise that petrol was definitely on the way imminently and the fact there was nothing left in his tank. But by 11pm on Monday, none had come and he was facing another night sleeping in his car as he waited for a tanker to arrive.
“I have to be away from my family for days now because during the day I work and at night I wait for petrol,” said Sameera. “Often I don’t have enough fuel to drive back home. This has made me feel fed up with my life and not wanting to go on. I am so angry and filled with hatred at the government for doing this to us.”
For the city’s tuk-tuk drivers, life has become what one described as “a living hell”, with every moment they are not working spent waiting in line for petrol, often until 3am or 4am, or sleeping overnight in line if they have “bad luck”. Their incomes have more than halved as a result, while petrol prices have skyrocketed.
“I don’t see my family any more: if I am not working I am just in my tuk-tuk waiting for petrol for up to eight hours a night,” said Mohammad Kamil, 38, as he sat outside a petrol station at 10pm. “I have lost so much sleep. It’s very sad, I cry alone in my tuk-tuk sometimes when I am waiting for petrol because it’s so desperate.”
As supplies of fuel have recently trickled in, donated by India and other neighbouring countries, a system has emerged to help people find petrol – including Facebook and WhatsApp groups dedicated to announcing where the latest fuel arrival has been dispatched.
In an attempt to maintain their family life, some tuk-tuk drivers resorted to desperate measures during their night-time fuel searches. In the back of Chanukah Pradeep’s tuk-tuk, which had sat in a petrol queue in Gamthaha district for hours, his two-year-old daughter lay curled up asleep next to his wife.
“I brought them with me here, because otherwise I don’t get to spend any time with my family,” said Pradeep, who works two jobs. “When I get back from the petrol queue they are both asleep, so at least this way I can be with them for a little bit of time.”
He looked mournfully at his daughter asleep in the tuk-tuk back seat, shifting restlessly as the huge diesel trucks honked their horns impatiently nearby and car fumes filled the air.
“I am so sad and full of regret that this is her life and that I am losing all this precious time with her for what? Just for petrol,” said Pradeep. “I will never get that time back.”