ECONOMYNEXT – Across the districts designated as the most affected by the COVID 19 threat, the fear of the disease is tinged by the concern that the prolonged curfew will deprive families of the essentials of life.
The districts of Colombo, Gampaha, Kalutara, and Puttalam have been under a blanket curfew since March 24, total of 16 days with no end in sight.
Well-placed government sources told EconomyNext that these regions are also looking at least two weeks more of curfews and restrictions as the authorities are keen to prevent community transmission of the virus.
Kandy and Jaffna are also under the same curfew regime although they began later than the hot spots in the Western Province.
This period of the year is also when for millennia Sri Lankans of all creeds have gathered around their families, the very thing we need to prevent to ensure COVID 19 doesn’t become too much of a family matter.
Placing everyone under the blanket at the time when the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, Easter and the advent of Ramazan occur therefore is vital.
In most homes, particularly the middle-class salaried, anxiety levels are high as many private companies slash wages and see little prospect of short-term and even medium term recovery.
Getting the daily supplies, erratic in some areas, sporadic in most, and smooth and well-functioning in rare cases is dependent on having ready cash.
Up and down the income scales people are digging into savings with the lower-income groups crowding the Pawn shops when it is possible to get to those.
At the meeting of the political party leaders held with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Monday, the Opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) called on the government to improve the distribution of food and medicines to citizens unable to move because of curfews “as there are serious issues with these supplies.”
In a press release the SJB said this was the most serious issue facing the public.
Anecdotal evidence and the bulk of the social media chatter in the past two weeks has moved from the fears of the spread of COVID 19 to serious concern about the availability of food, medicine and general hygiene products such as soap, detergents, insecticides and feminine sanitary ware.
Supermarkets offering deliveries such as Cargills, Keels and Laugfs are overwhelmed by orders and are behind in deliveries by more than 24 hours, local managers said.
The decision by the government to keep Pharmacies continously open from today (April 9, 2020) will bring much relief. Last week saw long-queues outside these establishments as patients – or their family members – bought life-saving medicines mostly for chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and lung conditions.
The latter are known to increase the risk of death for those who contract COVID-19.
The Supply Chain
The government’s strategy to supply the daily essentials – bread, vegetables, dry rations and fish – is to allow the private sector to take over the delivery while facilitating permits and working through the existing government administrative set up.
Prof. Charitha Herath who is a key part of the Presidential Task Force for Essential Services says that consumers cannot expect normal services.
“These are not normal times, and this is also not a situation where there is an armed conflict,” he pointed out to EconomyNext on Thursday (April 9).
Former Governor and Human Rights activist Rajitha Keerthi Tennekoon says that the government needs to “loosen up and allow the markets to function as they were.”
Tennekoon told EconomyNext that the level of frustration amongst the farmers and the regular transporters and traders in vegetable for instance was very high.
But, from the informal poll we were able to conduct among our staff – now all working from home – as well as contacts were able to telephone in some of the districts with the long curfew, we found that supply chains in some areas were excellent, some sporadic or patchy and in a few, extremely dysfunctional.
Our reporter Imesh Ranasinghe who lives in the Bandaragama area in the Kalutara district said he was well-supplied with bread and other essentials arriving steadily. His mother who lives in the Panadura urban area did not have trucks or three-wheelers arriving with food, “but doesn’t really lack for anything,” Ranasinghe said.
In most areas local groups from Welfare Associations to the ubiquitous Death Donation Societies have stepped up. In Jayanthipura in Battaramulla, local residents said, the Welfare Association has a WhatsApp group which informs the membership whenever supply trucks with essentials turn up.
In the Mirihana area where my family lives, the local association was the first to distribute dry rations to their members. Regular supplies by Tuk and Batta are common, although the traders did say the regular run of trucks from the major supply centres in Dambulla, Keppetipola and Embilipitiya were not running as normal.
In Boralesgamuwa our staffer Himal Kotelawela discovered that the local Grama Sevaka is key. Supplies to his neighborhood were patchy until he called the Grama Sevaka “and now we get supplies regularly,” he said.
While the suburbs were more or less like that, living in Central Colombo is different, reporter Mahadiya Hamza said. “There are very few houses here so the vendors don’t come to the doorstep,” she said.
However “some shops and little markets are open for a few hours in the morning and we can get our supplies,” she added. Meat shops are however closed.
In Kandy where the lengthy, indefinite curfew is relatively recent, supply chains seem to be working. Regular supplies by local traders as well as the chains and supermarkets are available.
Almost everywhere it appears the local “corner shops” and their modern equivalents are doing well. Many of them have been given permits by the authorities to purchase in bulk and are serving their regular customers.
Police have warned them not to allow too many shoppers to crowd their shops and to only let in one person at a time.
In a few places residents we spoke to said local traders were running their own telephone order system and accepting payment electronically.
Dr Sarath Ilangantilaka, a retiree living in Pallekelle said his own grocer was “supplying almost everything we need and accepting on-line payments.”
While the middle-classes appear to be functioning at some level people on government assistance are scrambling for cash and supplies, opposition politicians said.
Herath said the government has set aside over Rs. seven billion to service these people on Samurdhi and other assistance schemes. (Colombo, 9 April, 2020)