“Operation stopgap” helping thousands ride the COVID storm
ECONOMYNEXT – V Udayaraj, a projects officer at a private company based in Peliyagoda is surrounded by people in his neighbourhood every time steps out of his home.
He told EconomyNext that there are about 1,500 families living in the Dutugemunu Mawatha area in Peliyagoda in his neighbourhood and many are hard-pressed to put food on the table because they have no work.
“Of them, around 500 families are in a really bad situation, and are living precariously,” he says.
“Most of these people are daily wage earners, Three-wheeler drivers or casual workers in the Pettah market or cleaners or part-time drivers of heavy vehicles,” he says.
Udayaraj has been a focal point in this area for many years, every time there has been a flood or other disaster because he gets aid from various sources for them. “But this time it is very different,” he said.
Udayaraj is part of a network of neighbourhood and regional workers across Sri Lanka who have benefited from donations received by social activist Marisa de Silva, who put out an appeal as the COVID 19 crisis broke.
This network has disbursed more than six million rupees covering the whole island since the outbreak and the restrictions of movement began with the cash reaching the needy through community leaders and activists.
GENEROUS DONORS FROM EVERYWHERE
“I had an amazing response from people I know as well as those I never knew,” she said. One group in Canada who contacted her through Facebook held a fundraiser too had sent her money.
De Silva told EconomyNext she had been “swamped by appeals over the last week and have been trying to help as many communities as possible.”
The focus has been the daily wage earners. “They range from plantation workers, street vendors, sex workers, workers in the factories in the Free Trade Zone and members of the Transgender community,” she said.
The donations have a wide range. Looking at some of the reports de Silva has submitted to donors that we have seen, they have addressed needs of varying communities.
Most of the time they have been dry rations; rice, flour, dried milk, dhal and tinned fish.
Sometimes the needs have been more specific. A group of women resident in the Northern Province and disabled during the war were provided with sanitary napkins.
The people in the Peliyagoda neighbourhood, and in many other parts of urban Sri Lanka declared “high-risk” for the spread of COVID 19 are poor or lower-middle-class families dependent on a daily income.
“THEY ARE STRUGGLING TO SURVIVE”
There are at least 2.5 million people who are working in the so-called “informal sector” outside of the Agricultural sector, government statistics show.
De Silva says “there are hundreds of thousands of daily wage workers who are not entitled to formal Government economic support programs who are struggling to survive.”
“We are acting as an informal stop-gap initiative, until the government mechanisms kick in, which by the looks of it, might take a while, particularly by the time it makes it’s way to the informal sector workers,” she added.
Udayaraj concurs. He says those who qualify for Samurdhi, payments, usually given to the poorest of the poor, have received some money. “They have got Rs 5,000 per family, but that does not last them more than a few days,” he says.
The people Udayaraj worries about are families who earn above the threshold that qualifies them for Samurdhi but have had no income for more than a month owing to the curfews and shut-downs enforced to stop the spread of COVID 19.
He says “it is the people who usually have a fairly comfortable life with their daily earnings who are feeling the pinch at present because for nearly 30 days they haven’t had any work.”
Former Minister Kabir Hashim told reporters last week that most of those persons are employed in Small and Medium Enterprises which have not been able to carry out their businesses in the high-risk, heavily populated districts of Colombo, Gampaha, Kalutara, Kandy and Jaffna because of the indefinite curfew.
Hashim called on the government “to recognize these people and help them.”
Government Ministers including Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi have also realized the plight of these people. “We are hoping to open up and get the economy moving again to help the daily wage earners,” she told reporters on Friday, April 17.
On Saturday, April 18, the government announced that the restrictions would be relaxed from Monday April 20 for most of the country and for the high-risk areas on April 22.
Udayaraj says that there has been no distribution of dry rations or essentials by the government until now, although they have received those from local organisations.
One of the groups that received assistance from de Silva is in Kadugannawa and an activist in the area, who did not wish to be named, said that the cash she got from de Silva went a long way in assisting many families.
These people who received help were also semi-urban dwellers “mostly people who are day labourers, three-wheel drivers or office assistants,” she said.
Many, she said, were originally from villages in rural parts of the province but were trapped in the towns when the indefinite curfew was imposed in the Kandy district resulting in all economic activity coming to a standstill.
In the teeming central Colombo area, where there is rampant poverty the COVID 19 crisis has grossly increased the needs of the people.
RELIGIOUS BODIES STEP UP
The Parish of Our Lady of Fatima in Maradana, which usually helps hundreds of people in need, has spent more than 1.2 million rupees providing groceries for the poor as well as the many others who are daily-wage earners.
Their work has been supported by the Buddhist and Hindu temples in the area as well as Muslim charitable organisations.
The Oblate Missions has also spent around Rs 800,000 helping families across the country, a spokesperson said.
“This time around we are helping the poor as well as middle-class people whose salaries have been cut or have lost their source of income,” he said. One woman who had tuition pupils coming home had appealed for help as no students had arrived to be tutored all month.
Prof. Charitha Herath who speaks for the government’s Special Task Force headed by former Minister Basil Rajapaksa providing essential services said the government was spending Rs 7.7 billion on the relief effort.
He rejected allegations that the relief was going only to supporters of the governing Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna. “There is also help going to Samurdhi recipients registered during the last government,” he told EconomyNext.
Opposition politicians including the General Secretary of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya, Ranjith Madduma Bandara have accused the government of “politicizing” aid.
He told the media on Friday that the “distribution of aid has been taken away from the hands of the government officials and handed over to the local political leaders of the SLPP.” (Colombo, April 19, 2020)