Power Cuts, Drug Shortages Push Sri Lanka's Healthcare System To The Brink

A perfect storm of political and economic unrest coupled with protests, long power cuts, fuel shortages, and a shortage of live-saving drugs are weighing on the island nation's healthcare system.

Sri Lanka is staring at a public health emergency as it reels from long power cuts disrupting healthcare services, fuel shortages and a scarcity of live-saving drugs.

The Sri Lankan Government Medical Officer's Association declared a public health emergency on April 4, 2022.

The chairman attributed the emergency to the rapid shortage of drugs in the country and equipment failing due to long power cuts.

"The Ministry of Health and the Government have failed to make plans to prevent the breakdown of healthcare that is going to happen in a few days due to not treating free healthcare as a priority in the country," the association wrote.

Doctors and healthcare workers in the national capital of Colombo have taken to the streets in recent days to protest.


Drug Shortage In The Country

The shortage affects Sri Lanka's Scandinavian model of providing free health care along with free consultations. The World Bank found that in 2018, Sri Lanka's public health system provided half of all medical treatments, 95 per cent of hospitalisations, and 99 per cent of the preventive care needs of the 22 million population.

However, in current times, doctors have claimed that the island is even struggling to give out injections.

Dr.Chamal Sanjeewa, a member of the medical union who was a part of the protests told BOOM that hospitals are running out of anesthesia.

Dr. Farhan Mohamad from Teaching Hospital Batticoloa also tweeted a list of drugs that were in short supply at their hospital.

Sri Lanka imports 90 per cent of its medicines, but Dr. Sanjeewa stated that they have not imported medicines for quite a few months now and existing stocks are also quickly depleting. The devalued rupee against the dollar increased drug prices impacting imports.

The WHO and UNICEF are helping the country to source a list of essential medical supplies requested by the Sri Lankan government. India has sent emergency medical services to the country.

"The stocks will last for a maximum of two months and we are not able to procure more. This is affecting poor patients. To save money, they are reducing their tablet dosages without consulting doctors," Dr. Sanjeewa said.

BOOM also spoke to Dr. Anver Hamdani, Director Medical Technology Services and Coordinator in-charge of Covid 19, Ministry of Health Sri Lanka to understand the prevailing situation in the country.

"There is a shortage for some drugs but we also have stocks. This is an alarming sign for us to ensure that they are properly maintained."

He also added that the economic crisis was a further blow to the country reeling with the health and human resource crisis that they were facing. Highlighting that the country now has Covid under control, Hamdani said, "from the situation of having a case burden of 5-6 thousand daily, the national numbers are down to a few 100s."

"If the political crisis had coincided, we are not sure if we would have been able to bring things under control," Dr. Hamdani added.

Power Shortages Leading To Fewer Surgeries

Dr. Sanjeewa, the medical union representative told BOOM that the continuous power outages were leading to vaccines going bad and also affecting surgeries. "Hospitals are running on generators and thus it boils down to choosing which area in the hospital will get unhindered electricity."

Dr. Hamdani said it's all about prioritising which surgery gets precedence just like it was in COVID times.

"Our vaccines are stored in places that we have ensured have an uninterrupted supply of electricity. Even in surgeries, ideally we would have wanted to provide care to everybody, but in the current times, an open-heart surgery will be prioritised over a hernia. I don't want to sugarcoat things, there are problems, but we are trying to tackle them by prioritisation, " Dr. Hamdani explained.

How Long Will The Crisis Last?

The cash-strapped country hopes to shift the focus from COVID care to regular healthcare services and is in conversations with donor agencies.

"If people are expecting things to return to normal in a fortnight, please tell them to be a little more realistic. Currently, we have to do short-term forecasting rather than customary annual budgets. It will take a reasonable amount of time for the health sector to return to pre-pandemic times. We have to be watchful of the turn the political turmoil situation takes too, " Dr. Hamdani stated.


Additional reporting by Nivedita Niranjankumar in Colombo.

Updated On: 2022-04-11T13:11:43+05:30
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