IIt was, the doctor said, an avoidable delay that would haunt these parents forever. When their two-year-old daughter first refused to eat, then started turning yellow with signs of jaundice, then had a seizure, Kanchana and her husband, living in the Haldummulla region of Sri Lanka, knew she needed urgent medical attention. .
But they ran into a terrible obstacle. Sri Lanka is in the grip of the worst economic crisis in its history, declaring bankruptcy and having no more foreign exchange reserves to pay for imports. As a result, the country has been unable to procure the 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 take her to hospital, he was confronted with one empty petrol station after another.
Eventually, when they arrived at a local hospital a few miles away, their two-year-old was in such critical condition that she had to be transferred to an urgent care unit at the larger hospital in Diyatalawa. But it was too late; she was already dead when she arrived.
Shanaka Roshan Pathirana, the chief medical officer at Diyatalawa Hospital who carried out the autopsy, confirmed that the time it took to bring the child to the hospital directly led to his death.
“The depressing memory for parents that they couldn’t save their baby just because they couldn’t find a liter of gas will haunt them forever,” Pathirana said in a social media post. , who accused the government of failing to protect the lives of vulnerable people.
Pathirana spoke directly to The Guardian to confirm details of the incident, but said he was not authorized to speak to the media beyond his social media post. Kanchana, the baby’s mother, said she was too upset by her daughter’s death to say more.
It was a haunting reminder that as Sri Lanka’s economic crisis drags on, the human cost continues to mount. Newly appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe warned last week that “the worst is yet to come”, with drug shortages worsening daily and food shortages looming on the horizon. Already, many in the country can barely afford one meal a day, as food inflation has hit a record 45% and the country’s currency has become the worst performer in the world.
Sri Lanka’s economic crisis has also precipitated a political crisis that continues to destabilize the country. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is accused of disastrous economic policies and mismanagement that bankrupted the country, 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 popular support.
Nowhere are Sri Lanka’s woes more visible than the queues that continue to form outside gas stations, often more than two miles long, late into the night as the island is grappling with rampant fuel shortages and prices that have risen 137% over the past six years. month. For drivers and tuk-tuk owners, gasoline is their livelihood; without it, they cannot survive. To make matters worse, the government on Tuesday announced an unprecedented fuel hike of 20-24% for petrol and 35-38% for diesel.
“No matter how much you work, now it’s never enough to cover petrol costs,” said Ruwal Ranasinghe, 40, a tuk-tuk driver from Pethiyagoda.
As darkness fell on Colombo on Monday evening, DM Sameera, 39, a driver from Kesbawa, about 15 miles away, settled in for what would be his 33rd hour of waiting in a queue for petrol outside a station in the town of Havelock.
His desperation was palpable. The morning before, he had gone to two different gas stations and waited for hours, each time arriving at the front of the line just after the gas ran out. Finally, he had parked in front of this station on Sunday afternoon, held there for more than 24 hours by the promise that the gas was definitely on its way and that there was nothing left in his tank. But at 11pm on Monday no one had come and he was facing another night of sleeping in his car waiting for a tanker truck 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,” Sameera said. “Often I don’t have enough fuel to get home. It made me feel tired of my life and didn’t want to continue. I am so angry and filled with hate at the government for doing this to us.
For the city’s tuk-tuk drivers, life has become what has been described as “a living hell”, with every moment they are off work spent queuing for petrol, often until at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., or sleeping in line at night if they are “unlucky”. Their incomes have thus more than halved, while gasoline prices have skyrocketed.
“I don’t see my family anymore: if I’m not working, I’m just in my tuk-tuk waiting for petrol for up to eight hours a night,” said Mohammad Kamil, 38, sitting outside a gas station. service at 10 p.m. “I’ve lost so much sleep. It’s very sad, sometimes I cry alone in my tuk-tuk when I’m waiting for petrol, it’s so desperate.
As fuel supplies have poured in recently, donated by India and other neighboring countries, a system has sprung up to help people find petrol – including dedicated Facebook and WhatsApp groups. announces where the last arrival of fuel was shipped.
In an attempt to maintain family life, some tuk-tuk drivers have resorted to desperate measures in their nightly search for fuel. In the back of Chanukah Pradeep’s tuk-tuk, which had been sitting in a petrol queue in Gamthaha district for hours, his two-year-old daughter lay asleep next to his wife.
“I brought them with me here because otherwise I wouldn’t be spending time with my family,” said Pradeep, who works two jobs. “When I come back from the gas line, they’re both sleeping, so at least that way I can be with them for a little while.”
He gazed mournfully at his sleeping daughter in the back seat of the tuk-tuk, moving restlessly as the huge diesel trucks honked impatiently nearby and fumes from the cars filled the air.
“I am so sad and full of regrets that this is her life and I am wasting all this precious time with her for what? Just for gas,” Pradeep said. “I will never get this time back.”