Sri Lanka on verge of health catastrophe amid economic crisis


Doctors across Sri Lanka fear a health catastrophe, if international help doesn’t arrive soon as hospitals across the country are running out of medicines and essential supplies.

Sri Lanka is in the midst of its worst economic crisis in history. The country imports around 85% of its medical supplies. But with foreign currency reserves running low, essential drugs are now difficult to obtain.

The secretary of Sri Lanka’s Association of Medical Specialists, Dr. Gnanasekaram says, “Day by day things are running out. If we get to the point where it’s zero, then I don’t know what will happen.”

“We are short of medical drugs, anaesthetic drugs, implants, suture materials. We are nearly exhausting the stock. Healthcare services are going to collapse unless there’s immediate relief,” he says.

I meet Dr. Gnanasekaram between consultations – he says he’s hoping this interview will encourage international donors to come forward.

If supplies aren’t replenished soon, the doctor warns of dire consequences.

“If that happens there may be a situation where we won’t be able to save patients’ lives.”

At his office in Sri Lanka’s largest children’s hospital, Lady Ridgeway, medical director Dr. Wijesuriya shows me a piece of paper with a list of essential drugs on it.

Next to the name of the medicine, there’s a column showing availability.

Some like atracurium – used in anaesthetics – have only two months of stock left. But as I scan the list further, other drugs are in even shorter supply.

There’s only two weeks left of the painkiller fentanyl, while three different types of antibiotics are already “out of stock”.

For now, Dr. Wijesuriya says he’s managing these shortages with substitutions. He remains optimistic that the government will find a way to get him what is needed for his patients.

Frontline doctors are far less upbeat. Many say they’ve been told by the government they can’t speak openly to the media about the situation, with only union representatives and hospital directors authorised to do so.

In a statement Sri Lanka’s government initially denied medicines were running out, even as doctors reported problems.

A day later the Department of Government Information issued a correction, admitting there is a shortage of some drugs and equipment.

Documents seen by the BBC, interviews with medical unions and testimony from frontline doctors reveal that hospitals across the nation are in desperate need of a range of life-saving drugs and equipment.

Medical staff have told the BBC the crunch in supplies has forced them to suspend non-essential operations, and reuse or ration some equipment.

Dr. Nishan (not his real name) works at a cancer hospital in the Eastern province.

“In two weeks’ time we may have to stop most surgeries and only do emergencies,” he told me as he reeled off a list of essentials like IV fluids, paracetamol, and antibiotics that his team are struggling to get hold of.

“There may be a time when we have to even stop treating cancer patients,” he warned.

Dr. Nishan is from an area hit hard by the country’s civil war. Working as a doctor in conflict has its many challenges, but this economic crisis comes with many others.

“During the war we had limitations, but we could still get things from the ministry in Colombo,” he said.

“But now even the health ministry doesn’t have supplies. During wartime we were not so frustrated and desperate as we are now.”

Sri Lanka runs a free national healthcare system, which millions of people on the island rely on.

Kasun (not his real name), who works at a hospital in the Southern province, said it’s only a matter of days before drugs run out unless supplies come in.

“We are being told to use what we have sparingly, but there’s no real solution. I feel helpless.”

The largest doctor’s union on the island, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA), has blamed the crisis on poor financial and economic management and is calling on people from overseas to donate supplies. (Source: BBC)