In most crises, the felt effects are uneven. The repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic are twofold: as a direct result of the crisis, and on how the state responds to it. While the lockdown was a measure implemented to mitigate the threat of COVID-19, it has produced unintended consequences and circumstances that are yet to be addressed. In Sri Lanka, the lockdown was implemented since March 2020 as an effort to control the spread of the viral disease. It has challenged the livelihoods and lives of several groups. “Staying at home” and the extended curfew periods meant unbearable twinge of hunger and abuse behind closed doors. The casualty is not just the economy. The lockdown also impacted the physical, social, and emotional dimensions of human life. This compilation of vignettes gives us “snapshots” of the lives of the vulnerable groups in Sri Lanka that I have encountered.
Street Cleaners and Garbage Collectors
Parakrama Wethasinghe, age 55, drives a garbage truck for the Kandy Municipal Council. “We are essential workers, so we have to work during curfew too,” he said, washing his hands with a bar of soap which he now carries around, after the COVID-19 outbreak. Equipped with the mandatory face mask and gloves, Wethasinghe and his fellow workers are on duty, doing their respective garbage collection routes. “Our salaries are paid. The cleaners are also showing up for work,” he said.
“When the lockdown was announced, I could have gone home to Matale, a city in Sri Lanka where my family lives,” Wethasinghe said. “But I chose not to. It’s better to stay in Kandy, a city in the middle of Sri Lanka. We get food and a bed to sleep in, and I can send money to my family. It’s not so bad.” He told me earlier in May.
Most middle class and lower-middle-class families employ domestic workers to help them with their workload. Now, with everyone at home and with finances uncertain, the need for a domestic worker is getting less. After the curfew was imposed, the domestic workers could not travel to work, and those who reside at their employers’ houses were asked to return to their hometowns.
“No money means no food,” explained part-time domestic worker and President of the Domestic Workers’ Union (DWU), Sarasgopal Satyavani. “Even if the food lorries bring food to our area, everyone struggles to purchase something,” she added. Domestic work in Sri Lanka is severely unrecognized and excluded from several labor laws. Although the union has been lobbying for laws that benefit the workers, in light of this crisis, the process will be delayed further. “The workers face not only short-term but also long-term consequences,” she added. “In a situation where our employers themselves are struggling to keep their jobs, I do not know what kind of work will be there for domestic workers in the future,” Satyavani said during the media conference held on head office DWU Colombo.
Victims of Child Abuse
The National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) has observed a rise in reports of child cruelty following the COVID-19 lockdown. “During the time that curfew has been in place, the NCPA’s 1929 hotline has recorded 352 complaints,” Professor Muditha Vidanapathirana, chairperson of the NCPA said at the NCPA press conference on May 5, 2020. 152 of these complaints are of cruelty, physical and psychological trauma that children experience in their own homes. Before the lockdown, complaints of abuse were not restricted to domestic environments.
“Before the curfew, the NCPA received roughly 40 complaints a day, out of which four of them were cases of cruelty against children. During the curfew months (17 March – 17 April) there was a significant increase in cases of cruelty. Cruelty cases went up to six cases, out of the 10 complaints we received every day,” she noted. During this period, the child cruelty cases reported to the NCPA have increased from 10 to 60 percent. Many more cases likely go unheard.
Tuk-Tuk (auto-rickshaw) Drivers
Krishnamoorthy, age 47, is known to many as ‘Krishna’ in my village. Usually, he wakes up early in the morning to take his children to school, before starting his work, driving his Tuk-Tuk.
“Sometimes I get hired soon after taking my children to school, but at other times I have to wait for a while. Depending on the day, I can earn between LKR. 2,000-2,500 on average,” he said. “Sometimes I earn enough, sometimes less.”(Ed: USD 1= 185.83 LKR or Sri Lankan Rupee)
These days, Krishna has no income due to the lockdown. He lives with his wife, four children, and his mother. As the sole breadwinner, he has to depend on donations and help from neighbors, friends, and relatives.
Shantha Dissananyaka, age 62, is a laborer attached to the Gampola Municipal Council. He was paid his last salary in March by his employer, but other benefits and overtime payments had been cut off. “The first week of the curfew was really difficult. We were supposed to receive aid from the naghara sabha (municipal council) but we didn’t,” he said. He also used to clean houses regularly to earn some extra money. Shantha and his wife live in Sinhapitiya, Gampola, a city in Sri Lanka. Their son, Chandana, told me, that his parents couldn’t buy anything even when the food Lorries started coming in. “Whenever the lorries came it would only go to some houses. By the time it reached us, everything was over,” he added. However, things changed over the next few weeks, and goods were made available to everyone. “Right now it’s manageable,” Chandana added. “But what happens when we run out of money? How are we going to buy anything from the Lorries? There are so many families in Sinhapitiya, who are already facing this situation. If the lockdown continues, what is going to happen when my family has no money to buy anything?”
Sunitha Jayawardana, 83, receives two pensions, both of which belonged to her late husband. One is for his service as an officer in the Sri Lankan Army. The second is for his work at the United Nations office in Sri Lanka. “On a normal day, amma would receive her first payment to the post office and the other one would be deposited to her bank straight away,” Jayawardana’s daughter, Chandrika, told me. “This time, it was different.” Due to the lockdown, the Sri Lankan government implemented a strategy to hand-deliver the payments to retirees and their families via postal officers on the 2nd and 3rd day of the month. “Amma received that payment, from which we purchased her medicine. But it was not enough and she has a doctor’s appointment coming up soon. We were hoping to receive the other pension allowance as well, but we don’t think it will arrive anytime soon,” she added.
Kandy Industrial Park, also known as KIP established by the Board of Investment, is rooted in export promotion and economic growth. KIP is a combination of factories and dwellings. Export processing zones are second-home to a workforce that forms the backbone of more than 42 percent of the country’s export economy. The first week of the curfew was extremely difficult for most workers at the Kandy Industrial Park. Indika Fernando, 52, lives with his wife and children in a boarding house. On 24 March, when a brief interlude for the lockdown was announced, he chose to queue at the grocery store with the little cash left in his hand. He couldn’t bear the thought of not taking any food back home before the curfew was re-imposed. “I would get calls from several other workers crying at night,” Indika told me. “One used to break down over the phone, feeling like a prisoner in his cramped rented room. Another missed her family, and counted her rations carefully – each grain of rice, dhal, the soya, and the cowpea,” he added.
Boarding houses within these zones can vary from rentable rooms to hostels for around 50-60 people. These buildings are home to people who shared space, a common clothesline that snakes its way, marking the outer edges of makeshift homes.
“The first few days of the curfew were really difficult,” Nishanthi Jayasundara, 27, told me. Jayasundara is a factory worker at the Kandy Industrial Park. “I kept wondering if the food we have in our room was enough, but I was grateful that we had water to drink,” she said.
When the lockdown was first imposed, many of those who got stranded away from their hometowns were the workers and employees of the garment factories who were living in boarding houses within the KIP.
A week later, the companies provided transport for the workers who wished to travel back home. Some chose to stay behind and since then, have not returned to work amidst the lockdown.
Currently, a few factories have reopened, after adopting new safety measures against the COVID-19 crisis. Jayasundara is waiting to hear from her company so she can go back to work. “I was paid for March and April, but was told that for May depends on my willingness to come to work,” she added. However, not all workers have continued to receive a salary. They wonder about the months to come. They are part of the country’s apparel sector, estimated to be one of the hardest hit in the current economy.
Victims of Domestic Violence
Domestic violence is not a new issue. But during the lockdown, there were financial and social pressures. During this time, the children are at home. There is no travel and law enforcement is directed at tackling the COVID-19 crisis. This condition is worse for those who are locked in with an abuser.
Water problems in the villages
For some citizens in Bogolla, Gampola, villages in Sri Lanka, water comes in short supply for half a year. “During the sunny season we don’t have water supply,” resident Nilanthi, 29, told me. Even though Nilanthi is currently in Colombo, she communicates regularly with her family who has been struggling to receive water during the Covid-19 pandemic.
During the drought season, some houses in the neighborhood open their private wells for others to use. However, after the COVID-19 pandemic, most neighbors have stopped allowing others to come into their homes. “They tell us that we might bring in the virus,” she said.
Usually, the community works together to set up a water tank at a specific location for everyone to use. “When this happens, we can get around 10 liters of water to our houses by paying a Tuk-Tuk to bring the water for around LKR 200-250. Alternatively, we can go walking, though this takes around two hours or more,” she added. “After the curfew was imposed, some members of the community began working together to distribute 4 liters to each house. But we are expected to make this last for four days.”
The majority of Nilanthi’s neighbors are daily wage earners. “Initially they did not receive essential food
items and most ate half an unripe jackfruit for each meal to survive,” she said. “Now things have improved with some receiving rations, though not all receive relief food supply. The main issue is securing a steady flow of water, which remains unresolved.”
Chaminda Kumara, age 50, is from Kandy but owns and manages his textile shop located on the Colombo-Kandy Road. It is his main source of income to support his family who lives back in Kandy. He used to visit them occasionally whenever he could catch a break. But ever since the COVID-19 restrictions began, he has not been able to travel home and has been confined to his shop. It was during this time that he decided to start stitching masks and gloves using the material he had stored at the shop. His son too has been assisting him, and with the shop closed for sale, he thought this could generate an income for both of them to survive on.
Chaminda also felt that by selling these items at a reasonable price where there is a demand for it, he would be providing a service to the community. With permission obtained from the Police, he managed to set up his Tuk-Tuk (trishaw or auto-rickshaw) to sell his products to the public.
People traveling along the Colombo- Kandy road would stop by to buy these masks and gloves from him. According to Chaminda even the little money he makes out of this, he is unable to send to his family due to his banking limitations. He has registered with the Police with the hopes that they will soon allow him to travel to see his family.
Sunil Jayasundara, 70, is a retired government worker. He and several others in Central Market Kandy,
get together every year to make Vesak lanterns for sale. Last year, the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks disrupted their lives and livelihoods. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has made things even more difficult.
“I sell lantern frames and Vesak lanterns as well,” he told me. “The curfew has not stopped people from celebrating the festival. Yes, it might not be like what it used to be but they will at least put up a lantern in their homes.”
Jayasundara has seen steady sales since he began selling lanterns on Saturday, the 2nd of May, but it has not been on par with previous years. “If the Police come and ask me to go away, I will go home with my lanterns,” he said. “But I will return in an hour or so to sell them because this is how I earn my living these days.”
Like Jayasundara, many who live in under-served communities have survived the lockdown thus far by taking on odd jobs, or through relief, or rations that are donated to them. Making and selling Vesak lanterns on that first week of May was a source of income if they found a way to sell them. (Ed. Vesak is a Buddhist celebration of the birth, life, and enlightenment of Gautama Buddha.)
I hope these vignettes would help the readers get some insight into the repercussions in the lives of ordinary Sri Lankan people during these days when the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten the nations. Malik Lawrence Daniels, SoP 2018, Sri Lanka.