Focus/Spotlight

Covid-19 and isolated communities | Pushed below poverty line

By Sarah Hannan  

As the days in isolation increase by another week, people in these areas are turning desperate, as they are running out of provisions in their households, which in turn is forcing them to take to the streets to voice their frustration at the authorities. 

The whole of last week saw several protests which were gathering momentum following the isolation of areas, as a result of the virus claiming several lives within these areas, whilst case detection numbers too were fluctuating. Moreover, just as isolation restrictions are lifted from these areas, after the reporting of a few more Covid-19-positive cases, the areas are once again under quarantine isolation. 

The commercial capital of Sri Lanka is now hearing the cries of hungry communities that are in desperate need of food supplies and financial aid, as they are unable to engage in the odd jobs that allow them to earn a daily wage. Even the wholesale traders are unable to continue their trade, as they are restricted to their homes and are unable to operate their stores due to the continuously extending isolation periods. 

Most of these families in isolated areas are daily wage earners, and due to strict regulations in place, they are not in a position to go about their daily work. 

With many areas placed under isolation for over a month and a half, the Covid-19 relief allocations per family in the isolated areas had been limited to Rs. 5,000 per month, whilst in some areas, the relief monies were distributed at the end of an entire month since the areas were isolated. 

As a result, not only poverty but even malnutrition is slowly but surely creeping into the low-income families that are in lockdown in several areas of Colombo.  

Insufficient relief 

Last Thursday (26), residents of the isolated Halgahawatta area in the Wanathamulla area staged a protest noting that although they were given the allowance of Rs. 5,000 on 19 November, the promised mobile trucks with essential goods at low prices had not arrived for them to make purchases. They were therefore forced to purchase provisions at exorbitant prices from the only two grocery stores that were allowed to operate in their area. 

The Officer in Charge (OIC) of the Borella Police had later arrived at the scene of the protest and promised the residents that he would personally co-ordinate with the Colombo District Secretary and arrange for the necessary provisions to be brought to them. 

“We have been asked to stay within the isolated zones, and then the Government expects us to also survive for a month with Rs. 5,000. How can a family survive with that amount? 

“On average, for a small family, the daily expenditure itself comes up to about Rs. 1,000,” one of the residents of the area who participated in the protest expressed. 

Another resident added: “What’s the point in giving money? We cannot even step out to buy provisions, and no delivery trucks were allowed into our areas as well. We would prefer if the Government could give us dry rations, as we have run out of provisions at home.” 

According to Colombo District Secretary Pradeep Yasaratne, the isolation period was further extended until 6 December on the instructions of the Colombo Medical Officer of Health (MOH). 

“At present, eight flats, namely three flats in the Thimbirigasyaya Divisional Secretariat, five flats in the Colombo Divisional Secretariat, and one in the Moratuwa Divisional Secretariat have been placed under lockdown-type isolation by the Government on the instructions of the health authorities,” noted Yasaratne. 

Differing calculations and red notices 

According to Trading Economics (TE), the Living Wage Family (earnings by a family of four persons) in Sri Lanka is expected to reach Rs. 42,900 per month by the end of 2020 based on its global macro models and analysts’ expectations. In the long term, the Sri Lanka Living Wage Family is projected to trend at around Rs. 44,500 per month in 2021, according to TE’s econometric models. 

However, the national averaging poverty line, as indicated by the Department of Census and Statistics, stands at Rs. 5,050, which is accounted to be the minimum expenditure per person per month to fulfil their basic needs. This means that a family of four will have to be allocated at least Rs. 20,200 per month to fulfil their basic needs. 

Earlier last week, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, during his address in Parliament, suggested that the Government should consider giving relief of Rs. 20,000 per month per family, as Rs. 5,000 will not be sufficient for a family to cover their monthly costs. 

“There are about 300,000 people that reside within the isolated zones in the Western Province and about 60% of them are daily wage earners and are hailing from low-income families. Although the Government announced that they will make arrangements to distribute dry ration packs worth Rs. 10,000 and Rs. 5,000 relief for families that are stuck in these isolation areas, many had not received the same even after an entire month had lapsed,” Premadasa pointed out. 

Countering Premadasa’s suggestion, Minister Wimal Weerawansa argued that the Rs. 5,000 was given to one family for them to survive an entire month and not to spend it in under a week. 

Earlier this month, residents of Colombo also received red notices to pay their outstanding electricity and water bills to avoid disconnection. This came despite the Government previously promising that a grace period would be given to pay utility bills up until December, as people were experiencing pay cuts and some had lost all means of income due to the ongoing isolations and quarantine curfews that were imposed to prevent the spread of the second wave of the virus. 

One would need to re-evaluate how a family under isolation residing in the greater part of Colombo is expected to feed themselves whilst also ensuring their electricity or water supply is not disconnected due to the non-payment of bills. 

All attempts to contact Government Spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella for comment proved futile.