Distribution of essentials: Teething problems aplenty

By Maheesha Mudugamuwa

Since the Government imposed an indefinite islandwide curfew to curb the spread of the highly infectious novel coronavirus (Covid-19), only with the exception of short windows in several areas, the purchasing of essentials and medicines has become warfare for many families, especially those living in main towns in the Colombo and Kandy districts.

During the past three weeks, many locals have complained of grocery, food, and medicine shortages despite the Government’s assurance of an uninterrupted supply. Some locals who spoke to The Sunday Morning said they are struggling even to purchase the basics.

“There are no deliveries happening. All the phone numbers that are circulated are either switched off or not responding,” an angry resident in Kandy stressed.

K.A. Perera, a father of a one-year-old, said he had to wait for a week to purchase essential infant milk powder and other
medicines for his child.

“We waited for more than a week and still groceries are not being delivered. The medicines reached us only after four days of trying. My father is a heart patient, so he needs his medicine on time. We’re scared that if this continues, we would have to suffer even more,” he lamented.

Another resident from Matara, A. Jothimuni, said that groceries are nowhere to be found and helpline numbers are inaccessible. “When the curfew was lifted, we went to Sathosa, but they only had dhal. All the other items were over,” she noted.

In all other areas except Colombo, Kandy, Puttalam, and Jaffna, there was complete chaos on the streets after grocery stores were allowed to open for a few hours when the curfew was lifted, with people standing in long queues, waiting for their turn for hours at a time, as social distancing is crucial for curtailing the spread of the virus.

As per the health advisories and considering the spreading of Covid-19 in some districts, the Government strictly prohibited people from going out to purchase essentials and instead promoted the online ordering and home delivery mechanism. Since then, the flow of essential services has been a concern while the Government has been constantly assuring that supplies and services will be maintained.

In light of this, residents in Greater Colombo and suburbs are the worst affected, it is learnt. For some of these areas, the essential deliveries as promised by the Government are being distributed, but many people have to opt for alternative options as most contact numbers given for doorstep delivery services are either busy or not working at all.

“We tried a thousand times, but nobody answers. Even Sathosa says that they are out of stocks. A vegetable lorry or two came by for the past few weeks, those too because they are co-ordinated by the villagers,” I.P. Premasiri, a resident in Battaramulla, shared.

Success or failure?

In order to provide an uninterrupted supply of essential goods and services, a Presidential Task Force (PTF) was established soon after the Government imposed an islandwide curfew to ensure minimum to no movement.

The PTF comprises 40 members including Minister Basil Rajapaksa appointed as the Chairman, Additional Secretary to the Prime Minister Anton Perera serving as the Secretary, provincial governors, several secretaries to ministries, commanders of tri-forces, security chiefs including the Acting Inspector General of Police (Actg. IGP), chairmen of several government departments, corporations, authorities, and district and divisional secretaries.

The powers and functions of the PTF have been declared by the President through a special gazette notification. Accordingly, the PTF should carry out its responsibilities covering every district in the country while giving priority to the Colombo, Kalutara, Gampaha, Puttalam, Jaffna, Mannar, Kilinochchi, Vavuniya, and Mullaitivu districts.

The main responsibilities of the task force include the provision of required facilities and supplies to farmers and other agriculture, fisheries, and livestock-related workers for the production of rice, grams, vegetables, tea, cinnamon, pepper, fish, dairy, egg, etc. in order to maintain the uninterrupted supply of goods.

Furthermore, the PTF should maintain proper co-ordination mechanisms with ports, Customs, the corporate banking sector, and other state regulatory authorities in order to create a conducive environment for the importation of essential dry foods and medicine as well as the exportation of goods such as tea and sanitary apparel, and implement decisions.

The PTF will also ensure the supply of food items purchased from producers directly to the consumers while presenting operational reports to the President. Accordingly, all government officers and other relevant personnel who may be requested to extend assistance to deliver discussed services shall comply with the instructions regarding each task.

In this regard, the President has instructed all government officials and others through circulars to provide the necessary assistance and information for the smooth implementation of this initiative.

In addition, the PTF is also assigned to direct and provide facilities to the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Agrarian Development to provide seeds, plants, fertiliser, and equipment as required for farming activities; encourage seed farming, use of organic fertilisers, and home gardening; as well as grant loans to farmers through Bank of Ceylon, People’s Bank, Regional Development Bank, and Samurdhi Bank, giving particular attention to women, low-income families, and vulnerable persons.

The PTF was also vested with powers of streamlining the distribution of rice, vegetables, and other essential items to people of all districts to strengthen both the farmer and the local economy, while also co-ordinating with co-operatives, Sathosa, economic centres, Cargills, Keells, Arpico, and Laugfs business networks.

Manpower shortage

However, when The Sunday Morning inquired about the allegations levelled by residents, an official of the PTF at the Prime Minister’s Office said the task force is currently facing difficulty due to the lack of human resources.

“There are practical issues; currently, the distribution of essentials is only being carried out through around 2,000 retailers whereas earlier there were around 200,000 retailers. Even though Sathosa has enough stocks, the problem is that they can’t handle it with the limited human resources. There’s a lot of demand for human resources,” he stressed.

Highlighting the issues faced by the public due to the delay in the distribution of medicines, he noted that Rajya Osu Sala had no online platform to carry out online deliveries and there was an attempt to develop a separate app for them. However, since that too takes around 10 days, the Government had decided to get the support of the private sector, which has brought the situation relatively under control.

Responding to the allegations of a looming major food crisis, Co-cabinet Spokesman Dr. Ramesh Pathirana assured on Thursday (2) that there wouldn’t be any disruption of the supply of essential food items to the public during the prevailing Covid-19 situation, therefore requesting the public not to panic over a future food shortage.

“The general public need not panic over a shortage of food since the Government has already taken a number of measures to provide essential food items to the public without any disruption,” Dr. Patirana said.

Transport and electricity

Issues have also arisen within the transportation sector regarding the transport facilities provided for health sector workers.

However, when contacted by The Sunday Morning, Minister of Passenger Transport, Power, and Energy Mahinda Amaraweera said that transport facilities have already been provided for health sector workers and the hospital director should contact the relevant depot of the Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) to co-ordinate transportation for their staff.

In addition, Amaraweera highlighted that the electricity sector, which is one of the most important at the moment, was doing a good job as most employees of the power plants have not even gone home for a month.

“At Norochcholai (Lakvijaya Power Station), around 300 employees are stuck at the power plant as they couldn’t go home, so they are ensuring that there will be no power interruptions. The situation in all other power plants is the same and power sector workers are doing a really good job,” he added.