Practicality in prioritising fuel for health 

In a context where procuring fuel is becoming exceedingly difficult, minimising the impacts of the fuel crisis has become a priority. In a bid to prevent the country’s health sector from coming to a halt due to difficulties faced by healthcare workers in obtaining fuel, the Government recently announced that new measures are being considered to facilitate the procurement of fuel for those in the sector.

On Monday (20), Minister of Health Keheliya Rambukwella posted on Twitter that, following a discussion with Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera, an allowance of fuel has been allocated exclusively for eligible Sri Lankan healthcare workers, which is to be disbursed every Friday, and that this will greatly aid essential service workers in the execution of their duties. Under this facility, Wijesekera has agreed to ensure adequate fuel stocks to identified filling stations islandwide. However, concerns have been raised with regard to the practicality of implementing this facility as an islandwide programme, and according to a senior Health Ministry official, the authority is likely to be given to respective hospitals to formulate a plan that suits them.

Even though almost every sector is going through a difficult time, prioritising essential services is commendable, and in this case, necessary to keep the country’s health sector – one of the public services that absolutely cannot be allowed to come to a halt – alive. However, allocating separate times to obtain fuel or providing an allowance is not sufficient to ensure fuel is supplied to health sector workers in a timely manner. The authorities will have to take steps to ensure that these systems are implemented at the ground level. 

It is true that essential services, such as the health sector, were prioritised during the Covid-19 pandemic and during the past few months of the economic crisis. However, the situation has changed, and frustrated fuel seekers who have had to spend days in fuel queues show very strict behaviour when it comes to obtaining fuel. This was seen on several occasions in the past few weeks, where the people did not allow even essential service workers to cut the lines to obtain fuel. 

One reason behind these tense situations is that the authorities failed to announce a clear plan as to how essential service workers would be provided fuel. Now, there is such a plan for health sector workers, and it needs to be publicised sufficiently. 

At the same time, with regard to managing crowds at fuel stations and ensuring that health sector workers actually benefit from the above mentioned plan, the Police and defence forces have a huge responsibility. As was stated in yesterday’s (21) editorial, managing these crowds should be done in a humane and disciplined manner so that it causes no damage to any person. In the case of providing special services to health sector workers, Police and defense personnel should be tasked with informing the fuel seekers of this special facility, and thereby avoid conflicts with, or harassment of, health sector workers trying to obtain fuel. 

Managing the situation at fuel stations is also the job of fuel station operators. They too should be instructed to prevent the said special facility for health sector workers from affecting the general public, by communicating clearly and strictly adhering to the instructions pertaining to providing fuel to health sector workers. The bottom line is, if the general public feels that providing fuel to health sector workers is not taking place properly, or worse, that health sector workers are misusing this facility, another clash is very likely to break out.

Thus, in a context where a massive black market has been created around fuel and irregularities in obtaining fuel has become a matter no one is willing to tolerate, it is also crucial that the authorities take some measures to prevent health sector workers from misusing this facility, either for personal or commercial gains.

Adequate planning is essential in implementing a programme of this nature, and at this juncture, the proposed plan for the health sector is a crucial step. However, plans should be implementable, and must deliver the expected results. In this context, simply announcing this plan is insufficient; without any further delay, the practicality of the same should be discussed and ensured by the authorities.