Doctors Needed at Fuel Stations?

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With three ‘queue deaths’ due to natural causes led by exhaustion reported from fuel stations at the time of writing, there is an urgent need for the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) to deploy health personnel to give first aid to ‘queue crowds’ if needed, while waiting for hours at fuel stations for their stocks of diesel, petrol and kerosene at the mercy of the elements.

State-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and Lanka Indian Oil Corporation PLC (LIOC) together operate a minimum 665 fuel stations countrywide, their splits, CPC 466 and LIOC a minimum 199 fuel stations. CPC and LIOC are by and large the major players, if not the only players in the country’s ‘fuel at the pump’ industry.

Meanwhile, according to the Health Ministry’s 2016 data, which is the latest data available in the public domain, there were a total of 16,401 doctors and 32,362 nurses employed by the GoSL. A doctor and a nurse, each deployed round the clock at these fuel stations at eight hourly intervals means the deployment of 1,995 each of doctors and nurses at these fuel stations, daily. These comprise 12.16 per cent and 6.16 per cent of doctors and nurses employed by the GoSL.

With no end in sight to these ‘fuel station queues’ due to no fault of the public other than due to the GoSL not having enough US dollars to import fuel, GoSL, instead of throwing a lifeline to ensure that these preventable deaths don’t happen hereafter, is deploying the Army at CPC sheds only, ignoring Sri Lanka’s total Police cadre of 83,713, according to 2019 data, for these duties.

In this connection, yesterday’s lead story carrying the heading, ‘Army Protection for Fuel Stations,’ quoting Energy Minister Gamini Lokuge said, “Steps have been taken to provide security for those waiting in ‘fuel queues’ and fuel station employees. Police have also been informed about this. These measures were taken to protect people following several deaths around fuel stations.”

So far, a total of four ‘fuel station’ deaths have been reported in the country. Three of those as said above led by exhaustion and the other due to violence. That means 75 per cent of ‘fuel station deaths’ have been due to natural causes (exhaustion) and only one due to violence.

While the priority is to prevent deaths of any kind at ‘fuel station queues,’ GoSL and Lokuge however have failed in this regard, by looking only at “preventing violence,” but not the ‘health and well-being’ of the public in particular, languishing in these queues.

Sri Lanka got rid of the queue era 45 years ago, only to see its re-emergence, now. GoSL is seeking treatment to this malady by approaching the IMF and in the short term by obtaining loans from India to buy imported essentials. But these are not enough, signified by shortages of at least fuel, not to mention domestic gas, medicines and milk powder to name a few, continuing.

More needs to be done by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his Government to prevent more ‘queue deaths.’ A solution is to appeal to friendly nations. Recently, the USA, EU, UK and Japan among others appealed to the GoSL to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. USA, EU and UK are Sri Lanka’s three largest export markets, while Japan is the largest bilateral provider of concessional loans to Sri Lanka.

When Rajapaksa was serving in the Army, the Indian Air Force invaded Sri Lanka’s airspace on 4 June 1987. Sri Lanka, including Rajapaksa, knows what it’s like to be bullied by a big neighbour. Besides, this request for condemnation has been made by four of Sri Lanka’s closest friends. By subscribing to that request, there is a possibility that they will all come to Sri Lanka’s aid at this hour of need.

Therefore, from a moral and from an economic perspective it makes sense for Sri Lanka to condemn the Ukrainian invasion, thereby preventing more ‘queue deaths.’ This is a quicker and a more meaningful solution to the problem than the present All Party Conference (APC).