Country’s worst financial crisis takes aim at health sector

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By Dilanthi Jayamanne

It’s the first time since 1977, where Sri Lankans have been forced to stand in queues for kerosene and gas; flanked by lines of vehicles outside fuel and gas stations creating traffic jams.  

Amidst the chaos rises the fearful thought that the fuel and gas crisis would worm its way to affect even the healthcare system of the country.    

Reassurance

With the ongoing power cuts set to extend to 10 hours by next week and no end to the fuel crisis in sight, the fear that the health sector would be crippled soon is a thought that evokes worry and distress.  

Deputy Director General of Disaster Management and Emergency Response (DMER), Dr. Hemantha Herath stated that the health service was heavily dependent on backup generators in case of emergency.

He said that the CEB also maintained generators for hospitals, while up to now there was an adequate amount of diesel to operate them. “But Hospitals maintain – or endeavour to maintain fuel stocks for backup generators that they have”. 

Colombo National Hospital and Kalubowila  Teaching Hospital 

Being the largest hospital in the State healthcare system, a power outage or a gas crisis would affect the Colombo National Hospital heavily. However, a hospital spokesperson said, till now it had been spared the severity of the power cuts. The several lines supplying power to the hospital have helped the CEB minimise the impact of the power outs. 

Hospital sources said however, although its ambulance service had not been affected till date, it was felt in obtaining fuel for other service vehicles being utilised to run errands. Also the kitchen which cooks in large quantities for patients and staff are currently unaffected. But the administration says they’re on standby, in case the gas crisis affected the process. They said, they are also ready to use electricity if the crisis affects the hospital’s kitchen.  

The Deputy Director of Teaching Hospital Kalubowila, Dr. Rukshan Bellana, expressed concerns earlier on the impact of a fuel shortage on the operation of generators in hospitals. He said, at the time that overuse could also exhaust these power back-ups. 

The situation in Northern, Southern Provincial Hospitals 

Medical sources from the Northern Province said, having experienced the tremors of the 30-year conflict has prepared local health services for such disaster situations. Although there had been difficulty for a short period in obtaining Super Diesel for some of the Ford Ambulances purchased during former Health Ministry, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne’s time the hospitals had been able to overcome that crisis subsequently. 

Currently the District General Hospitals (DGH) in Kilinochchi and Vavuniya are stocking up at least 1,000 to 2,000 litres of diesel each for their generator systems in preparation for possible power cuts.  

Touching on the gas usage, sources noted that 30 to 50 gas cylinders were utilised by the two DGHs for cooking purposes on a monthly basis. However, the kitchens were prepared to resort using alternatives such as kerosene if the necessity arose, they said. Sources noted however, that the lessons learned during the war in the North are becoming helpful at this juncture. 

The Southern Provincial Health Directorate said, the fuel crisis had not largely affected the hospitals and other healthcare institutions functioning under it. We are prepared to use firewood to prepare hospital meals if it comes to pass, sources for the Directorate noted. 

Medicine distribution   

A circular has been issued to health institutions in the Northern Province to use electricity sparingly by switching off unnecessary, electric bulbs, fans and air conditioners when not being used.   

Even after the Gazette introducing increases to the price of medicines, the All Island Private Pharmacy Owners’ Association (AIPPOA) faced difficulties in transporting drugs to their pharmacies. The Association has appealed to the State Minister of Production, Supply and Regulation of Pharmaceuticals, Prof. Channa Jayasumana to help get fuel for vehicles distributing medicinal drug stocks. 

He urged the State Minister to help pharmacy owners to have drugs stocks delivered to them as soon as possible by at least providing licensed pharmaceutical delivery vehicles with the required stocks of fuel from depots belonging to the Sri Lanka Transport Board. 

1990 Ambulance Service 

CEO of the 1990 Ambulance Service, Sohan de Silva said, the fleet had not been forced to even temporarily halt any of its ambulances due to lack of fuel from the day the fuel crisis began. He said, the ambulances were given preference even during the crisis. The fleet has over 200 ambulances.    

Call from Unions to resolve issue 

President of the College of Medical Laboratory Science Sri Lanka (CMLSSL), Ravi Kumudesh appealed to the Health Ministry to set up a panel chaired by the Health Secretary, Dr. Sanjeewa Munasinghe to meet every fortnight at least to put forward the issues in the State Health Service.  

When considering the current situation, hospital and Health Ministry authorities cannot just wash their hands of the responsibility of obtaining fuel for ambulances and generators to drivers or the hospital administration. Instead, the Health Ministry should take the initiative and set up a mechanism through which these issues could be discussed and decided on. 

The prevailing situation in fuel stations where people are fainting almost makes it impossible for even ambulances to get preferential treatment, he added. 

The current situation of uncertainty and chaos even in all levels of society does not seem to faze the Government let alone the Health Ministry. Instead it is more keen on blaming the former government similar to the manner in which an accusatory finger is pointed at Dr. Senaratne even for purchasing Ford Ambulances for the State health sector with the hope of developing  it further.