Will Healthcare help bring much needed dollars?

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It’s high time that Sri Lanka utilised her highly skilled professionals including those in the health service to earn foreign revenue for the country on a bigger scale. The country which was declared bankrupt by early 2022 has made hopeless attempts to shift the total blame onto the 2020, 2021 pandemic and the loss of tourism, several other factors high Government spending, tax slashes eroding State revenues, debt repayments and foreign exchange reserves being low contributed largely towards the economic tragedy facing the country.

In early July, the Finance Minister issued an Order under Section 08 of the Foreign Exchange Act No. 12 of 2017 extending the amnesty period to handover accumulated foreign currency over the limit of USD 10,000.

Sri Lankan residents can deposit or sell the foreign currency in possession to an authorised dealer (A Licensed Commercial Bank or National Savings Bank) as specified in the Order, by another 14 working days up to 26 July 2022.

The Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) imposed an Order earlier to reduce the amount of foreign currency in possession by a Sri Lankan resident to be from USD 15,000 to USD 10,000 or its equivalent in other foreign currency.

Current avenues of earning dollars                                                

In addition to the foreign exchange the island receives though its foreign exports, it relies heavily on the tourism industry and on foreign employment.

Statistics given by the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment’s (SLBFE) Licensed Foreign Employment Agencies (LFEAs) by Manpower level show that in 2019 the country received a total 196, 903 vacancies for ‘Domestic’ labour while for ‘Professional’ labour it only received a total 5,107 vacancies. The number of vacancies for skilled labour in 2019 amounted to a total 175,113.

The total number of persons registered with the SLFEB by manpower level in 2019 for skilled labour amounted to
62, 711 (31 per cent) while the number registered for ‘Domestic house-keeping assistants’ amounted to 61, 489 during same year, a minor increase in the numbers which could be boosted even further if the available human resources and infrastructure in fields such as the health service is utilised. 

Opening new pathways                                                                              

The island has over one million State employees at present, according to official statistics these numbers had doubled during the past number of years owing to politicians utilising the State service as a dumping ground for supporters. It has resulted in a large number of employees doing very little work and earning a fairly good pay inclusive of overtime, etc. 

Financial organisations including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) urged
Sri Lanka to reform the State sector and keep a tight control. Informed public service sources said that the best way to overcome the situation at a time when Sri Lanka had to tighten the purse strigs was to utilise the additional skilled and professional services by investing them in the foreign job market. “It is a plus factor on both ends,” he said.

The Ministry of Labour and Foreign Employment recently said that the opportunity to register with the SLFEB had been given to public servants who wish to go abroad for employment. They were asked to enter their details in the Bureau’s website in a bid to find suitable job opportunities for them

This also includes the State health service workers. There is wide scale demand for caregivers, doctors and nursing professionals to be met, especially in the post-Covid-19 period. Countries like Israel, Japan, the United Kingdom and Poland has openings available for these categories. 

President of the Medical and Civil Rights Professional Association (MCPA), Dr. Chamal Sanjeewa noted that training and skills required for these caregivers are being carried out by local-based private institutions. Not just the MBBS qualified doctors but even health assistants in State sector hospitals follow these courses in a bid to seek foreign employment.

At a time when foreign qualified consultants serving in the State health service are relegated to maintaining registers and drawing lines due to the inability of the state health service hospitals to support their specialities, it would seem better for them to be deployed for a foreign job opportunity. It is far better than crying out against the brain drain.  The State spends a handsome GBP 2,000 monthly on foreign training for certain health service professionals. Considering the present circumstances in the country this amount may be even more. So, it is essential that it gets back something – at least some of the dollars it spent in return.    

Open doors for Allied Science Degrees for foreign students

Sri Lanka has Allied Health Science Degree courses made according to foreign standards, President of the College of Medical Laboratory Science Sri Lanka (CMLSSL), Ravi Kumudesh pointed out. Just like students from Sri Lanka go for higher studies to foreign countries such as India, China, Bangladesh, the United Kingdom, there should be avenues opening in Sri Lanka to attract students from foreign countries to follow a degree course in Allied Health Science, he said. 

Kumudesh said that when the Medical Research Institute (MRI) had been set up during at a time when Sri Lanka was a British Colony in 1907 as De Soysa Micro Biology Laboratory, the British aimed at making it the ‘Training and Research’ hub for the Asian Region. Kumudesh noted however, that the aim of the British had been brought to fruition once Sri Lanka received Independence. The last of the batches to follow training were from the Maldives.

We still maintain a semblance of what the British hoped for, for the MRI as the Institute’s  Animal House is still maintained. Kumudesh lamented the country had made very little use of this available resource to draw foreign students and researchers.  

Need for open-minded official support

When all is said and done there is a dire need for the support of the Health Ministry to pull this. There is talk about ‘Medical Tourism’ and boasting of health expertise available in Sri Lanka, but Sri Lanka has become a country which would rather spend colossal amounts to send students and graduates abroad to specialise in fields rather than drawing the same due to the bureaucracy and the money involved. For instance, it is doubtful as to whether the Health Ministry in collaboration with the SLFB has made any attempts to offer a course for its employees who wish to seek foreign employment as caregivers so as to ensure the quality of service that would be provided.

It is also questionable as to whether it has made any effort to make use of the available indigenous, and Western medical expertise that is much talked about to provide a cost- effective quality service in exchange for the dollars it could receive or has that been set aside for private hospitals and hotels to take maximum advantage of?

When Sri Lankan patients travel to countries like India and the UK bearing heavy expenses for treatment, why does Sri Lanka have to depend only on the hard-working long suffering house maids who are now ‘wise’ as it may seem not to send their dollars through state banks?

By Dilanthi Jayamanne