Sri Lanka: Well being employees protesting in Colombo reveal the deplorable situations suffered by sufferers and employees

Tens of thousands of medical workers took part in recent anti-government protests across Sri Lanka. Like millions of other workers, they were outraged by the glaring shortages of fuel, gas and other basic necessities, as well as the daily power outages.

Health workers demonstrate in Colombo on July 7, 2022

Doctors, nurses and health workers in hospitals across the country are facing acute shortages of essential medicines. In June, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health admitted that there was a shortage of 14 essential medicines and 185 other types of medicines. Healthcare workers are also having extreme difficulty getting to work as the public transit system collapses and their vehicles cannot be refueled.

Health workers from the National Hospital of Sri Lanka (NHSL) and nearby medical facilities – Lady Ridgeway Children’s Hospital, De Soyza Maternity Hospital and the Eye Hospital – played a major role in the mass anti-government protests.

When Rajapakse government-led thugs attacked protesters in Galle Face Green in May, thousands of health workers from those hospitals, along with port, railway and postal workers, went out in protest and rushed to defend the protesters.

On July 7, hundreds of health workers marched to the Ministry of Health and on July 9, thousands took part in the mass uprising that forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country. Over the past three months, these hospital workers have treated dozens of protesters who have been violently attacked by right-wing thugs, the military and police.

Brought to power by a parliamentary conspiracy, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s regime is unable to solve the desperate needs of the people. In fact, the problems facing the working masses have been compounded as the International Monetary Fund’s austerity demands are being implemented by the Wickremesinghe government.

The ‘let it rip’ coronavirus policy maintained by the Wickremesinghe government and its predecessor has led to another wave of COVID-19 infections and deaths, worsening the already difficult situation facing hospital workers.

Reporters from the World Socialist Web Site spoke to health workers in Colombo during the recent protests. They explained the dangerous and catastrophic situations at their workplaces.

A head nurse from the NHSL Endoscopy Unit said:

“We are protesting because our wages have been severely eroded by high commodity prices and because we do not have the necessary medicines to treat patients. Some medicines are not available in hospitals or private pharmacies.

A section of health workers protest in Colombo on July 7, 2022

“Those who need endoscopy procedures cannot have them because our equipment is not repaired and sent back to us. We work with all these terrible problems.

“I take the train about 60 miles to get to work. I also cycle 4 kilometers before and after the train ride because I can’t get petrol for my motorbike. Train traffic has also been massively reduced, so that it is getting worse and worse. We all have to start very early to go to work and get home a few hours later than earlier. How are people supposed to meet their needs under these conditions?”

Asked whether the unions would not organize another general strike after the previous two general strikes that paralyzed the Rajaapkse government, he said: “Some unions support the government and are working to sabotage any struggle. However, the vast majority of people are against this government.”

WSWS reporters explained that the Socialist Equality Party was building action committees to organize workers independently of the unions in the struggle for workers’ and peasants’ government and socialist policies to address the crucial issues facing workers and the oppressed masses.

“Surely we need a fight like that,” said the head nurse. “Everything in this society has collapsed and there should be a system that can meet the needs of the workers and the oppressed. They are being suppressed more and more. Those with money can still afford basic necessities, but most people struggle to eat even one meal a day. A pack of curried rice has risen to 380 rupees, but our salaries have not increased. I cannot imagine how families with children survive in this situation.”

A senior pharmacist said: “We don’t have many medicines, including some critical ones, and not enough antibiotics. We are coping with great difficulty thanks to some donations we are receiving now, but people have to buy some medicines themselves from outside pharmacies.”

Two NHSL nurses described the daily problems they face. “We live in hospital districts, but colleagues who come to work from far away areas face real difficulties. The cost of living is unbearable. We have to pay for housing, food and other things, and also send money to feed our families. Our meager salaries are not enough to do all these jobs,” said one of the nurses.

Protest march by health workers in Colombo on July 7, 2022

The other nurse explained that prior to this crisis, they had about 80 patient admissions a day, but those admissions have dropped to about 40. “I think people aren’t being treated because they can’t get to the hospital because of fuel shortages. You are probably doing home remedies that will cause problems in the near future.

“We even have to ask patients to buy medicines and surgical equipment like urinary catheters because we don’t have them in the surgical stores. And in the absence of glucose strips, we cannot control the blood sugar levels of diabetic patients. Normally we should check her blood sugar levels three times a day, but because of the very limited number of glucose strips we only use them in emergencies.

“There were days when we didn’t even get paracetamol, which is totally unfair to the patients. We do not normally use rabies vaccines or antidotes on our ward, but we have heard that there is a serious shortage of these life-saving drugs.”

When asked what they thought of the SEP’s struggle for a workers’ and peasants’ government, one nurse said:

“We are absolutely against this autocratic government. We don’t know much about politics, but we do know that all the wealth has been amassed by a tiny stratum, while the vast majority of the people have been reduced to misery. We are for a system that can change this social injustice.” The other nurse agreed.

A consulting pediatrician from LRH said:

“We have many problems because of the economic crisis in our country. Hospitals are very poorly run and have very few facilities. At the same time, we have a workforce issue — people are stuck in gas and gas lines — making it difficult for doctors and other staff to get to work.”

Referring to the drug shortages and the long-term impact on patients, she said: “We don’t get a lot of drugs from the ministry. Most of the medicines come from private donations, which the doctors themselves have to obtain from many foreign organizations.

“We are finding some of the drugs difficult to find and the cost has increased dramatically. What we could buy four months ago for 1,000 rupees now costs 5,000 rupees.

“We’re trying to find at least the emergency medicines needed for the patient’s survival, but medicines that are needed long-term, for things like epilepsy and even insulin, we’re now finding very hard to come by. What we have are only private donations, but I don’t know how long they will continue. Everyone should be treated equally. Everyone has the right to survive.”

An assistant to the NHSL health workers said he was concerned about patient nutrition.

“We used to give our patients a nutritious diet, but the nutritional value of the diet has been drastically reduced. Most of the time there is no fish, meat or eggs and they just give you rice with a carrot curry or something like that. None of the specific milk supplements are available for patients,” he explained.

Part of the protest march by health workers in Colombo on July 7, 2022

“We don’t just fight for our demands. We are also here to highlight the plight of our patients. Employees at nearby boarding houses are having tremendous difficulty buying groceries and other necessities.

“Our salary was immensely devalued by the rising prices. The bottle of gas that we used to buy for 1,500 rupees has gone up to 5,000 or 7,000 rupees and petrol, which was about 137 rupees a liter has gone up to 470 rupees.

“We don’t have a decent life in this economic system, and that’s why people reject their rule, which has lasted 74 years [since independence]. The people should be able to choose what kind of government they want to bring in, but there must be equality. People are willing to make sacrifices for a better future,” he said.

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