Sri Lanka has declared a state emergency and deployed its military onto the streets to stop citizens hoarding food, as the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated an existing economic crisis and caused a nationwide shortage of essential goods.
The prices of food staples including rice, milk, and cereals have tripled in some areas of the country due to rampant inflation, while many shelves in government-run supermarkets in the capital of Colombo are empty.
Sri Lankans describe queuing outside supermarkets for hours and are dependent on parcels from NGOs to feed their families.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka had one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia – but its rapid growth was built on borrowing money from overseas. In 2021, Sri Lanka still owes roughly £24 billion to debtors, including China.
As in neighbouring India, the densely populated country has struggled to contain waves of Covid-19 and in August it had the fourth-largest daily death rate in the world.
And, like many developing nations, the Sri Lankan government has had to choose between protecting livelihoods and saving lives during the pandemic.
Many parts of the country have been placed under intermittent curfews since March 2020 to deal with surges in cases. A nationwide lockdown re-imposed on August 20 remains in place, as its hospitals struggle to cope with the more virulent Delta variant.
While public health experts credit such lockdowns with slowing the spread of the virus they have resulted in a loss of incomes for many Sri Lankans, particularly those employed informally.
Pre pandemic, tourism was a vital source of foreign income and provided employment for roughly one in ten Sri Lankans.
The country officially reopened to tourists in January of this year after closing for ten months but stringent entry restrictions, including a 14-day quarantine on arrival, means the industry has barely resumed.
Remittances sent home by Sri Lankans working abroad – often in the Middle East – have also been disrupted by pandemic-induced job losses, particularly among blue-collar workers.
These factors caused the Sri Lankan economy to shrink by a record 3.6 percent in 2020 and the country has been forced to use its dwindling foreign exchange supplies to pay its mountain of debt, resulting in a steep devaluation of its currency, the rupee.
In an attempt to avoid an International Monetary Fund bailout, the Sri Lankan government declared an economic emergency on August 30 and restricted the import of nearly 600 essential goods, including cereals, starches, and fruits.
But this policy appears to have only caused inflation to increase. Sri Lanka relied on importing much of its food before the pandemic and an April ban on importing chemical fertilisers and pesticides to encourage organic farming has meant domestic yields have struggled to fill the gap.
The Sri Lankan government, headed by the right-wing Sinhalese nationalist Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has blamed opposition politicians for “false reports” about food shortages.
But, the country’s military has been deployed onto the streets to check for alleged hoarding of available food supplies by Sri Lankans.
The United Nations has warned that the Covid-19 pandemic will cause food shortages in many developing countries. Cities in both China and India have experienced intermittent shortages of food during lockdowns and many African nations, such as Sudan, which has seen prices of essentials rise by 50 per cent, have seen supply chains disrupted during the pandemic.
The United Kingdom has also seen Brexit-induced food shortages worsened by employees having to take time off work due to exposure to Covid-19.
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