Doctors and bankers protest ‘impossible situation’ as Sri Lanka runs out of fuel



COLOMBO: Doctors and bankers were among hundreds of Sri Lankans who marched on Wednesday demanding the government solve a severe fuel shortage at the heart of the Indian Ocean island’s worst economic crisis in decades or withdraw.
Weeks of street protests against cascading misfortunes such as power cuts and food and medicine shortages led to a change of government last month after nine people were killed and around 300 injured in protests.
Left with just enough fuel for about a week and new shipments in at least two weeks, the government on Tuesday restricted supplies to essential services, such as trains, buses and the health sector, for two weeks.
The Prime Minister’s office said in a statement that a government-ordered shipment of gasoline would arrive on July 22, while Lanka IOC, a unit of Indian Oil Corporation, expects a shipment of gasoline and diesel around July 13.
“The government is also trying to secure fuel shipments at an early date. However, until these are confirmed, details will not be released,” the statement said.
Doctors, nurses and medical staff say that despite being designated essential workers, they are struggling to find enough fuel to get to work.
“It’s an impossible situation, the government must give us a solution,” HM Mediwatta, secretary of one of Sri Lanka’s largest nurses’ unions, told All Island Nurses Uniontold reporters.
The South Asian nation’s worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948 comes after Covid-19 hit the tourism-dependent economy and reduced remittances from foreign workers.
Rising oil prices, populist tax cuts and a seven-month ban on the import of chemical fertilizers last year that devastated agriculture have compounded the problems.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said the World Bank had agreed to restructure 17 projects it is financing in Sri Lanka. Previously similar aid had been used to purchase fuel and medicine.
“More World Bank assistance will follow after negotiations with the IMF are finalized,” he said on Twitter.
A team from the International Monetary Fund is in Colombo for talks on a rescue package of up to $3 billion. Sri Lanka hopes to reach a personnel agreement by Thursday, but even so it is unlikely to provide immediate funds.
A march to the president’s house by a union of bankers, teachers and self-employed workers was halted by riot police who had erected barricades to guard the area.
“Things have become unbearable for the common man,” said a teacher’s union official. “We want this government to go home.”
More than 100 medical staff from the Colombo National Hospital marched to the Prime Minister’s office to demand the government ensure a supply of fuel and medicine.
Public health inspectors and other health service workers are also on strike Wednesday and Thursday.
The island of 22 million people has almost exhausted its usable foreign exchange reserves to import essentials such as food, medicine, petrol and diesel.
As the crisis worsens, scores of people have been arrested trying to flee the country by boat.
The government is also seeking help abroad, from countries from the Middle East to Russia.
On Tuesday, in a bid to secure fuel, the Minister of Energy and Power Kanchana Wijesekera met with Qatar’s Minister of State for Energy Affairs and the Managing Director of Qatar Energy. He is also seeking a line of credit from a development fund in Qatar.
Another Sri Lankan minister will visit Russia this weekend in search of energy contracts.


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