"Survival is the most important thing now": How the world forgot about Sri Lanka.

Listen to this story being read by Isabella Ross, here.

Jithmini is 17 and lives on the outskirts of Colombo city. She struggles to make it to school with no car or petrol due to Sri Lanka's horrific economic crisis

"My school in Colombo had to close before the end of the term. I am worried about what will happen next. I just need fuel for my school van," she says.

Nine-year-old Senuli wishes for simple joys - she misses watching cartoons and education programs on TV. She cannot anymore due to the country's power cuts.

As for 12-year-old Seniru, he has seen the stress his parents are under. It now affects him too. 

"I had a dream to have a bicycle. But it is now just a dream because survival is the most important thing now. My parents promised to buy me one after I pass my exam. But now they are unable to afford it. Prices for everything have gone up."

These are just three of the thousands of kids who UNICEF have spoken and worked with amid Sri Lanka's worsening economic crisis. In terms of inflation rates, Sri Lanka is close to marking 60.8 per cent, according to Bloomberg. In comparison, Australia's inflation rate is around 6.1 per cent - and we ourselves are facing a cost-of-living crisis, just on a much lower scale. 

But it's the human cost seen in Sri Lanka which is far heavier. 

Watch: Nethmi shares her story living in Sri Lanka amid the economic crisis. Post continues below.

Video via UNICEF.

The stories coming out of Sri Lanka are confronting to read: citizens struggling to access basic care, food and water; daily power outages across the country; a critical shortage of life-saving medicine, fuel prices prohibitively high; and basic food staples such as rice and milk scarce. 

UNICEF's assessment is that 2.3 million - nearly one in two children in Sri Lanka - now require some form of emergency assistance, whether that be related to healthcare, clean drinking water, education or mental health services. 

When Felicity Wever went to Sri Lanka a few weeks ago, she saw first-hand the struggles locals are facing. She was in Sri Lanka in a humanitarian capacity, as UNICEF Australia's director of international programs.

"I was mainly in the country's capital Colombo and wasn't able to get out of the city to the regional areas due to there being no fuel. The situation was quite dire in Colombo, so you can imagine in the remote areas the situation is far more serious. People are becoming desperate amid the uncertainty," Felicity tells Mamamia.

'Parents are spending long hours in queues, hungry and worrying about their children and families back home.'

Sri Lanka is a country that has one of the worst levels of malnutrition in the world.

With news of families cutting back on the number of meals they eat per day, medical experts and obstetricians are worried. Because if an expectant mother isn't getting enough nutrients for herself, it leaves her unborn baby at risk too. 

23-year-old Gayani eats two meals a day. In the morning, she makes a noodle soup for herself and her four-year-old daughter. For lunch, they eat rice. Gayani is seven months pregnant. Doctors have told her she is very weak and her haemoglobin level is too low, she said.


More than three-quarters of the population has had to reduce their food intake due to the country's severe food shortages and high prices.

Just a few weeks ago, healthcare workers from the country's main children's hospital went on strike in protest against the lack of fuel and the shortage in medicine and critical equipment. Some paediatricians have also had to ask people overseas to post necessary medical equipment in order to ventilate the country's newborn babies, as supplies run dry. 

The Perinatal Society of Sri Lanka has had to reuse and sterilise old equipment in a bid to save lives. Some have even been forced to perform surgeries by the light of mobile phones. As for the intensive care unit, with power limited and supplies short, health workers are having to make impossible decisions. One expectant mother said she experienced a miscarriage after being unable to access necessary medicine. 

"Helping those most vulnerable is critical right now," Felicity tells Mamamia.

"It's in that pregnancy/lactation/early childhood period where the impact of malnutrition is going to have long-term impacts on kids - their cognitive and physical development. That's why we are really targeting the issue of nutrition and access."

Logeswary is a 40-year-old mother from a village in northern Sri Lanka. She is extremely worried about how she can continue to put food on the table to feed her four children. The family depends on her husband's income of 3000lkr (about US$8.5 dollars) per week from his job as a part-time grass cutter at a nearby farm.


Two of her kids - who are under the age of two - are at risk of malnutrition.

According to public health staff, about 66 children out of 330 children under five from the same village are malnourished. 26 are suffering from severe acute malnutrition.

Logeswary and her family in northern Sri Lanka. Image: UNICEF. 

'The education of 4.8 million children hangs in the balance.'

UNICEF's teams on the ground have reported school attendance has dramatically decreased, particularly in low-income areas. This is due to transport challenges for both teachers and children, power cuts and lack of stationery - among other factors. More and more boys and girls are likely to drop out with the halt in school meals - often the only source of nutritious food for many marginalised kids.


As Felicity explains to Mamamia, education is what gives these kids a chance of securing a stable income in the future. Compounded with the challenges of COVID, many kids in Sri Lanka haven't received an adequate education for years now.

"So many children have missed out on learning. The funding for supplies for schools in poor areas is very limited."

What is being done to help. 

Felicity has worked in the humanitarian space for over 20 years, first starting out in East Timor. It's a job she loves, but one that comes with many confronting moments.

"You often see the worst. But the beauty is seeing how people come together in a crisis or emergency - when most people run away or turn a blind eye, you're there to help. You can feel very overwhelmed and powerless in the face of atrocity, but in this role I can actually make a positive contribution - and that means a lot," she says.

Currently, many humanitarian aid agencies and organisations are working to combat the crisis.

In June, UNICEF launched a US$25 million dollar appeal, asking for donations to safeguard Sri Lanka's most vulnerable. By the end of July, UNICEF Sri Lanka had launched a relief package for preschool children and mothers hardest hit by the current economic crisis. Critical support in the form of regular monthly cash transfers are being provided to about 3,000 mothers with newborn babies in Colombo, as well as providing nutritious meals to over 40 public pre-schools and daycare centres.


"It's important to keep the conversation going because these types of emergencies and the need to respond doesn't stop when the issue falls out of the media's forefront," Felicity explains. 

"Just like with Ukraine, Afghanistan and Yemen, we need to keep talking about Sri Lanka. At UNICEF, we're responding to over 300 emergencies every year - and we need the resources to do it. Sri Lankans are beautiful, warm, hospitable people and there's also a thriving Sri Lankan community in Australia. When you hear these stories it makes you want to stand in solidarity - and that's important."

How can Australians help Sri Lanka?


You can donate to UNICEF Sri Lanka, which is currently helping children and disadvantaged families survive, thrive and reach their full potential. 


You can donate to Care.org.au to help people who are experiencing poverty in Sri Lanka. The funds go towards providing people with education and training, healthcare, clean water, food and new ways to earn an income. And in times of crisis - like right now - the funds go towards delivering emergency relief.

Sri Lanka Red Cross Society

You can donate directly to the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society. It is not a government agency and depends on donations to carry out its aid work - requiring much more financial support from donors during times of crisis. 

Feature Image: Getty.

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