By Bernadine Rodrigo
When curfew was enforced in Sri Lanka, people came forward to offer some relief to those surviving hand-to-mouth, now incapable of getting their basic necessities as a result of not being able to earn a living.
Marisa de Silva and her colleague Amalini de Sayrah were one such duo who set out to provide either rations or supplies to those who required it and received support from many kind-hearted fellow Sri Lankans in doing so.
“We fulfil their needs for basic rations for meals, milk for children, basic medication, and hygiene products. In some cases, monetary relief to help them settle rent or utility payments is also provided,” they shared, speaking to The Morning Brunch.
“In the event of any crisis,” they continued, “Sri Lankans can be overwhelmingly generous in donating towards relief measures.” The duo spoke about how individuals holding average jobs in our country come forward to provide support at times like these. Over the last few years, especially after the floods, the duo said they’ve noticed that supporting their fellow citizens is almost an automatic reaction in a time of need.
“It has become so regular now that it’s almost guaranteed that this relief comes in and fills in gaps where the state actually owes its citizens, in terms of relief, welfare payments, and overall assistance,” they said. Hence, they thought, why not reach out to these kind hearts and try once again to seek their aid for our neighbours in need?
Strive for transparency
Not operating through an organisation, they began to publicise their cause through social media. And soon, the feedback was immense. They said they received many responses on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, even from a number of people overseas saying that they would pledge support – Sri Lankan expats who wanted to help their home country and foreigners who have visited this country before and fallen in love with it, also felt compelled to help.
“There are so many requests for donations on social media; we try to provide as much information as possible about the areas and groups of people we are reaching, as well as a sense of how the ground distribution works,” they explained. Speaking about how they reach out to people, they said: “We do not share any photos of the purchases or distribution activities on social media, but remain accountable to our donors through regular email updates with these attached.”
Following the process of fundraising, there is of course the process of distributing the goods. The two said several individuals and organisations reach out to them to offer their resources, who in turn take the responsibility to purchase items and distribute it to the families in need either when curfew lifts or after obtaining the necessary passes in their localities. While the duo said they cannot share their information for privacy and security reasons, they can said these are mostly small community-based organisations, welfare groups, local clergy or activists, and individuals/volunteers from within the affected community itself.
Sometimes, they partner with individuals or initiatives to help them collect funds or distribute items. They provided an example where they would collect funds for a specific appeal, then transfer the whole sum to the respective local co-ordinator, who would then be responsible for purchasing, packaging, distributing, and accounting for the funds.
Individuals help the most
While various organisations are helping, they stressed that the most amount of aid comes to them from individuals. “These are not necessarily wealthy individuals either,” they said gratefully. Their support sometimes comes in amounts as small as Rs. 1,000, “which at a time like this, can sustain a family for a week with a ration pack”, they echoed, demonstrating how important even the tiniest bit of help can be.
Speaking about large companies which actually make profits and have more money to spend than individuals, they said: “We have not seen any corporate support for our work. When we were approached by some (corporates) displaying interest, and we supply them with the information required, we are usually met with more questions about procedure, formality, and the legitimacy of our work, and legitimacy of needs of the people we are supporting.” It seems ultimately, all of that amounts to nothing. “We try our best to provide as much information as possible, with privacy and safety concerns accounted for, but the corporate interest usually wanes.”
But there have been other types of organisations which have helped them. They both spoke of one diaspora group which carried out its own fundraiser based on their appeals, through whose collection they were able to supply many families. They are also grateful to an old boys’ batch of a Colombo boys’ school, and some generous individuals in the diaspora who took on specific appeals and covered the expenses required for those.
Aiding the ignored
While their main aid receivers are daily wage earners, ranging from labourers to sex workers, they have helped many others around the country too. These include the Malaiyaha Tamils and other plantation worker families living and working in the Central, Sabaragamuwa, Southern, and Uva Provinces.
“This is a community that is so often overlooked in every discourse and every relief effort, and is most at risk, ” they noted. These people, according to de Silva and de Sayarah, are unable to buy stocks of food since their pay provides them with enough just for a month ahead and also because they can’t rush to stores in towns due to how geographically remote some estates can be, even from the closest villages.
“While we have seen significant amounts (of aid) coming in for daily wage earners and other informally employed people, this particular group remains underserved, so we are spending a fair amount of our resources trying to serve these areas,” they expressed.
Other people they are helping include individuals who work or have worked in the free trade zones (FTZs); labourers who were either not paid by employees in advance or had no access to supplies. They also mentioned that sex workers and transgender persons are particularly vulnerable due to the stigma attached to these groups.
They are also helping people living with disabilities, vendors, labourers, dolomite and gem mining workers, three-wheeler drivers, women-headed households, construction workers, and migrant workers stranded in Colombo as they were unable to return to their homes before the curfew was imposed.
The duo shared that at the moment, all these people’s greatest need is for basic rations in order to put meals on their tables, provide milk for their children, and basic medication and hygiene products. There have been some cases too where it is monetary relief which is required to help them settle rent payments, as their landlords are still unfairly continuing to demand rent despite so many people being out of work and without pay.
State failed in role to provide relief
“A more sustainable requirement is for local authorities to really take note of these vulnerable groups in their areas and direct relief payments and/or supplies their way. We have spoken to many who say that no supply trucks have come in their direction – some in very rural villages, others just a few kilometres off main roads – and they are in great difficulty,” they stated.
Furthermore, they also said that in certain areas where stocks are low, like in plantations, provisions are being sold at double or even triple the market price, making it almost impossible for people to purchase goods even when the curfew is lifted. Therefore, many families have resorted to eating jack fruit that grows in their area, for all three meals. Those who don’t have access to that have been eating just salt and rice, and sometimes even just plain tea for all three meals, which is absolutely horrifying to even imagine.
An even sadder truth is that these struggles they are facing are a simple aggravation, because of the virus and curfew, of their everyday reality; these families deal with limited food and supplies on a daily basis.
De Silva and de Sayrah have noticed that the state welfare they receive is irregular and bordering on non-existent, and that too, only if they are even eligible for it. Most informal sector workers are not eligible for state support programmes such as Samurdhi and Pin Padi, and therefore require special provisions by the State to address their grievances. Furthermore, this strict imposition of curfew, albeit for the prevention of the virus, came with no relief or welfare plans to help those most in need, which meant these families and individuals were affected the worst.
“When there are directives to stay at home, we also need to keep in mind that many homes aren’t spacious and so don’t afford the luxury of ‘physical distancing’. Overcrowded rented boarding houses/hostels with three/four people per room, line houses, or small homes in rural areas are what many of the people we support call ‘home’. Their circumstances are barely suitable to spend one day in, let alone weeks of quarantine.”
The concluded: “We would like to take a moment to recognise and appreciate the many, many volunteers who are risking their lives in service of their respective communities. They are the real unsung heroes here, and we can attest for the commitment and empathy with which each of them have carried out these distributions.”