An Indian Gift Helps Sri Lanka’s COVID­19 Fight

Less than five years after its launch, India­ funded free ambulance service is playing a vital role in Sri Lanka’s COVID­19 response, according to health sector officials. “Over the last few months, the ‘1990 Suwa Seriya’ Emergency Ambulance service has doubled its efforts, attending not just to medical emergencies, but also helping us transfer COVID­19 patients, including those with comorbidities, to hospitals swiftly,” said Dr. Sunil de Alwis, Additional Secretary, Medical Services, Ministry of Health. For this, the service coordinates with the Health Ministry, Public Health Inspectors, and the Epidemiology Unit to ensure that COVID­19 patients are able to access treatment at the right hospital, without losing time. 


On Sri Lanka’s request, India provided a grant of $7.56 million for the Suwa Seriya [vehicle or journey for good health] service, launched first in 2016, in Sri Lanka’s Western and Southern Provinces, with 88 ambulances.  In the next couple of years, the ‘1990’ service was expanded to cover all nine provinces on the island, with a fleet of 297 ambulances — Sri Lanka purchased them from Tata Motors — with an additional Indian grant of $15.09 million. It is India’s second-largest grant project on the island, after the housing project of more than 60,000 houses, with a nearly $400­ million grant. The idea of launching such an ambulance service came not at any high-level bilateral discussion. It was a proposal made by Harsha de Silva, then a junior Minister and now opposition parliamentarian.


“Sri Lanka didn’t have a pre­hospital emergency ambulance service until 2016,” Mr. de Silva, an MP with the main opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB, or United People’s Front), told The Hindu.  The grant, he recalled, was in the context of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka in March 2015. “The Indian side put forward only one condition. That after the launch and the initial phase, the government of Sri Lanka must take over the ambulance service and run it. We readily agreed.”  Resistance to service Following bilateral deliberations and paperwork, the service was launched about a year later. Not without resistance, though. 


Some, including nationalist groups and an influential trade union of government doctors, vehemently opposed the “Indian ambulance”, on grounds that Sri Lankan health workers would lose jobs to Indian counterparts, quality, and national pride.  After setting up the service, New Delhi and Colombo organized training for Sri Lankan emergency medical technicians. “The hands-on training in India has really helped our emergency medical technicians. They now undergo other refresher programmes periodically,” said Sohan de Silva, CEO of the 1990 Suwa Seriya Foundation, a semi-government, not for profit organization functioning under the Ministry of Health


After the initial partnership in training and operations, India exited the scene. “While we have a sticker saying ‘This is a gift from the people of India’ with the Indian flag on each ambulance, there is no Indian connection in the running of this service now,” Mr. Harsha de Silva said. “It is Sri Lanka’s, run entirely by Sri Lankans.”  Despite meeting initial resistance, the service gradually gained popularity and was more apparent after COVID­19 struck. In March, when Sri Lanka’s first wave of the pandemic struck, the 1990 call center noticed a surge in calls — from about 5,300 a day to 9,000. It meant that the ambulances were attending to at least 500 more cases than the daily average of 1,050.


Sri Lanka contained its first wave of COVID­19 effectively, but the second wave since October has proved rather challenging.  During this time, the number of COVID­19 fatalities rose from 13 to 215, while the number of infections went up from 3,300 to over 45,000.  “Attending to COVID­19 cases isn’t easy, as all the staff has to be in full PPE and disinfect the vehicle after every hospital transfer,” Dr. de Alwis said. “But we are really happy with this service and greatly appreciate the Indian assistance. In fact, it would be wonderful if India can help us expand this service even more,” he said.  “The success of this service is seen in the trust people have in it. No greater validation than that,” Mr. de Silva said.




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