Sri Lankans turn to social media for help as economic crisis sets in

A man queues to buy a tank of domestic gas near a distributor, amid the country’s economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, June 1, 2022. (Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte)
  • Shortage of fuel and medicine in a deep economic crisis
  • Many are turning to online self-help platforms
  • Poor and vulnerable left behind in the digital divide

No gas means no work for Sri Lankan delivery man Michael Sathis, and stocking up has become a challenge as gas stations dry up amid a devastating economic crisis.

Sathis sometimes had to wait in line all night to refuel until he found a Facebook group sharing regular updates on fuel supplies and even the length of queues at gas stations- service, one of many digital initiatives that have sprung up to help struggling citizens.

“Finding fuel in this crisis is like looking for a lost needle…it’s almost impossible,” said Sathis, 29, who lives just outside the commercial capital Colombo.

“But this group is like a magnet – I can find fuel without wasting a lot of time.”

Sri Lanka is in the throes of its worst economic crisis since its independence in 1948, battered by a combination of factors including the impact of COVID-19 on its tourism-dependent economy, rising oil prices and service cuts. populist taxes.

A chronic lack of foreign exchange has led to runaway inflation and shortages of imports, including fuel, medicine and other essentials.

In response, Sri Lankans are increasingly turning to social media platforms, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Twitter, to source basic goods and help raise funds for the needy.

“What we are seeing are innovative ways to use these platforms to meet their direct and specific needs like fuel and other essentials,” said Craig Ryder, digital anthropologist at SOAS, University of London.

But the digital divide is a “very real problem” creating unequal access to online spaces, added Ryder, who studies the relationship between social media and society in Sri Lanka.

“Gaps persist… between urban and rural areas, north and south of Sri Lanka, men and women, rich and poor, young and old,” he said.

Social Media Shutdown

Around the world, social media platforms have played an increasingly important role in helping people connect to essential resources and services in times of crisis, including during the COVID-19 pandemic when people are turning to Facebook and Twitter for hospital beds, oxygen and vaccines.

In Sri Lanka, many also find it easier to apply online as they feel less inhibited in virtual spaces, said Prasad Jayaweera, professor of computer science at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura.

“Sri Lankans are generally not comfortable asking for help. But being on social media makes people behave differently because there is no in-person interaction, only through a profile,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

There are more than 11 million internet users in Sri Lanka, roughly half the population, according to a report by digital marketing firm Kepios, including around 7.1 million Facebook users at the start of the year, and nearly 300,000 on Twitter.

As protests against the government’s handling of the crisis turned violent in early April, authorities imposed a nationwide social media blackout for around 15 hours “to maintain calm” – a move that drew criticism within of the government.

Charity lifelines

Fundraisers are turning to online platforms to raise funds for the needy and distribute them to organizations working with families who may have little or no internet access.

“Social media helped us identify who was doing the work in the field, or at least connected to those who were doing it,” said Thushanthi Ponweera, a children’s author who set up a fundraiser on Twitter. and Instagram.

“Seeing updates from these people and charities on social media was helpful in judging credibility and deciding who we could help,” she said, adding that the campaign raised more than 4 000 dollars (1.4 million Sri Lankan rupees) for charities.

Another charity, Community Meal Share, provides about 1,000 meals each week to poor families in western and central provinces and gets most of its funding online, said co-founder Nadeeka Jayasinghe, a former nurse .

“Social media has helped us grow tremendously – over 80% of our funds come from supporters on social media,” Jayasinghe said, as they secured temporary catering space for free in April through a “ lovely lady we met on the internet”. ”.

“Twitter has also helped us connect with international donors,” said Jayasinghe, whose charity received money from a fundraiser in London.

Mixed success

Twitter has also helped hospitals get much-needed supplies and money.

At a maternity hospital in Colombo, a doctor who wished to remain anonymous said his posts on Twitter and other social media sites had brought in around 3 million Sri Lankan rupees in donations, including medicines and supplies.

“This will help maintain daily patient care and will also help the hospital deal with emergencies,” he said.

Donations on Twitter have helped a hospital in the north of the country provide emergency care even as it canceled routine surgeries, said a doctor with the nickname Puvi, as government doctors are not allowed to talk to the media.

“I posted a lot on Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp – most of the donations came via Twitter,” she said.

But with hundreds of people regularly queuing in Colombo for limited fuel supplies, social media hasn’t been able to help fill the gaps for everyone.

Food app delivery man Shakeel Hafeez is a member of the same Facebook group that Sathis uses for fuel availability updates.

On a recent weekday, Hafeez arrived at 5 a.m. at a gas station about six kilometers from his home in Dehiwala, a suburb of Colombo. But he soon ran out of fuel.

He visited four other outlets, following updates from the group, but they all ran out of gas as he waited in queues.

“I waited for more than five hours at one place, but couldn’t find any gas,” said Hafeez, 37.

“I just wasted my time and went home. I couldn’t make any deliveries that day.

($1 = 354.0000 Sri Lankan rupees)

—Reporting by Dimuthu Attanayake; Editing by Rina Chandran and Sonia Elks

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