L.J., 37, a doctoral student in Colombo, Sri Lanka

The Cambridge Dictionary defines “curfew” as “a rule that everyone must stay at home between particular times, usually at night, especially during a war or a period of political trouble”. A rule that is applied only under exceptional circumstances has been in place in Sri Lanka since March 20th 2020 (apparently illegally). In a bid to control the spread of Covid-19, the government has made it a punishable offense to step out of one’s “home”. Travel between administrative districts has also been prohibited, which means that many individuals are stuck in places other than their “homes” as well. Shelter-in-place policies in California and in other parts of the USA allow individuals to go outside for a walk, or to drive to a nearby supermarket to get one’s groceries given that social distancing measures are respected. However, under curfew rules in Sri Lanka, fulfilling one’s basic needs has become a nightmarish struggle. No one can leave home, unless you are providing an essential service and / or have a “curfew pass”. Police and army checkpoints abound where one’s identity cards are checked against the required pass.

The day curfew was declared, hordes of crowds flocked to supermarkets, pharmacies and other stores selling essential items, demonstrating complete disregard for any social distancing measures. If you were not infected already, the jostling, mask-less crowds breathing down your neck while you struggled to buy your vegetables or while you stood in line for an hour to reach the cashier would surely have given Covid-19 to you, among any other airborne or close-contact disease! For a week, we lived in constant anxiety wondering how to replenish decreasing food and medicine supplies. The curfew had descended suddenly upon us, and people were ill-prepared to stay at home indefinitely with no understanding of what the authorities were planning for the country on the long-run.

The first time the government briefly lifted the curfew after a week (from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.) to facilitate buying of essentials, we stood in a queue for 5 hours sweating and feeling light-headed under a hot sweltering sun to buy a cartful of basic groceries from a supermarket. Many elderly people who braved the heat and humidity to buy essentials suffered heat-stroke that evening. To prevent panic buying and hoarding, only one family member was allowed inside the supermarket, and a limit of 3 units / 3 kilos [6.6 lb] per item was introduced to ensure everyone could buy something. Price gouging was becoming rampant, which fed on people’s anxiety, leading them to buy whatever they could regardless of increased prices. I queued up for an hour and struggled to keep my distance from aggressive aunties outside a tiny pharmacy on a by-road to buy a few weeks’ worth of medicine after attempts to even get in line at the major pharmacies proved impossible. There was no guarantee when and if the curfew would be lifted again, which led people to anxious and irrational panic buying.

Curfew still continues indefinitely in Sri Lanka. Supermarkets have switched to home-delivery options, while a limited number of lorries, tuk tuks and vans drive along the streets every few days selling essentials such as groceries, fish, meat, vegetables etc. Ordering online and via phone require Herculean effort as only limited orders are processed per day and the systems are still very unreliable and limited, given that all these delivery structures are new and rolling out only post-Covid-19. To submit an online order for a few items of groceries, one has to wake up around 4.30 a.m., and struggle for about an hour to get the order in. If you sleep in, the order quota would fill up, and you would lose your chance to get your essentials. Additionally, ordering online is not part of Sri Lankan consumer culture. The transition has had a huge learning curve, specially for those who are less savvy with technology and who struggle to pay for data packages to order things online.

Tough as things are in the capital of Colombo, I am still privileged enough to live in the city center well served by mobile vendors, and to own a car to get to a hospital or other essential service if the need arises. Life is experienced very differently in other parts of Sri Lanka where, without public transportation and tuk tuk taxi services, which are all suspended, people are unable to obtain even basic food items or access health services. Daily wage earners, who consist 24% of the employed in Sri Lanka, suffer extreme poverty, unable to pay for essentials even when the provision lorries reach them. Even those who have money saved up struggle to pay mobile vendors or buy in bulk as most accept only cash, and people are not able to access banks or ATMs easily. It is likely that the deaths from Covid-19 will be less in countries in Sri Lanka compared to those who will die without access to food and basic healthcare.

Having given up trying to get my food via the phone or the internet, I am constantly at my window these days, peering down the lane to make sure I don’t miss the food trucks, which sort of whiz past blaring unintelligible announcements through loud-speakers if you are not paying attention. Today was good – the fish tuk tuk, the egg lorry, the vegetable lorry AND the fruit wheelbarrow all decided to visit our lane. Today has been a day of victory. I have food for my family and fish for my kittens (kittens I found abandoned during the curfew, and a story for another day).

This quarter was supposed to be my graduation quarter. I anticipated spending these months completing my dissertation. Instead, I have become a “chaser” of egg lorries and fish tuk tuks.

[submitted on 4/16/2020]

Life in Quarantine: Witnessing Global Pandemic is an initiative sponsored by the Poetic Media Lab and the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis at Stanford University.

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