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Suwaseriya 1990 Free Ambulance Service, Challenges and Current Status

Context: An India-gifted free ambulance service, known as ‘Suwaseriya 1990’, has been providing vital pre-hospital emergency care across Sri Lanka for the past eight years. However, it now faces critical challenges, as highlighted by a recent social media post from a public health professional.

Incident Highlighting Service Issues

  • Yasuni Manikkage, a doctor at a government hospital in Colombo, shared on social media about a 51-year-old man’s death due to a delay in ambulance response.
  • She questioned the Lankan government’s prioritisation of funding for the Suwaseriya service.

Suwaseriya Ambulance Service Overview

  • Launched in July 2016 with a $7.56 million grant from India, the service expanded in two years with an additional $15.09 million from India.
  • The ambulance network has responded to about 82 lakh calls and 19 lakh medical emergencies, including in remote areas.
  • Initially set up with Indian assistance, Sri Lanka has since taken over its operation, with over 700 medical technicians trained in India and a local training program developed post-pandemic at the University of Kelaniya.

Challenges and Current Status of Suwaseriya 1990

  • The service is struggling after Sri Lanka’s financial meltdown in 2022, which led to hyperinflation and increased living costs.
  • Many medical professionals and technicians have left the country for better opportunities abroad, impacting the public health system and the ambulance service.
  • The service has lost 400 staff members out of nearly 1,500 since 2022, and current salaries of LKR 50,000 (about ₹13,800) are insufficient to make ends meet in Sri Lanka.
  • Over 50 out of the 322 ambulance vehicles are offline due to staff shortages and repair delays, exacerbated by the migration of mechanics.

Government Response

  • Health Minister Ramesh Pathirana stated that the government cannot increase salaries for just one section of public service and cannot afford across-the-board salary hikes currently.
  • He noted that budgetary allocations have been made for the ambulance service, and the health sector is improving as the country stabilises.

Funding and Sustainability

  • Despite budget allocations, the service sought adoption last year due to a funding crunch.
  • It has raised LKR 750 million through private sector donations and corporate assistance but sustaining the service requires more than individual philanthropy.
  • Delays in repairs have increased due to the migration of mechanics, affecting the operational capacity of the ambulance fleet.

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