“For as long as there are people, we are ready to support them.”

How St John Sri Lanka plays a crucial humanitarian role during the country’s dire situation

Written by St John Sri Lanka Commander Prasantha Lal De Alwis and Chief Administrative Officer Ajantha Jayawardena.

“The last year has been a difficult one for all Sri Lankans. The economic crisis had taken its toll on the people of the nation, with the increasing cost of living making it difficult for many people to afford three meals per day. But if the Sri Lankans thought 2022 would be any better, they were in for a disappointment.

The beginning of the year was heralded by evening electricity cuts. This, along with the existing economic and fuel crisis, resulted in the first protest in Colombo in mid-March, where people gathered at prominent areas of the city with banners asking the President of the country, along with the 225 elected Members of Parliament, to resign. Quickly, the protests gained momentum, and soon spread to the outstation towns as well.

With the numbers increasing, the youth started a campaign in April, calling everyone to come together to Galle Face Green, where the commercial city is situated, in the hope of pressuring the president to resign. The plan was to protest only for two days, but with the overwhelming support it received, it has continued to date. The protest was named “Aragalaya”, which means “struggle” in the Sinhalese language one of the official languages of Sri Lanka.

Aragalaya, started by the youth, was one of the most peaceful protests to be held in Sri Lanka. People from all religions, races, castes and walks of lives came together to support each other. Soon people started bringing food, water and medicines and were sharing with their fellow protestors.

St Johns Ambulance was there from the very first day of protests. We went to the protest area purely on humanitarian grounds, to support the people with First Aid services.

Alongside us, the Red Cross, Sarvodaya and various other voluntary organisations were present. The area where we operated was demarcated as the medical area.

Within this medical area, there was always a fully qualified medical doctor present, who had come on a volunteer to help us, as well as the other organisations. The medical doctor who visited our medical camp liked St John and how we handled things, and he was always there to support us.

Sri Lanka

On the 9th of May, a political meeting took place at the Prime Minister’s residence. After this meeting, the political thugs visited the site of the protest with iron bars and poles and started hitting the protestors, damaging the protest area and creating havoc.

There was mayhem at the protest site and throughout the country. Our medical camp, along with the medicines and tent, was damaged badly. Nevertheless, our ambulance service did a great job that day by transporting patients to the National Hospital.

With the support of the people, we were able to re-establish ourselves in a new tent with medical supplies that were supplied by the doctors who joined us.

On the 9th of July, Galle Face Green witnessed its biggest protest yet. Our medical camp had a few doctors as well as trained St John volunteers to support the people, and we also employed our ambulance services. Staff and volunteers came from all over the country to offer their support at the medical camp.

In the meantime, our office was open every day, except on the days curfew was imposed. Our office staff volunteered at the medical camp whenever they could. The ambulances were at hand day and night in case of an emergency.

During this time many people had to join long queues, often for days, in front of petrol stations. Sadly this resulted in 16 deaths, and we decided to spring into action and provide our services to people in the queues as well. Our volunteers and doctors made sure the people in the queues stayed in good health by checking their blood pressure, blood glucose levels, and provided them with preliminary treatment when required.

It has been three months since the start of the first protest at Galle Face Green, and it doesn’t seem like the protests will end anytime soon. Our aim at St John Sri Lanka is to provide our services to the best of our abilities to the people at the protests. For as long as there are people, we are ready to support them.”