An interview with Thushara Agus, the Executive Director of the Family Planning Association of Sri Lanka (FPASL), on the impact of COVID-19.
How has Sri Lanka been affected by coronavirus/COVID-19?
Sri Lanka has recorded 596 positive cases and seven deaths so far, since its first case was recorded on 27 January. The country has been under an island-wide curfew since 17 March. These numbers are based on a very limited testing facility, and the country has enforced social distancing as a proactive measure because Sri Lanka’s healthcare sector has a limited capacity which would struggle with a large outbreak.
What impact is coronavirus having when it comes to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services?
SRH services, both in the public and private sector, are heavily curtailed except for deliveries and pregnancy-related services. Most pharmacies are still open on a daily basis, so contraceptives can still be accessed.
What impact has there been on abortion services and post-abortion care?
Providing women with the contraceptive injection (Depo-Provera) and other family planning (FP) methods that they need have been most affected. And abortion related-counselling and post-abortion care are non-existent.
Are frontline staff still able to go into the community?
Up until the third week of April all our clinics/service delivery points (SDP) were shut due to curfew under emergency conditions. Last week we commenced trainings for four SDPs on infection control for the service providers, and three of the four SDP clinics are open now on a schedule every week on a particular day per week, for a three-hour time slot. As of now only FP services are offered – all methods along with counseling and laboratory services are open in two SDPs with only essential testing being offered, such as routine testing for pregnant mothers, urine HCG testing, haemoglobin testing and glucose tolerance testing.
What will you be doing to keep providing services to people in Sri Lanka?
FPA Sri Lanka has activated a hotline call center called Happy Life to give directions for sexual and reproductive healthcare during this difficult period. It has also sent messages to all of our clients about ongoing family planning services through the available channels. Our contraceptives are available in over 5,000 pharmacies for the public to order and access. Happy Life stays geared to provide psychological and social support to clients throughout this period.
Can you tell us about any innovative measures that have been introduced in Sri Lanka to provide services in a different way than usual?
FPASL have implemented a number of measures that include the following:
- Under the curfew FPASL provided 5,000 sanitary napkins to six quarantine centers run by the state for returning migrants, which includes a large number of Sri Lankan students who have been stranded overseas
- Provided 2,000 face masks to the birthing center staff of a leading maternity hospital
- Loaned 10,000 vials of Depo-Provera to the government agency for family planning, to continue services for poor and underserved
- Made a reallocation of The Global Fund grant savings of $350,000 to enable the government to procure safety garbs for COVID-19 treatment centers
- Going further, agreed to supply a substantial stock of contraceptives, condoms, pills and emergency contraceptive pills to neighbouring Maldives through UNFPA, to meet their urgent demand
- Awaiting to assess Sri Lanka’s gap on contraceptives to support the government, if our stocks permit
- Exploring the possibility of ordering contraceptives from our suppliers to replenish supplies in the event of production slowing down
- FPASL teamed up with a popular media channel (as a media partner) to launch an online counselling and information helpline for all SRH issues, mental health issues, sexual and gender-based violence etc.
- FPASL's Alokaya Counseling Center and Happy Life Unit (mainly for youth) have also been providing free online services on SRH information throughout this time.
What message do you have for people and your staff in Sri Lanka when it comes to SRH services and coronavirus/COVID-19?
We have ensured that all staff members adopt safety and precautionary methods. When people are working from home we are encouraging them not to have any social contact. The one message widely disseminated is that one cannot neglect their general and sexual and reproductive health under these circumstances, and to access medicines and care through available means.