Wearing a facemask while standing in line at a supermarket

GROUNDED – Life In Self Isolation In Colombo, Sri Lanka

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we live our lives for better and worse. In Sri Lanka, the recently elected government has acted swiftly and aggressively at a high cost of social inconvenience.

Wash Your Damn Hands

My brother-in-law texted us over the weekend and said. “I’m having breakfast at home. This is the first time in a long time I’m eating breakfast on a Sunday”. I suspect that this pandemic has prompted a drastic shift in the way we live, eat, breathe, speak, etc,.

As for me, the biggest change since all of this started is the inability to travel anywhere. I completely understand that this is a first-world problem, but it is still a very real problem that I am grappling with. Breaking it down it its core, the freedom of movement is very important to me personally but the catch-22 of all of this is that movement is what could ultimately kill us which is why we are all cooped up in our homes trying to not have our loved ones drive us up the wall in our new work-and-learn-from-home reality.

I don’t want to make light of what is the looming threat swirling worldwide but I can’t help but smirk at all the education and tutorials that have come out about how to wash one’s hands properly. I consider myself a very conscious hand washer who counts to 15 with every wash, but apparently I’ve been doing it all wrong after seeing some of these notices. I guess I can start singing happy birthday to myself twice over when washing? Groan.

Life In Colombo, Sri Lanka In Self Isolation

2 weeks ago, my wife and I come back from a weekend trip to Bangkok, Thailand. On this day, there were 2 confirmed cases in Sri Lanka and 53 confirmed cases in Thailand. We felt confident about going on this trip because the curve for both countries was flat or non-existent.

Take a look at how empty Colombo International Airport was when we left for Bangkok:

Since returning to Colombo, the number of cases has exploded by 5,000% (102 confirmed cases) in Sri Lanka and 1,662% (934 active cases) in Thailand respectively. I thought my math was way off but you can calculate it for yourself by clicking here. What is scary is that this is a developing situation with these numbers forecasted to climb even higher in the coming days and weeks.

It is no wonder why countries all over the world are taking such stern measures to try and contain the virus! When we landed back at the Colombo airport, we were welcomed by new health forms, temperature check stations and a new health screening station at the arrivals hall. The herding of people at the airport was definitely a source of stress as it was tight quarters like this that lent to the fast transmission of the virus. We got home safely shortly after and haven’t left our apartment much since in an effort to self-isolate ourselves following such mass exposure to so many people at the airport.

The new health screening desk at BIA

I applaud the government of Sri Lanka for all their efforts so far which is definitely straddling the line of being somewhat draconian. All international airports in the country have been closed indefinitely for inbound arrivals and much of the country has been under curfew for almost 4 days with a brief respite for 8 hours yesterday. It is safe to say being locked up like this is driving a lot of Sri Lankans crazy with over 2,000+ people being arrested for violating the curfew so far.

Busy Colombo streets are now mostly empty

Just like the rest of the world, Sri Lankan supermarkets are doing their best to keep up with the growing demands of the people here. Personal consecutive visits in the last few days have seen the supply and demand in stores easing slightly but this was all before the curfews were put into the place. Now, with movement severely restricted and most businesses shut during the curfew, there is a huge concern about how people are going to be able to stock up for long periods.

Yesterday, the curfew lifted for 8 hours starting at 6 am after people in Colombo were cooped up in their homes for a total of 84 hours since the curfew first began. Before going to bed the night before, I imagined the mad rush to supermarkets, markets, and pharmacies all over the city. I woke up that morning and braced myself for what is to come, but it was more than I could have ever imagined.

I went to the nearest supermarket and saw the line wrap around the block and supermarket parking lot – almost like a neat domino display. The supermarket chain, Keells, imposed strict limits on how many people could be inside the premises at one time which led to such long lines.

Social distancing? Nope. That was barely there either. I was annoyed that this directive was not being followed by given the sheer number of people there, the line itself would have stretched much longer than the compound as a whole could reasonably accommodate. After standing in 38C/100F weather for almost 2.5 hours, I called it quits and left the line after finding out our in-laws were able to procure some supplies for us. When I left, there were still about 300 people in line in front of me because their lives literally depended on it.

What was left of the supermarket line when I left it

Before heading home, I tried my luck at a nearby pharmacy to grab some knick-knacks after seeing there were about 15 people in line. On brand with how the rest of my morning went, this line went even slower than the line at the supermarket. It was now about an hour before the curfew was going to be reinstated and the security manning the door walked out and informed everyone that the pharmacy was going to close shortly. My head dropped and I rolled my eyes a few times over like a Vegas slot machine. I headed home after spending a total of about 4 hours in line with absolutely nothing in hand but empty shopping tote bags.

The pharmacy line was a bust too

My wife and I are so grateful to my in-laws/her parents for stocking us up for the next few days and I can only think about the scores of people who weren’t so lucky.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Now, Colombo is back under curfew for an indeterminate amount of time.

The government has decreed that supermarkets and pharmacies begin home deliveries to alleviate the need for people to leave the house and prevent another World War Z style mass gathering at essential services establishments. The thing is that there isn’t a robust grocery delivery system or network in place already so many businesses are scrambling to get one off the ground and are going through the growing pains of setting up an ordering system, ramping up a delivery network, and dispatching a severely constrained supply of everyday goods.

All that aside, the race to find a vaccine is on and the best you and everyone can do is stay at home. Staying home saves lives despite the inconvenience of your kids showing up in the background during a work-related video call or watching videos about the holiday destination you had to cancel instead of actually being there.

In pandemic situations such as this, fear and anxiety rise sharply so you need to stay extra vigilant about staying rational and not feeding into the frenzy of unproven remedies that seem to be coming out of the woodwork. Copper, chloroquine, black tea, tulsi (holy basil), etc won’t help cure you of the virus so don’t go overdosing yourself.

Also, most importantly, don’t watch the movie Contagion (2011). It’s guaranteed to freak you the f- out. I don’t want to end this post on a grim note so here a really funny clip from a couple of people self-isolating at home for you to enjoy and have some deep belly laughs over.

Hang in there! We’re all going to get through this together!

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Nico Atienza

Chief Storyteller

An expat remote worker based in Colombo, Sri Lanka with a penchant for window seats on planes, travel, and technology that makes everyone’s lives easier.