For thousands of Lankans living with chronic kidney disease and for their families that struggle to look after them, COVID-19’s fallout has become ‘double jeopardy’.
While social and economic disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic have affected everybody at some level, families with kidney patients are among the most vulnerable. They are the least able to cope with any additional burdens.
The village of Galenbindunuwewa in the Anuradhapura District is among dozens of locations inhabited by those affected by chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu), a major public health crisis in Sri Lanka for three decades.
Scientists are still looking for the exact causes of CKDu, but many local people believe it has something to do with their drinking water.
In mid-June 2020, journalist Manoj Rathnayaka visited Galenbindunuwewa and Huruluwewa areas and met several families struggling with both CKDu and COVID-19 fallout.
Even though no family contracted COVID-19 itself, the two-months-long lockdown and worsening economic situation have been bad enough.
“We have about 30 to 40 chronic kidney patients in this village. Most of them go to Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa hospitals for regular medical treatment,” says R M Herath, a farmer in Huruluwewa. “There is no recovering from this disease as long as they drink this water.”
For those in the advanced stages of kidney disease, the only options are to transplant a healthy kidney or undergo dialysis every two or three days.
In a short video, Manoj has captured how these rural families had to overcome curfews and lockdowns in their quest for dialysis.
Jeevani Roopika is suffering from chronic kidney disease since 2016. A mother of three young children, she is married to Meegahawatte Sampath, an army soldier. They live in Huruluwewa.
As Jeevani explains, “I have been getting regular treatment for the last five years. To survive, I need to purify my blood using dialysis machines every other day, and often need to breathe oxygen from a cylinder.”
Kidney patients in Huruluwewa need to visit Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa district hospitals for treatment. During the lockdown, all public transport stopped and her husband had to take her Polonnaruwa hospital in their own three-wheeler.
“We have to travel for over 40 km to reach the Polonnaruwa hospital, and part of that road is through the forests of Habarana. It is a tough commute. Some days we had engine troubles, and there were times when I had to pull the three-wheeler for two or three kilometres using ropes. There was no one else on the road to help because of curfew” Sampath recalls.
Each return trip costs around LKR 2,000, a lot of money for this family. The couple have had to pawn jewellery and also mortgage their house and land to find the money.
Given Jeevani’s fragile health, Sampath has fitted a small fan and oxygen tank on the three-wheeler. On their long trips to the hospital, Sampath sometimes also carried a small cooking stove to stop and prepare a quick meal on the roadside for his wife.
Since it was first reported in the Anuradhapura district in the early 1990s, CKDu patients have been identified in 11 districts in the country.
“Most of the inhabitants in Huruluwewa village are traditional Chena (slash and burn) farmers. They used to build their homes next to the cultivating fields, and dig a well next to those fields for water. Some chemicals in this water are causing this disease,” says another farmer, S W Aberathna.