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Sri Lanka

Reeling Sri Lankan fishermen seek government relief

Fishing communities struggle to survive as people mistakenly believe fish can transmit Covid-19

UCA News reporter, Negombo

UCA News reporter, Negombo

Published: November 19, 2020 07:16 AM GMT

Updated: November 19, 2020 07:26 AM GMT

Reeling Sri Lankan fishermen seek government relief

A man wearing a face mask transports furniture on his bicycle on the outskirts of Colombo on Nov. 13. Sri Lanka is facing a second wave of Covid-19 infections. (Photo: AFP)

Justin Vincent Anthony's village has been locked down for more than a month.

During this time, he went to sea for a few days to support his family but the fish he caught could not be sold at market. Both local fish markets were closed and he tried to sell his catch on the streets, but the police chased him away.

On many days, Anthony and other fishermen could not even afford the diesel for their boats.

Sri Lankan fishermen face another problem too. Many people erroneously believe the coronavirus can be transmitted by eating fish. Vendors have to face numerous obstacles selling their catch as the public has shunned fish.

"These days, living with a family of five is very difficult," said Anthony, a 62-year-old Catholic from Basiyawatta, Negombo.

Meril Fernando, who ties a small box on the back of his bicycle and goes from house to house to sell fish, said families have stopped eating fish since Covid-19 struck. He has to go to areas where the lockdown has been lifted to sell fish.

The fishing town of Negombo has long been called "Little Rome" because the population is about 75 percent Catholic.

The fishing industry is facing severe problems due to media misinformation and unreasonable fear among the public.

Sri Lanka has reported over 18,400 cases of coronavirus and 69 deaths. Before the country experienced its second wave in the first week of October, there were only 3,396 cases and 13 deaths. Infections have jumped fivefold since then.

Former minister of fisheries Dilip Weddarachchi ate raw fish at a press meeting to assure the public it is safe to eat fish. He said the biggest favor the public can do for the fishing community is to purchase fish, adding that it is the duty of the government to advise the public.

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The Government Medical Officers' Association has stated that properly cooked fish do not carry the virus.

The government has banned all public gatherings until further notice and locked down many villages to battle the fast-spreading second wave of the pandemic.

Hundreds of fishing organizations and rights activists have urged the government to provide relief to fishing communities reeling from the impact of the contagion.

"A scientific approach should confirm whether the virus is transmitted by fish. Based on that fact, the Ministry of Fisheries and medical officers should issue statements through the media," fishing organizations said in a joint statement on Nov. 15.

They urged the government to purchase stocks of fish that cannot be sold at a reasonable price and store them.

Several priests in Negombo have supported poor fishing families.

Father Sujeewa Athukorala, parish priest of St. Sebastian’s Church, has distributed dry ration packets to fishing families with the support of his parish council and the Fisheries Association.

A Catholic priest from a fishing family in Negombo said the government has paid little attention to fishermen even though there are several Christian parliamentarians.

"Fishermen are people who do a great service to the economy without burdening any government," said the priest who preferred to remain anonymous.

Fernando urged the government to pay special attention to these voiceless fishermen. "We are afraid that our children will lose their future after training for this job."

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