How hubris and Covid transformed Sri Lanka from ‘donor darling’ to default

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It is 10am and the queue outside a petrol station in one suburb of Sri Lanka’s commercial capital Colombo is already hundreds of people long. At the front is Malar Peter, whose family has taken turns to keep their place for 12 hours already. A few paces behind her is Padmasiri, who arrived at 1am. And right at the back of the queue stands Arumugam Annaletchumi, 50, who expects to be there for the rest of this hot, humid day. They are all waiting for kerosene, carrying empty plastic canisters for a few litres with which to cook and burn lamps during the long blackouts caused by power shortages. Yet they are there in hope as much as anything else. There is no kerosene at the station and it’s unclear if it will arrive. For Sri Lankans, who until recently enjoyed some of the highest living standards in South Asia, such queues were rare until a few months ago. “People just want to live without problems like this,” Annaletchumi says. “This country has been robbed.”

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