A Pandemic Year in Review: Reflections From Sri Lanka and Maldives

Stepping into the new role of a Country Manager for Sri Lanka and Maldives in July 2020 during a global pandemic was no easy feat. For the first three months I worked from Washington DC, due to travel restrictions. Making connections with the country office staff and government counterparts from across the world was perhaps the most difficult part.

COVID-19 had already reached Sri Lanka and Maldives and our emergency response operations were in progress. Both governments were also contending with tight fiscal space and comparatively high debt ratios, which were limiting government-led pandemic support.

Even with time differences and staff spread across the globe, we worked with officials to restructure and retool projects to help both governments quickly assist communities that were hit hard by COVID-19.

I am grateful for the partnership and collaboration with the governments of Sri Lanka and Maldives and other stakeholders, which made it possible for us to roll out tangible support to people in need.

Quick COVID-19 response  

Understandably, the pandemic response was the top priority during my first year. In April 2020, the World Bank was able to approve $128.6 million to help Sri Lanka prevent, detect, and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. This Emergency Response and Health Systems Preparedness Project was augmented with an additional $87.24 million to expand the Government’s cash transfer program to many in need, including the elderly and patients with chronic kidney disease.

In September 2020, an additional $56 million was reallocated from active projects to improve COVID-19 protection measures in public transport, facilitate tele-education for students, assist agriculture, and improve delivery of public services.

The World Bank is also supporting Sri Lanka on the COVID-19 vaccination program in collaboration with the Asian Development Bank, and UN organizations. In April 2021, $80 million was approved, and $40 million already disbursed to cover part of the vaccine procurement and deployment costs.

Even though the pandemic was on top of everyone’s mind, other projects also continued. I visited sites of the $320 million Metro Colombo Urban Development Project (MCUDP) approved in 2012, which is now nearing completion despite COVID-19 restrictions. The project has contributed to reducing the impact of floods in Colombo.

In Maldives, the $7.3 million COVID-19 Emergency Response and Health Systems Preparedness Project, approved in April 2020 was in progress. This project, which is co-financed with additional $7.3 million from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was designed to increase responsiveness and strengthen  public health structures.

In addition, $10 million in contingency financing was triggered in March 2020 under Disaster Risk Management Development Policy Financing with a Catastrophe Deferred Drawdown Option (CAT DDO) that was signed in 2019.  This is one example of how building sustainability into financing mechanisms can support countries to better navigate challenging realities.

The $12.8 million COVID-19 Emergency Income Support Project, approved  in June 2020, was expanded by $21.6 million in January 2021. This project is helping the government to protect displaced vulnerable workers.

For example, the cash transfer helped Zahida, 30, to pay her rent and remain close to the airport where she is employed. Without the funds she would have had to return to her home located in a different island. Many women were given a chance to retain employment through this support.     

This is important because women make up only about 40 percent of the formal workforce in the Maldives with many having to migrate to the capital Male for employment.

Planning past the pandemic

Both countries will need to focus on a Green, Resilient and Inclusive Development (GRID) to craft a durable recovery. This requires coordinated investment in climate resilience, policies for inclusive growth to tackle inequality, better macroeconomic policy implementation and risk management.

Investments in sustainable infrastructure is key for economic recovery. Prioritising clean and accessible energy, developing greener cities, transitioning food and land-use to give people access to safe, affordable, and nutritious food,  rebuilding and accelerating human capital as well as ensuring increased access to employment opportunities, especially for the poor and vulnerable,  will be central to reversing the pandemic impact.

Globally, climate change, poverty and inequality have emerged as defining challenges and the World Bank is dedicated to supporting a coordinated and long-term response.     

It is vital to reflect these priorities in our upcoming  Country Partnership Frameworks  for both countries. Public consultations are part of this country engagement process. Stay tuned for more updates on our country engagements.

As I start my second year, I reflect on the first, which has passed at lightning speed and been “unusual” in every respect. My heart goes out to all who succumbed to COVID-19 and those who lost loved ones. This pandemic has altered lives of so many and affected the way we interact with others.

Many lost jobs or had to survive with reduced income. Some businesses had to close and may never reopen. Loss in learning due to school closures is a concern in many countries.

However, I believe in resilience of people and their ability to recover, adapt, and bounce back to come out of this even stronger.

The World Bank stands with Sri Lanka and the Maldives as they map out ways to fast track recovery from the pandemic and improve the lives of all their people.

World Bank