Sri Lanka goes back to the future

I have been getting occasional reports from friends and family about how Sri Lanka is dealing with Covid-19. In their efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus caused to some extent by some people irresponsibly flouting the self-quarantine and social distancing rules, the government had instituted a strict curfew and people who are found violating it in those areas where it is in force are promptly taken into custody. But that policy meant that people were without access to food and other basic items. When the government tried lifting the curfew for a few hours to allow them to shop, that had the predictable result of huge crowds trying to buy things and many of them being turned away empty handed.

Now it appears that they have found another way to deal with that problem. The government has authorized vendors to travel around in trucks to various neighborhoods and streets to sell food and other essential items. Apparently there are different trucks for fresh vegetables, fruits, fish, and meats, and so on and when they come around people go outside their homes and buy whatever they need. Apparently there are even mobile ATMs so that people can get money.

This is quite a logistical feat in a country of around 20 million people. I am not sure how uniformly successful it is. My friends and family live in the capital Colombo and its vicinity which is where the country’s movers and shakers largely live and thus tends to get better services. How effectively the people in the rural areas are being served is unclear.

When I heard this news, my mind immediately went back to my childhood days. Then too one had vendors who would walk the streets of residential areas. Some would push large carts while others would have their wares in two baskets connected by a long pole that was balanced over one shoulder, with one basket in the front and the other at the back. The vendors would shout out what they were selling, and it was usually vegetables, fruits, or fish. I don’t recall meat or other items being part of the offerings. When one heard them coming, one went out and hailed them down and, of course, that began the process of bargaining over the price before the purchase was made.

So it looks like what is happening now is a modernized and scaled up version of what we had before.


  1. Bruce says

    I remember as a child in Southern California in the 1960s, how the bread truck (more of a van) would come down our street, and my mom would buy a loaf or two of fresh bread from the guy each time.
    I also remember how the Fuller Brush Company man would go door-to-door to our house and sell us brushes or a vacuum cleaner or parts or whatever.
    And of course, there was always the ice cream man driving by.
    And some families, including briefly us, got milk delivered by the milk man, in glass bottles, which I can’t recall were either pint or quart size.
    Nowadays, my friends get a box of fresh vegetables delivered weekly from the farmers co-op. But those were the days.

  2. Some Old Programmer says

    Bruce @1, Yes, the Helms bakery truck in So. Cal. in the 1960s! I have fond memories of the distinctive whistle, and the wooden drawers from which I’d want a donut. Nice to hear from a member of our cohort.

  3. says

    This item from early April talks about Sri Lankans’ hesitancy for and mistrust of phone banking. There’s no indication given of whether attitudes have quickly changed, but the situation may force some to accept it.

    Starting in the mid-2000s, phone companies in the Philippines and many African countries allowed customers to use phone credits as cash, turning their phones into ATMs -- invaluable in places where there were no ATMs and people needed to transfer money long distances. Banks objected to phone companies invading their turf until the banks saw how profitable it was and started doing it themselves.

  4. says

    In the UK lots of smaller shops are now doing deliveries to the local areas. We’ve had deliveries from the local grocers and a fishmonger.

    The big supermarkets do deliveries, of course, but their delivery slots are booked up weeks in advance, or are reserved for those who are unable to get out to the shops themselves.

    It’s all quite amazing.

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