‘I can’t afford my medicine'

How a domestic worker and grandmother taking care of two children manages her monthly budget.

An illustration of a woman in a vaccine filled with a syringe on her left and some pills on her left and a building with two people looking out of the window in the background. There's also a list with flue vaccine, medicine, gas, clothing, etc all around.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

What’s your money worth? A series from the front line of the cost-of-living crisis, where people who have been hit hard share their monthly expenses.

Name: Jacintha Fonseka

Age: 55

Occupation: Domestic worker

Lives with: Husband Nishantha Garusinghe, 51, and granddaughters Thisuni Dinethma, 11, and Dimagi Hithmini, seven

Lives in: A 26.8sq-metre (289.3sq-foot) house in Kelaniya, a mostly working-class suburb of Sri Lanka’s executive and judicial capital, Colombo.

Monthly household income: 33,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($89.34). The minimum monthly income needed by a family in the district where they live is $162, according to Sri Lanka’s Department of Census and Statistics.

Total expenses for the month: 32,700 rupees ($88.53)

A family in Sri Lanka
The family, from left: Jacintha, Thisuni, Dimagi and Nishantha [Hassaan Shazuli/Al Jazeera]
The family, from left: Jacintha, Thisuni, Dimagi and Nishantha [Hassaan Shazuli/Al Jazeera]

It is 6am in Jacintha and Nishantha’s small home in Colombo. Jacintha, a grandmother of two, boils water on a kerosene stove to make plain tea for the family while her granddaughters get ready for school.

In years past, she would have been using a stove powered by cooking gas to make chai, a beverage prepared by boiling tea leaves with milk. But Sri Lanka’s economic crisis has changed everything, even this small daily ritual.

A kilogramme (2.2lb) of milk powder, which was 1,170 rupees ($3.17) in 2021, is now double the price at 2,350 rupees ($6.40), and the cost of a cylinder of cooking gas has nearly tripled, from 1,493 rupees ($4) to 4,360 rupees ($11.80), putting them out of the family’s reach.

Kerosene is the only affordable fuel for cooking meals, Jacintha says, even though its price has also risen - from 87 rupees ($0.24) for one litre in 2021 to 365 rupees ($1).

An illustration of a graph indicating inflation with the left bar smaller than the right bar.
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

After her granddaughters leave for school, Jacintha prepares to go to work.

As she brushes her hair, she coughs up blood, a repercussion of skipping a seasonal influenza vaccine due to rising costs. “Doctors warn against skipping this vaccine, which protects my lungs from germs, but I can’t afford it,” says Jacintha, who has had bouts of pneumonia in the past.

Despite feeling ill and weak, she will walk to a nearby house where she works as a domestic helper for a daily wage of 1,000 rupees ($2.71).

Usually, Jacintha's monthly income is almost the same as her husband Nishantha, who earns about 20,000 rupees ($54.12). But her income fell drastically in December.

The job does not offer paid sick leave, so missing work when she is unwell means she will not get paid that day. This happened in December when Sri Lanka experienced a spike in air pollution, both her granddaughters became sick with the flu and Jacintha’s respiratory condition worsened.

"Since I had not taken the vaccine, the drop in air quality affected my lungs,” she says.

Nishantha works as a security guard at a government company. His job is strenuous, with 12-hour shifts, mostly worked back-to-back, meaning he is on duty for 24 hours at a time with just a small break in between. He only comes home once every two or three days. “If there are only a few hours between the first and second shifts, I catch a break at my workplace instead of coming back home to save on bus fares,” Nishantha says.

Children's shoes and school books
The children have had to rely on donations to acquire things like school supplies and shoes [Hassaan Shazuli/Al Jazeera]

For the past six years, the couple has been taking care of their granddaughters Thisuni and Dimagi. The children were abandoned, and their parents’ whereabouts are unknown. Jacintha and Nishantha have no other form of support to take care of the children but are determined to use their two incomes to cover the rent and other basic needs.

“Although we could have used our income for our needs, we are now working for the sake of these kids because they are innocent and helpless,” a teary-eyed Jacintha says. “We are worried about who will look after them after our demise.”

Her granddaughters' annual public school fees are low, but the family has to rely on donations from well-wishers for some necessities for the children like books, stationery and shoes. Their teacher often shares their homework or assessments via WhatsApp, but the family cannot afford a smartphone, so Jacintha has to pay for additional transport costs to take the children to a friend’s house to access their assignments.

Usually, at Christmas, Jacintha and Nishantha would take the girls out shopping for clothes and gifts and cut a cake at midnight on Christmas Eve to celebrate. But this past December, with inflation in Sri Lanka at 57.2 percent, the family could not afford any clothes, gifts or other festivities.

“We couldn’t even go to church because we were not in a position to buy some decent clothes,” Jacintha says. “[The children] haven’t been able to enjoy certain things like their peers or friends, and it makes them sad although they know our position. It hurts us as well. But what can we do? We are helpless at this point.”

Over the course of December, Jacintha tracked the family’s monthly expenses in collaboration with reporter Hassaan Shazuli.

Here are the expenses that tested the family’s finances the most.

The family's expenses over one month

A woman in her kitchen in Sri Lanka
Jacintha cooks food mainly for her granddaughters and goes hungry some days [Hassaan Shazuli/Al Jazeera]
Jacintha cooks food mainly for her granddaughters and goes hungry some days [Hassaan Shazuli/Al Jazeera]


For Jacintha and her family, their tiny rented home means everything. They moved into the house in a quiet neighbourhood a little more than a year ago. Their neighbours have been a great source of support, sometimes even offering the children food in the evenings.

In the family’s living room, sound comes from the black screen of an old cathode-ray tube television, one of the few electronic devices in the home. “The screen doesn’t work, and we haven’t been able to repair it because it’s expensive,” Jacintha says.

Beyond the living room is a small space lit by a fluorescent bulb. It is used as a bedroom and contains a bed, cupboard and coffee table where the children keep their books. Jacintha and the girls share the bed while Nishantha sleeps on the floor on the days he is at home. Adjoining the bedroom is a narrow hallway that is big enough for only one person at a time. It is used as a kitchen.

When the family first moved into the house, Jacintha and Nishantha were paying 11,000 rupees ($29.78) in monthly rent. But with inflation on the rise, the landlord increased the rent to 13,000 rupees ($35.20). “We are supposed to make the payment on the 11th of every month; however, we have requested that the landlord give us time until the 15th because that is when my husband gets paid,” Jacintha says.

She is determined to cover the rent each month because she knows it would be difficult to find anywhere else that they could afford to live if they lose this home.

2021: 11,000 rupees ($29.78)
2022: 13,000 rupees ($35.20)

A bedroom next to a small kitchen in Sri Lanka
A narrow hallway adjoining the bedroom is used as a kitchen [Hassaan Shazuli/Al Jazeera]

Vaccines and medicines

Due to the cost, Jacintha has had to skip taking the seasonal flu vaccine, which doctors prescribed to prevent her lungs from infection.

“It is expensive because we have to obtain it at a private hospital," she says. "I would rather use that money to feed the children.”

But Jacintha acknowledges that not having the vaccine makes her vulnerable to respiratory issues. “Since I didn’t take the vaccine this year, I cough up blood at times and feel very weak. That makes it difficult for me to work."

Apart from the medication she takes for her respiratory issues, she also takes pills to treat high cholesterol and diabetes.

When their granddaughters fell sick in December, Jacintha and Nishantha took them to a government hospital where they could get medicines for free. However, the hospital prescribed some medication that it didn't have and had to be bought from a pharmacy. "We didn’t purchase the medicines because we can't afford to pay for them," Jacintha says.

The flu vaccine that Jacintha should take every year also ran out at the private clinic she visits. Sri Lanka is low on foreign currency reserves and has had to limit its imports of medicines. New stock is expected to be imported in the first quarter but at a much higher cost due to the depreciation of the Sri Lankan rupee, which is blamed on inflation and mismanagement of the economy.

“I don’t think the [economic] situation will get any better next year,” Jacintha says. "The kids are a priority to me. If someone is willing to help me out, then I can get the vaccine."

2021: 2,500 rupees ($6.80) for one vaccine shot
2022: 3,700 rupees ($10)

Medicines in a box
Jacintha only takes medicines that she gets free of charge from a government hospital [Hassaan Shazuli/Al Jazeera]


Both Jacintha and Nishantha need eyeglasses, but they haven't been able to afford them.

It has been three years since Jacintha last bought a pair of glasses for herself, and she no longer can see properly out of them because her eyesight has weakened. Her husband had a pair made in 2021, but they broke while he was travelling on a public bus a few months ago.

“My husband almost lost his eyesight after a group of men attacked him when he was working as a security guard at a nightclub about four years ago,” Jacintha says. "That’s why he desperately needs glasses."

She is long-sighted and needs glasses to see up close. She has developed headaches from straining her eyes and has problems doing basic chores like sewing, cleaning and helping her granddaughters with their homework.

“The sooner I get [glasses], the better it will be for me," she said. "Straining my eyes too much will cause my eyesight to weaken further in the future.”

2021: 7,500 rupees ($20.30) for two pairs of eyeglasses
2022: 16,000 rupees ($43.32)

An illustration of prices rising in the past year.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Transport fares

Buses are the main form of transport for the family to commute to work and school, but fares increased by 22 percent in June, putting additional strain on its finances.

Usually, Jacintha would accompany her granddaughters to school for safety reasons. However, she has not been able to do it as much as she would like since the bus fares were raised. On those days, she sends the girls to school, which is about 10km (6 miles) from their home, on their own.

“It is unfortunate that I can't always go with them, but what matters is for them to go to school and learn,” she says. "That’s my priority."

But there are also days when she cannot afford to send them to school at all.

“There are times when I had to keep the kids at home because I couldn't pay for their [bus] tickets, but I ensure that those are on very rare occasions,” Jacintha says, adding that there are days when she has skipped meals to save money so the children can go to school.

Although Nishantha has the option of returning home after every 24-hour double shift at work, he opts to do long shifts that run for up to three days, so he can save on transport costs. A two-way bus ticket for him costs 220 rupees ($0.60).

“I save up this money because it is worth a packet of rice, which I can buy for lunch,” he says.

2021: 3,013 rupees ($8.20) for the children's monthly bus fares
2022: 3,910 rupees ($10.60)

A small kitchen
The family's kitchen is a tiny space that can only accommodate one person at a time [Hassaan Shazuli/Al Jazeera]


The family has adapted to a drastic change in their diet because of sharply rising food prices.

In 2021, Jacintha would cook fish or eggs, two vegetables and rice for lunch. She recalls that all family members used to have three meals a day. However, with the cost of food skyrocketing, the couple mostly has just one meal a day to ensure that their grandchildren have enough to eat.

“Our grandchildren are reluctant to eat because they feel sad watching us go hungry, so we eat a little just to satisfy them,” Jacintha says.

She admits that the lack of food has caused her to lose weight and develop gastritis, for which she takes medication when it worsens.

Jacintha says she buys fish or eggs for the children only and that she cannot afford to buy vegetables every day. “I cook dhal when I can’t afford vegetables,” she explains.

Since Nishantha stays at work for two or three days at a time, he buys food from the canteen there, which sells meals at a subsidised rate.

2021: 1,060 rupees ($2.90) for 1kg of rice, fish and drumsticks
2022: 1,544 rupees ($4.20) 

A small Christian altar next to a Buddha statue
Christmas celebrations for the family were low-key in 2022 [Hassaan Shazuli/Al Jazeera]

Five quick questions for Jacintha

1. What is the hardest financial decision you had to make this month? Not being able to buy milk powder to make tea for the kids. Children need to consume milk because it contains nutrients. Although I could give them milk tea every single day last year, nowadays they go several days at a stretch without it.

2. Which is the most worthwhile expense from this month? Buying fish and vegetables for my grandkids. Since it is expensive, I always prioritise them when preparing meals and try to provide them with as much nutrition as possible. I consume vegetables and fish only if there are leftovers.

3. When finances get tough, what advice do you have? Do not go for loans when times are hard as it will ruin your peace of mind if you are unable to repay them. Manage your expenses with whatever is available by prioritising your children because they are the future and they deserve a good life.

4. What is your biggest money worry? Running out of money to pay the rent for our house. I am quite afraid of that because it would leave us without shelter. That would severely affect the children and their education.

5. What is the saving hack you are proud of? Cutting down on the expenses for my meals so that my granddaughters can eat more and afford the bus fares to go to school. I reduce my food intake and save that money to buy items like eggs and fish for the kids because they need proteins to grow.

Last year’s prices were sourced from the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka’s Department of Census and Statistics, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and market rates.

Read more stories from the series: What's your money worth?

Source: Al Jazeera