COLOMBO (REUTERS) – In her outstretched palms, 49-year-old Nilanthi Gunasekera holds her family’s last remaining handful of dried fish – a reminder of Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis in decades.

She is just one of the millions of Sri Lankans battling a calamitous decline in living standards, as they find themselves forced to skip meals, ration out medicines and turn to firewood in place of cooking gas.

“Now fish is out of the reach of our family, and so is meat,” Ms Gunasekera said, grasping the shards of fish. “For two weeks we couldn’t afford any meat or fish. This is our last protein.”

Hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, rising oil prices and economic mismanagement under previous governments, the island nation is in the throes of its starkest crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.

Rampant inflation, snaking fuel queues and shortages of essentials such as food and medicine have driven many Sri Lankans into poverty, while months of street protests ousted the previous president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in July.

More than a quarter of the population of 22 million is now struggling to secure adequate, nutritious food, the United Nations says.

“We really can’t afford to buy a gas cylinder or a cooker,” Ms Gunasekera said, after thieves broke into her home and stole the family’s cooker and gas cylinder a few months ago. “So now we are forced to cook with firewood.”

As desperation grows, the government of President Ranil Wickremesinghe is seeking a multi-billion-dollar bailout in talks with the International Monetary Fund and is tapping major allies, from India and Japan to the United States.

But major financial assistance is still months away, making tough austerity measures likely, so that few Sri Lankans will see conditions improve soon.

“Now I bathe at a public well more often in order to save money,” said auto rickshaw driver Sivaraja Sanjeewan, 31, adding that rising costs of food made it very tough for him to pay water and electricity bills.

Shortages persist

As depleted reserves have dried up supplies of petrol, diesel and gas, lengthy fuel queues, sometimes persisting for days, have become a daily feature this year.

The shortages have brought a boom in demand for firewood.