The Karachi tragedy

The Karachi tragedy
Pakistani heatstroke victims are treated at a government hospital in Karachi on June 30, 2015. Nearly two-thirds of the victims of a killer heatwave that swept southern Pakistan last week were homeless people.
PHOTO: AFP

Hospitals overflowed with the victims of heatstroke and the mortuaries had no room as the death toll spiralled.

Heatwaves are not unusual in summer, but last week was exceptionally hot in Karachi with the mercury soaring to a record high.

There was also no respite with the water supply drying up and power breakdowns exacerbating woes.

The sizzling heat has exposed the vulnerability of the mega city that already has a dysfunctional infrastructure and is subjected to poor governance.

What is, however, most unfortunate is the way a national tragedy has been turned into a source of bickering and political point-scoring, deflecting attention from the underlying problems of this ever-growing city of an estimated 20 million residents.

More than the tyranny of the weather, it was the callous attitude of an inept provincial administration that was responsible for the death and suffering in Karachi.

If not completely preventable, the crisis could have easily been tackled by a prior public warning, timely response and some basic medical facilities made available to the hapless populace.

While citizen volunteers and charity groups were out in the field trying to ease the suffering of the people, the government was nowhere to be seen.

The administration was virtually non-existent as overcrowded public and private hospitals shut their doors to the constant inflow of patients and the stench of dead bodies lying in corridors filled the air.

It was not before hundreds of people had already died that the chief minister surfaced, blaming K-Electric and the federal government for the people's plight.

Surely, he claimed, that was no fault of his administration. No realisation of the gravity of the situation, no emergency measures to contain the damage were forthcoming.

In a more theatrical turn, the next day the octogenarian leader led some of his cabinet ministers to protest in front of the K-Electric headquarters.

When the short show, staged largely for TV cameras, ended, the ubiquitous Sharjeel Memon promised to register a case against the private power distribution company.

It was an easy scapegoat to cover up for the administration's own criminal negligence.

Although the heatwave had subsided to a large extent by the time he woke up to the gravity of the situation, Qaim Ali Shah came up with an ingenious idea to deal with the crisis.

He declared a public holiday. One is not sure if it was meant to protect the people from the blistering sun or just to calm down growing public anger.

Finally, some government-sponsored relief camps have started emerging in different parts of the city when the intensity of the heatwave has already eased with the return of the sea breeze.

That also followed full-page advertisements in the national newspapers with detailed instructions on how to avoid heatstroke and prevent dehydration.

Though useful, the instructions came too late when the crisis had already abated.

The real tragedy is that most of the patients suffered from dehydration and could have easily been treated.

It would have taken just dozens of relief camps around the city, providing shade, drinking water and oral rehydration sachets, and intravenous drips to rehydrate most patients.

This would have allowed the hospitals to take care of more serious cases.

For sure, the deaths were concentrated amongst the elderly or those who were fasting, but that cannot be used as an excuse for ineptitude.

There has certainly been no preparation despite the warnings. Heatstroke can occur at any temperature over 40 degree Celsius and immediate professional medical help could have saved many lives.

What saved the situation to some extent were the camps set up by volunteers, the Rangers and the army.

But obviously, these efforts were not sufficient to deal with such a large number of victims.

Most disconcerting, however, were the contradictory statements by provincial ministers on the cause of death.

While Sharjeel Memon declared that half the deaths were caused by power cuts, in a way blaming the federal government and K-Electric, the health minister said 60pc of the dead were homeless. It is immaterial whether the dead were homeless or not, they were human beings and citizens of Karachi and the administration cannot escape the basic responsibility of protecting their lives.

One glaring example of the breakdown of even the basic service infrastructure in Karachi was Rescue 1122. While the Sindh government claimed the service was available 24/7, a private TV channel showed a compound completely deserted with several imported Mercedes ambulances rotting in the open, seemingly unused for years. One wonders where the billions of rupees including the large amount of foreign aid meant for the health system in the province has gone.

While it may be true that the federal government is not directly responsible for bad governance in the province, it too cannot be absolved of its obligations towards a federating unit. Even the death of hundreds of people did not bring the prime minister to visit the country's economic jugular.

Many in the province feel that the attitude of the federal government would have been entirely different had such a tragedy happened in the prime minister's home province. The federal ministers seemed more interested in political point-scoring, showing little concern for the sufferings of the people of Karachi.

What happened in Karachi has opened up fault lines that show how Pakistan's largest city is vulnerable to extreme weather patterns. It was certainly not for the first time the country experienced an unusually hot summer, but one had never witnessed this kind of collapse of public services and the administration before.

The hot spell has also drawn attention to the impact of environmental change. The heatwave in Karachi only shows how large a toll climate change can extract. There are examples of other countries taking measures to deal with extreme weather fluctuation. But, unfortunately, this important issue seems to be low on our list of national priorities. With hundreds of lives lost, one can only hope that we will learn some lessons from the Karachi tragedy.

The writer is an author and journalist.

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