By Aliullah Sharif
KARACHI – Had Abdus Sattar Edhi, a social worker of international repute, having ingrained angelic qualities, and his devoted volunteers not made quick arrangements for the burial of the hundreds of decomposed bodies of the victims of recent heatwave tragedy, the smell of death and decay would have hung over Karachi, exposing the city to an outbreak of catastrophic plague, an infectious disease that kills a lot of people.
There were around 300 unclaimed and unidentified bodies of the heatwave victims at the Edhi Foundation which its volunteers, led by Mr Edhi, buried in graveyards without seeking any assistance from the authorities, rather favoured the Sindh government and the city’s municipal organizations, including KMC, by performing their task.
`God forbid!’, if the unclaimed and unidentified bodies, which were left to decay in every nook and cranny of the metropolis, had not been lifted and buried in a couple of days, the city might have been haunted by the spectre of plague.
The tragedy that claimed more than 1300 lives in the wake of searing heat which gripped Karachi in June was the worst since 2010 floods in Sindh.
Ironically, a brute majority of sunstroke victims, who were residents of low-income group neighborhoods, vagrants, destitute or the drug addicts, were left to die owing to inadequate arrangements at the public sector hospitals and a number of bodies were left to decay at various places in the city.
In his reaction to the appalling situation, Pakistan Medical Association’s secretary-general Dr Ali Athar Mirza, said that a number of deaths could have been prevented had the government and the media, particularly electronic, launched an effective awareness campaign, advising people to keep themselves hydrated and stay indoors.
Moreover, Sindh Health Minister Jam Mehtab Dahar and Information Minister Sharjeel Inam Memon were of view that 50 per cent of the deaths could have been saved if the K-Electric had not resorted to unscheduled loadshedding and there wouldn’t have been prolonged power outages.
Recent havoc wrecked by punishing heatwave was just a manifestation of collapse of the city’s power and water systems as well as the ineffective role of the local government institutions and the provincial health department in coping with the challenges of the disaster.
Alas and alack, both the provincial and the federal governments during the searing heat spell that continued for more than a week remained engaged in blame games, instead of realizing the mental agonies of bereaved families of the heatstroke victims.
Although the punishing heat persisted in the city for around 10 days, neither Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (whose administrator was reportedly enjoying summer holidays in some European country during this period) nor the Sindh government’s health department launched an effective campaign to create awareness among masses about the causes of heatstroke and its remedies even after heatstroke patients had started pouring in the city’s major public sector hospitals.
Besides, most of the TV channels which, in their bid to take lead over their competitors, never miss any opportunity to create hype about political issues or indulge in gonzo journalism, also failed to arrange effective talk shows by inviting medical experts to educate people about the lethal sunstroke, although they are supposed to highlight such issues as part of their public service.
Unfortunately the city’s municipal corporations, including KMC, could not even make arrangements for the burial of the heatstroke victims and as such the bereaved families, mostly belongings to the poor neighbourhoods, were left at the mercy of charity organizations, especially the Edhi Foundation. The grave diggers or those manning graveyards taking undue advantage of the situation reportedly demanded between Rs30,000 and 40,000 from the hapless people for the burial of their nearest and dearest and thus demonstrating decaying standards of morality.
In fact, it was not searing heat alone that claimed hundreds of lives, but other factors which compounded the issue included frequent power failures and prolonged loadshedding, persisting water shortage in poor neighbourhoods, and closure of restaurants during fasting hours from where, otherwise, water could have been provided for quenching thirst of most of the labourers and heroin addicts who reportedly first fainted due to dehydration and then became victim of heatstroke.
Yet another shocking aspect that came to light during the devastation caused by the heatwave was the incompetence and failure of the government institutions in providing adequate space in mortuaries.
One could only hope that the authorities concerned taking a lesson from their shortcomings during the heatwave tragedy would leave no stone unturned in setting up more spacious morgues with proper air-conditioning facilities so as to cope up with the challenges of any future disaster and natural calamities.