After the heatwave: Invisible helpers continue to take care of victims’ families

Team Karachi, formed at the time of the 2005 earthquake, offers relief when disaster strikes.

Farahnaz Zahidi July 14, 2015
Volunteers hand out water bottles and juice to people outside Indus Hospital during the recent heatwave that gripped the metropolis. Over 1,200 people died of heatstroke in the city. PHOTO: FILE


A few weeks ago, Imran's mother and others like her were making headlines. Today, they have been forgotten by all except their loved ones. Officially, over 1,200 people lost their lives to the brutal heatwave that gripped Karachi. Mumtaz Bibi, Imran's mother, was one of these victims, reduced to a mere statistic.

"We live in tiny houses with tin roofs that become cauldrons in the summer," explains Imran, who sells fabric and lives with three siblings in their house in Korangi. "My mother could not take the heat. We rushed her to Jinnah hospital, where she succumbed to the heatstroke five days later."

Read: The need to acknowledge climate change

The sole help Imran and his family have received has been from a group of Karachiites who mobilised volunteers and raised funds to help the heatwave victims, both in terms of relief during those sweltering days and sustained efforts to help the families of the deceased later.

"Team Karachi, as it is called, was formed at the time of the earthquake in 2005. We rush to help whenever there is a disaster," says Muhammad Zahid, head of the Shariah compliance department of Pak-Qatar Family Takaful Limited, and one of the most active members of the group.

Read: Karachi heatwave: NEPRA faults K-Electric for deaths

In the absence of any support from the government, 35 families of heatwave victims have so far been given grants of Rs30,000 to Rs50,000 with the help of donations from concerned Karachiites, Zahid discloses.

"The government and some philanthropists announced compensation but the questions of how much, when and how remain unanswered," Team Karachi's Saqib Zeeshan, the head of marketing at the Indus Hospital, says wryly. "It is always the people who step forward to help. I don't have the words to describe how many people volunteered, donated and raised funds."

However, while the support from Team Karachi has given temporary relief to the families of the heatwave victims, the future looks less promising for them.

"My father-in-law had just gone out to sell balloons as usual. He came back home, complaining about feeling hot, and later developed fever. We rushed him to the hospital, but he passed away," weeps Farida, who lives in Yusuf Goth. Although she is grateful for the grant from Team Karachi, she says that a large chunk of that money was spent on his funeral rites. The rest was spent in paying off loans the family took at the time. "My children have no new clothes for Eid. We don't even have enough money for a Fateha for the departed soul."

Read: Lessons from the heat wave

Similarly, Suleman, a peon at a government office, left behind a widow and three children when he succumbed to the heat. "His eldest son is just 15. His widow should get compensation and his pension as a government employee," reasons Sajid, his nephew. "But everyone says this will not be possible without a bribe of at least Rs100,000. Where will a 15-year-old boy get that sort of money?"

Zeeshan narrates that the OPDs at Indus Hospital were converted into emergency camps for the heatwave victims, with all of the hospital's doctors deployed there on an ad hoc basis. "In four days, we treated around 2,200 patients. Handling them and keeping them hydrated was a tough task, and volunteer organisations helped us immensely," he says, adding that people were so eager to help that the hospital decided to let them distribute supplies themselves.

Efforts have been made so that lives can be saved if a similar catastrophe hits the city in the future, with attention directed to smaller health facilities and hospitals that are usually neglected. At Landhi General Hospital, for example, Team Karachi has helped install industrial exhaust fans to cool down the emergency wards. The water and sewage lines that were mixed near the hospital have also been separated and water filters installed to provide cold water.

Read: Heat is on: Similar heatwave may scorch Pakistan in 2016

Such efforts need to continue. After all, as Zeeshan points out, "It is always only the people who step up and offer help."

Published in The Express Tribune, July 15th, 2015.