Disasters always kill the poor and the ignorant. Nature doesn’t. We know very well that like poverty, ignorance too is a product of social processes and instilled through indoctrination. Sometimes, this is done in the name of patriotism, whereas other times in the name of religion, culture and tradition. Those who disagree with and challenge dominant narratives are silenced through coercion. We can see examples of this throughout history.
For centuries, man continued to blame his sins for the occurrence of calamities and often sacrificed someone else in order to seek forgiveness from the gods. That practice continues till date; in fact, our rulers excel in it. They have a habit of finding scapegoats in order to hide their ill-governance. In the aftermath of the disastrous 2010 floods, Yousuf Raza Gilani, the then prime minister said that these were caused because of an unprecedented natural phenomenon i.e., a cloud burst. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif repeated his words in the aftermath of the 2014 floods. In the same vein, there are those who continue to propagate that there is a relationship between sins and disasters.
At the height of the heatwave emergency, the Sindh government blamed the federal government for power outages, while the federal government blamed the Sindh government for its poor response to the calamity. Both entities are right. However, instead of blaming each other, they should have cooperated in order to prevent deaths. The structures that the state had created to respond to such emergencies could not act in an adequate manner. The NGO sector too miserably failed to do anything substantive.
Setting aside the politics of blame game, it is imperative to examine the root causes of the 1,300 or so deaths. Disaster is always an outcome of a clash between a certain hazard, and the vulnerability of humans and the structures they have built. Deeper the ignorance and poverty, higher the likelihood of being vulnerable to hazards. In other words, resourcefulness and awareness protect people from hazards. Was it the heatwave (a hazard) alone that killed people? Was it the power outages and poor governance that aggravated the situation? To what extent were ignorance and poverty (the vulnerabilities) responsible for this disaster? Before addressing these questions, let’s examine the situation first. On June 18, the heatwave hit Karachi. June 19 saw the advent of Ramazan and the city experienced prolonged power outages. Around 837 deaths occurred on this day leading to huge protests. On June 20, the temperature shot up to 45 °C. Resultantly, around 200 people died. The death toll continued to rise despite a drop in temperature over subsequent days. On June 25, around 110 more deaths were reported. According to some estimates, around 2,000 people might have died — equal to the number of deaths that occurred in the 2010 floods. Interestingly, Karachi had experienced temperatures as high as 47 °C and 42.2 °C, on June 18, 1979 and July 3, 1985 respectively, but we hardly saw any deaths on those occasions. This year, other parts of the country also suffered similar or even higher levels of heat, but one did not see the kind of death toll witnessed in Karachi.
A rigorous investigation is required to determine the causes of the deaths. The National Disaster Management Authority should commission a study in this regard. This should include: 1) the profiles of all those who died in the heatwave, including information about their place and kind of residence, profession, education and age; 2) whether the person was taken to a hospital and if so, which one and by whom; 3) did the person receive adequate treatment or not; 4) was there a power outage at the person’s residence; 5) was the person fasting at the time?
Fasting, coupled with exposure to heat and hard labour can cause severe dehydration and exhaustion. However, until a study on the correlation between fasting and the deaths in Karachi is carried out, no one should assume that fasting alone was responsible. But it is imperative to consider its impact. I was hoping to read a statement of religious scholars talking about the ease that religion does provide when it comes to fasting in exceptional circumstances, but was bitterly disappointed. Spreading mindless religiosity has fostered vigilante attitudes making Muslims less tolerant, not only towards others, but also among themselves. General Ziaul Haq sowed the seeds for this kind of political religiosity in order to build his constituency in the country.
We must not blame nature or the heatwave for the tragedy that befell so many. We must eliminate ignorance and poverty, and improve governance. This is the only way forward.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 29th, 2015.
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