I have seen many dead in my career, but I will never forget the smell that enveloped me at a morgue in Karachi this week. The dignity denied to the dead that had suffered so much in life is deplorable.
As a heat wave hit the heart of the financial capital and swept across Sindh province it stripped away layer after layer of the dire straits of governance here.
The death toll rose at an incredible pace to pass 1,000 people. Everyone questioned how this could happen. And sadly there’s not just one place to lay the blame — there are many failures of governance.
There’s the lack of public education and awareness: today we can all check our phones for the latest weather forecast yet the Sindh government did nothing to warn people about the approaching heat wave or improve water supplies or educate people on staying cool or treating heatstroke at home.
It’s the month of Ramadan when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, yet it took at least 700 deaths before a locally prominent imam reminded the Muslim faithful that the elderly or sick do not have to fast and that if you feel unwell then you can break your fast. No word from the government.
When the heat wave struck, the daily power cuts caused by a lack of electricity generation were mismanaged by federal and provincial governments. Instead of redistributing the cuts geographically or at cooler times of the day, the cuts lasted longer and some people went without electricity throughout the weekend.
As the crumbling infrastructure buckled under the tremendous demand, people suffered in heat that felt like 50 degrees C without the ability to power even a small fan.
When people fell ill and rushed to hospitals across the province and city, they were met with doctors and nurses let down by their government, with not enough beds, medicines, drips, or staff.
In fact it’s local people who are stepping in and stepping up — buying hospital beds from wholesalers, providing air conditioning units and generators to run them, doing even simple things like delivering blocks of ice. I have seen people posting on social media, saying they are willing to pay for cleaners to clean the hospital. When’s the last time you had to do that for your local hospital?
Is this the job of local residents or is it the job of the government?
I used to be uplifted by the sense of humanity and community spirit that finds Pakistanis rallying together to help one another. But this week it sickened me that they have to do so at all.
When tragedy strikes, as it often does in Pakistan — be it terrorist or extremist — we often talk about hanging our collective heads in shame. Not here, not now. It’s the politicians and the bureaucracy who should be hanging their heads in shame.
Yes, Pakistan needs to educate its people. But it also needs to educate its politicians — in good governance. The basic principles of being effective and efficient, responsive, equitable and inclusive, participatory or even accountable, seem to have eluded the Sindh government.
In the U.S. or UK just one body left out in the heat for more than a few hours would cause national outrage. I saw many bodies, decomposing in the heat. A morgue run by a charity that couldn’t do its merciful job because power cuts meant the cold storage unit was actually hot. The stench of death stifled the air. If this does not shake the government to the core then what can?
I have seen plenty of politicians this week, making highly publicized appearances at hospitals and distributing biscuits and drinks. Each political party has set up food and drink stalls outside the hospitals decorated with their party flags and colors. Apparently this is a time to win support and votes.
And the Chief Minster’s response? He assumed everything that should have been done is being done, he presumes all necessary actions are being taken, oh and as a record heat wave approached his province, he thought it best to be out of Karachi to mark Benazir Bhutto’s birthday. Perhaps he needs reminding his party is called Pakistan People’s Party.
Chief Minister, I hung my head in shame when a man broke down and cried, telling me he’s just buried two of his children and has another two in hospital. Will you?
He took all four of his sick children to two hospitals which turned them away because they didn’t have beds for them. By the time they got to the third, two were dead and two dehydrated, deep into the throes of heatstroke. The small private clinic took them in, and they are relying on charity to keep their children there — but they can only afford one bed so both children share it.
Prime Minister, I hung my head in shame when a woman cried saying: “Nawaz Sharif and all you rich people sit in air-conditioned rooms, we don’t even have water or electricity and our children are in hospital.”
The Chief Minister of Sindh has presided over highly controversial and inadequate responses to floods, power outages and famine and yet feels no need to be held accountable and step down. This week he’s shown he can’t even handle a heat wave.
Saima Mohsin works for CNN across Asia. She notably reported on the Taliban’s attack on teen activist Malala Yousafzai.