Short-term solidarity for Thar aplenty

Published March 11, 2014
A woman comforting her child, who was born prematurely and received little post-natal care at the Civil Hospital, Mithi. — Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
A woman comforting her child, who was born prematurely and received little post-natal care at the Civil Hospital, Mithi. — Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

The din inside and around the premises of the Civil Hospital Mithi was tremendous. As soon as a man got out of an ambulance carrying his five-year-old son, a group of cameramen and reporters formed a semi-circle around him, their devices clicking away, taking multiple shots of him and his semi-conscious child.

Right beside the emergency entranceway, a member of the provincial assembly was busy providing sought-after sound bites to a TV crew, while in the parking lot next to it, the personal secretary of a former MPA was counting the media men sitting inside the van before embarking on a trip to a nearby goth to tour the famine-struck areas. The entranceway of the hospital was jam-packed with the multicoloured mobile vans of various television channels, with reporters running after every other patient who made his or her way to the hospital’s outpatient department.

By contrast, inside, though, the doctors were busy checking patients — infants to three-year-olds — with quiet calm.

For the past few days, reports of a famine in Thar have been making the headlines in the vernacular as well as the national press across Pakistan. By the time I reached Mithi, there were reports that a significant number of people from the area had fled to other districts.

But a senior doctor associated with the hospital had a different take. Standing near his office, which reeked of urine and sweat, the doctor requested not to be named and pointed out three factors.

“First off, this is not as alarming a situation as it’s made out to be,” he commented. “Drought is a routine occurrence in this part of Pakistan due to the lack of planning and management; this, the media just got to know about. Next, migration is a yearly routine in these parts as farmers travel to different districts to sell their wheat and sugarcane harvest. Finally, and most importantly, patients usually don’t come to hospitals due to the lack of link roads and their own long-held superstitions.”

Elaborating on the same point, the Director Health of Mirpurkhas Division, Dr Ghulam Ghous, who was dealing with patients in another room down the hallway, said: “People usually go to faqirs to get their children treated. They go to a hospital only when the disease worsens. Malnutrition is called sukhra among the local population. Our teams, together with various doctors, have tried to make contact with the local population to [convince them to] send their children over to a proper tertiary-care hospital in Hyderabad, but they refuse to be referred.”

Situated in the centre of Thar, the city of Mithi has a population of around 60,000 people. It has a fair balance of Muslim and Hindu communities who have lived side by side for centuries. The executive director of an NGO named Aware, Ali Akbar Rahimoo, explained that a lot of development work in Mithi and Chahchro took place during former president Pervez Musharraf’s tenure in terms of proper communication networks. “Unfortunately,” he added, “no one showed enough interest over the years in sustaining health and education. Livestock is the most important part of a Thari’s life, interlinking everything for them, but that has been criminally ignored as well.”

Formerly associated with the Thardeep Rural Development Programme, Dr Sono Khangharani said that what worries him is the “panic-led short-term relief” tendency with no focus on the long-term sustainability of Thar’s resources, of which livestock is the most important.

“What’s alarming is that facts and figures are being exaggerated and misrepresented by a few people,” he said. “Many doctors will agree with me that the deaths shouldn’t have occurred. The reason for the deaths is our state’s lack of interest in exploring and supporting scientific research and solutions.”

According to the data provided by the director health’s office in January, 18 children under the age of five died due to pneumonia and high fever. Twenty-three children died in February. But Dr Khangharani pointed out the lack of interest in or alarm over last year’s figures — 195 children and 500 sheep were reported dead as a result of continuing drought. “I’m not trying to demean the deaths in anyway. But this short-term show of solidarity scares me. By the mid-month, there’ll be a reverse migration in Mithi, as the farmers who had gone for chilli and cotton-picking will be back to sow their wheat crops. That’s the routine. And most of us will have forgotten the deaths by then.”

After a pause, he added: “That’s what the poor understand very well.”

Filmed and edited by Muhammad Umar

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