End cold response to heatwaves

End cold response to heatwaves

The massive heatwave sweeping across India has claimed around 1,500 lives over the past fort-night. Andhra Pradesh has borne the brunt of its scorching ire with temperatures touching 48 degrees C, leaving over 1,000 people dead. Nearly 400 have died in Telangana. The Metrological Department has little consolation to offer. Although the monsoon is due to strike Kerala soon and parts of that state and Karnataka are already receiving rains, the rest of India will continue to shrivel under searing heat for some more days before the first whiff of relief comes with the arrival of the monsoon. Public health experts believe that the death toll is much higher. People who die of heat don’t die only of heat stroke but they can die of heart attacks, kidney failure and other pre-existing medical conditions, which get aggravated by the heat and result in death. Such deaths are often not included in heatwave death toll. Thus, the current heatwave is far deadlier than we think it is.

It is not high temperature but poverty that is killing people in the heatwave. The poor, homeless and daily wage earners account for almost all those who died in the heatwave. Rickshaw pullers, building and road construction workers are forced to work all day, even in the afternoon when the heat is at its worst. They don’t have shelters or fans to cool off. Importantly, their health and nutrition being poor to start off, their resistance is low and they succumb to the heatwave’s fury. If heat alone was to blame for death, people living in hotter places such as Death Valley in California or Kebili in Tunisia, where temperatures are known to cross 55 degrees C, would be dying in large numbers. They are not. This underscores the need for the Indian government to strengthen the capacity of people to withstand extreme cold and heat.

A heatwave isn’t like an earthquake or a tsunami that takes us by surprise. It happens every year. The onset and period over which heatwaves extend are predictable, making its deadly impact largely preventable. Yet, governments at the Centre and the states don’t have an action plan in place. But for vague advice delivered almost casually over the media to people to stay indoors in the afternoons, drink water and cover their heads, the government has done nothing so far. Even the National Disaster Management Authority’s recommendation in 2013 to include heatwaves in the list of natural disasters remains unimplemented.

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