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Avoidable fatalities

Heat wave conditions have been prevailing in the two worst-affected southern Indian states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh for almost a month now, but most of the deaths have happened in the past week. As far as the spate of heat wave deaths is concerned the statistical long tail is concentrated in a narrow period of two weeks beginning almost a fortnight ago. 

In statistics, a long tail of some distributions of numbers is the portion of the distribution having a large number of occurrences far from the “head” or central part of the distribution. In other words, this long tail of deaths could have been avoided. As news reports trickle in reporting that the death toll in the heat wave sweeping India has officially passed the 1,000 mark, the centre and the state governments seem to be ill-equipped to deal with the aftermath.

A widely published study has pointed out that there’s been a “sudden increase in summer High Temperature (HT) days over north, west and north central regions and along eastern coast of India, with the shift occurring in the mid- to late 1990s”. One is amazed as to why the administrative machinery has chosen to ignore such alarming data widely available in the public domain. With temperatures nearing 50 degrees Celsius in some areas, both the Centre and the State government have predictably been caught wrong-footed over what was sadly an avoidable spate of deaths. A heatstroke is hands down one of the preventable causes of mortality, at least as far as India’s lethargic public health care system and disaster management resource framework is concerned. Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road provides a chilling account of how life, or a lack thereof, might appear in a post-apocalyptic world.

Telangana and Andhra Pradesh nowadays do not look much different from the settings of the aforementioned McCarthy novel. At the risk of sounding alarmist, 1000 deaths do not signal the coming of a post-apocalyptic world. But they sure should set alarm bells ringing loud and clear across the air-conditioned offices of bureaucrats sitting in their plush leather chairs covered with cool towels. 

For solutions, they only need to look towards the city of Ahmedabad where the city’s municipal corporation has taken concrete steps to prevent deaths and injury due to prolonged and potentially lethal heat exposure. The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation has put in place a comprehensive Heat Action Plan since 2013. Furthermore, Ahmedabad has the distinction of being the only city in India to have an operational heat alert system. The plan to tackle heat-related deaths was a collaborative effort of noted public institutions. Surprisingly this plan’s underpinning revolves around raising public awareness around simple steps to take to prevent heat strokes. These include drinking water, buttermilk and any other hydrating liquid. Staying out of the sun as much as possible and cooling down after periods of exposure to heat. While these may seem like simple steps to take, it is amazing how low public awareness about these steps are.

Public health education is often about doing the simple things right and this is where the Centre and the State governments of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have shown profound inaction.
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