A heat wave is an extended period of extreme heat, often accompanied by high humidity. Prolonged periods of high temperatures and high humidity can be very dangerous for a human being’s long term and short term health. In extreme heat and humidity, evaporation is slowed and the human body has to work very hard to maintain a standard temperature. In other words humans “boil in their own skin” at 48 degrees Celsius, which incidentally was the maximum temperature recorded at Khammam in Telangana. This news item has become the talking point of a blistering heat wave sweeping through stretches of India on Sunday, killing nearly 500 people so far.
To be accurate 500 is perhaps a conservative estimate, as heat-related mortality is grossly under-reported. This is not to say or imply that there are no remedies for the heat wave. The Indian Summer brings with it a profusion of air conditioners, cold drinks and heat relieving medicines in the market. Kareena Kapoor asserts confidently in an ad that ‘brand X ’ is both a prickly heat talcum powder and a cooling ayurvedic medicine. Shruti Hassan assures the gullible consumer with a fat wallet that ‘brand Y of air conditioner’ will provide a happiness guarantee and keep them ultra cool. Katrina Kaif appears in a seductive ad for a mango drink that promises to teach the consumer the secrets of the ‘Aam Sutra’. The fact of the matter is that the Indian summer is a non-issue for most of the affluent urban middle and upper classes. Cocooned in their air-conditioned homes and manicured gardens they come out of their environmentally responsible eco-friendly homes and instantly step into their gas guzzling SUV’s which are again no prizes for guessing: air-conditioned.
This is why the current heat wave riding across the country is a non-issue for anyone who does not have to bear the brunt of the Sun’s boiling wrath. In the recent past, spells of extreme heat associated with appreciable mortality have been documented in developed countries, including North America and Europe. However, far fewer research reports are available from developing countries. In May 2010, Ahmedabad, India, faced a searing heat wave where the temperatures reached a high of 46.8 C with an apparent increase in mortality. Homegrown climate change deniers will say that this heat wave is not a matter of governmental priority.
However, there is a reason for concern. Many of the deaths have been because of extreme dehydration and heatstroke. Both of these categories of mortalities can be prevented: provided the government makes an urgent and timely intervention. A mass campaign of distributing ORS(oral rehydration salts) is the need of the hour. Awareness must be generated amongst the general public about what to do when a heat stroke strikes. These steps must be taken before the planned load shedding in several electrical grids of the country takes place. It’s time we showed those facing the heat some compassion.