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Pakistan: “We don’t have money for food”

After a week in sweltering Sindh province, the region hardest hit by Pakistan’s devastating floods, I am now safe, cool and comfortable in my Islamabad apartment.

But in my head, one picture from my trip remains. I remember walking into the children’s ward of the Shikarpur district hospital. Mothers and their children were stretched out on old, ripped cots, two pairs per bed. At first I just noticed how crowded the room was (there were at least 50 women and children in the room, and another 30 next door). But then I looked at the children, and the women cradling them in their arms.

“What do you feed them?” I asked the head of the hospital, who was guiding me from room to room. “Nothing,” he responded, “We don’t have money for food.”

This is not new in Pakistan — while doctors provide consultations and medicines, families themselves are expected to supply the meals, since hospitals are chronically underfunded.

I looked to the far corner of the room, where a mother sat wrapped around a skeletal child who reminded me of photos I’d seen in National Geographic.

I asked again, “But, what do they eat?  Ask them.”

I pointed to the near corner, where a girl of about 9 years old lay connected to a saline drip. Her cheekbones protruded through her skin. The hospital chief asked the girl’s mother, and translated her answer: “Nothing today.”

Although I’ve worked for Save the Children for two and half years, this was the first time I’d encountered children who might actually die within a few days. Not because we couldn’t find them, or because no one knew they were sick, but because medicines and healthcare were not enough – neither their parents, nor the health facilities, could afford to buy food.

I fished out 10,000 Rupees (about $110) from my wallet. “This is a personal donation,” I told the hospital chief, “please give all these children and their mothers a meal tonight.”  Save the Children does not simply hand out cash — it can cause conflict, and it’s difficult to ensure the money goes where it’s needed most. But, literally choking back tears, I broke the rules to make sure that these kids would eat at least for one day.

Later that afternoon, we met with a doctor from UNICEF and brainstormed a way forward. UNICEF would immediately fly in calorie-dense, ready-to-use supplementary foods if Save the Children could train the hospital staff on how to administer these foods to malnourished children.

One of our senior doctors, a nutrition expert, was on a plane from Islamabad the next day and he conducted food supplementation training sessions for medical staff from three hospitals in less than 12 hours. UNICEF then sent the ready-to-use foods to the hospitals.

While this is one small success, we need so many more. Save the Children has helped over 500,000 people in the last five weeks, but this is only 2 percent of the estimated 21 million people who have been affected by these unprecedented floods.

What breaks my heart is that, no matter what I, Save the Children, and the many government and aid agencies on the ground do in the next few weeks, some children will not be reached in time.

Written by Save the Children Pakistan’s’ deputy team leader who, for security reasons, will remain unamed.

Find out more about how we’re helping families in Pakistan

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