On the Frontline of Disaster: The Volunteer Ambulance Drivers of Karachi, Pakistan

Pakistani volunteer Latafatullah Hassan, second from left, working at the Edhi Foundation, waits for visitors to claim dead bodies, at a morgue in Karachi, Pakistan, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)

At The Guardian, Samira Shackle profiles Muhammad Safdar, an ambulance driver in Karachi, Pakistan, where religious violence, workplace disasters, and multiple explosions are just another day on the job. The Edhi Foundation’s ambulance service, which refuses state money and donations from businesses it deems unethical, is funded largely by donations from “the common man.” Standard work shifts run between 18 and 36 hours, and drivers earn about $1.30 US per day.

The impact of the explosion sent Muhammad Safdar flying backwards. He looked up from where he had landed and saw that the windows of his parked ambulance had shattered. As he tried to pick himself back up, fellow volunteer drivers working for the Edhi ambulance service gathered around him; it looked as if Safdar was bleeding. But he had not suffered any external injuries. “Human flesh got stuck to me,” he recalls now, as we sit in the ambulance control centre in downtown Karachi. “My friends were checking me for injuries, but it was pieces of other people. I was trembling hard and I couldn’t hear my own voice when I spoke. It sounded juddering. I could only hear whistles.”

Sporting red T-shirts emblazoned with bold white letters reading “EDHI”, these workers are a familiar sight at Pakistan’s all-too-common disaster scenes. Here in Karachi, a megalopolis of around 20 million people, there is no state ambulance service.

Like other Edhi ambulance drivers, Safdar is technically a volunteer and works for a basic salary of 4,300 Pakistani rupees a month (£33). A private driver would earn 10,000–15,000 rupees. This basic salary covers the high-risk rescue work; the easier “patient services” jobs – moving people between hospitals and transporting corpses – incur a small fee, so drivers receive a commission of around 100 rupees (76p) per trip. Sometimes patients tip. But clearly, money is not the motivating factor.

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