Summer heat and society

The heat of the summer is often equated with positive things: sun, outdoor activities, the beach, and driving with the windows open or convertible top down.

But the heat can also cause and expose issues in a society. In Russia, there has been record heat and a staggering number of deaths:

On Monday, Moscow health authorities announced that the number of deaths each day in the capital had nearly doubled to 700 as most of central Russia entered the seventh week of a heat wave. The high temperatures, hovering around 100 degrees, have destroyed 30% of the nation’s grain crops and triggered massive peat bog and forest fires that alone have killed more than 50 people and devastated dozens of villages.

Andrei Seltsovsky, chief of Moscow’s health department, said the city’s morgues were filled almost to capacity, with 1,300 of the 1,500 slots taken. He suggested that residents, instead of following Russian Orthodox tradition of holding burials on the third day after death, bury loved ones sooner.

This sort of event is not isolated to Moscow. Something similar happened in Chicago in 1995. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg wrote about the summer in the book Heat Wave: Social Autopsy of a Disaster in Chicago. In an interview, Klinenberg discussed the book. There were some controversy over the “official death count.” Cook County’s chief medical examiner reported 465 deaths related to the heat for the hottest week but the numbers were disputed by Mayor Daley.

Additionally, the death rates differed by race:

The actual death tolls for African Americans and whites were almost identical, but those numbers are misleading. There are far more elderly whites than elderly African Americans in Chicago, and when the Chicago Public Health Department considered the age differences, they found that the black/white mortality ratio was 1.5 to 1. Another surprising fact that emerged is that Latinos, who represent about 25 percent of the city population and are disproportionately poor and sick, accounted for only 2 percent of the heat-related deaths.

So heat can help expose the disadvantaged in society, those who have no or little access to air conditioning, are often alone, and have no one to check in on them. Since that summer in Chicago, the city has opened “cooling centers” (which are available now all over the state of Illinois) to provide a place for those who don’t have other options. Measures like these have cut down on heat-related deaths in Chicago – it remains to be seen what Moscow will do to help with this current and future heat waves.

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