Hellish Heat, Glacial Individualism
By Chantal de Singly
Tuesday 19 August 2003
The heat wave took us all by surprise at the slack time of the year when cares are forgotten on the beaches, in the cities, and elsewhere. In two days, Emergency Rooms, the SAMU (Urgent Medical Assistance Services) and iremen were overwhelmed. Diagnosis: Hyperthermia. Treatment: reduce the invalid's temperature, knowing that the ambient temperature everywhere was over 32 degrees Celsius.
And then there were the chronic or latent illnesses that are exacerbated in excessive heat.
On the ground, everything was immediately set up: every available person was mobilized, forays made for ice, stretchers, fans, bottled water, the network with geriatric establishments spontaneously reactivated. Without any decision by the authorities and well before the white plan, healthcare professionals, with volunteer support, had organized themselves. Coming back from their vacations, or staying in their positions, they used their knowledge and imagination to come up with original solutions, like the three layers-plastic, ice, and sheet-to make a cooling mattress, the fan on chunks of ice that became an air conditioner, or wetting the roof at night to reduce buildings' temperature. All those who were ill were welcomed, cared for, attended, even if, alas, all could not be saved.because our knowledge is also our limit.
After a lull, what must be deduced from this crisis? First, the extraordinary capacity of the women and men on the ground to cope. Then, the responsiveness and efficiency of the public hospital with all its health and social service partners: the public services "were proved" in the test of such a crisis, and with a great surge of solidarity. This-now famous-"France d'en bas" (France from below) - lacks neither creativity nor generosity when drama is before its eyes.
But the heat wave also reflects back to each citizen another picture, less heartening, showing how individually and collectively we have not been "good" (in every sense of the word). This summer drama underlined the new forms of social fracture: the France of the air conditioned versus the France of the overheated, the France of the vacationers versus the France of the abandoned. We've left older people all by themselves under their burning attics. This was fatal for some- too many, it must be said. Whether one is at the beginning or the middle of life, one should not die that way, abandoned.
What do we expect from our politicians? That they stop their chicken and egg arguments. Who drew first (in this case, who moved last)? Who knew how to read the weather predictions? That they begin by acknowledging the extent of the emergency work done and that they encourage those who slave away, in the hospitals, among the firemen, the police, the SOS doctors, the Red Cross, the volunteers, the anonymous, etc. That they come and accompany them and do this mournful work with them before this unsustainable spectacle of serial deaths and "near-deaths".
Bonuses have been announced: the greater the initial indifference, the more necessary is compensation after the fact. However, seen from below, questions remain about the why and the how.
Why could we forget our neighbors in the building or on the landing? How can we change? How can we rediscover thoughtfulness toward the other in the depths of ourselves? Shouldn't vigilance towards others be the first of our vigilances, our indispensable entry into a true policy of risk prevention?
That's what's needed, unpoliticized policy: to give, to restore a sense of social connection to a too individualistic society.
Chantal de Singly is Director of the Saint-Antoine Hospital in Paris.
Translation: TruthOut French language correspondent Leslie Thatcher.
Jump to TO Features for Wednesday 20 August 2003