Twenty-five years ago, one of the deadliest events in the history of Chicago turned slowly: 739 Chicagoans — many of them poor, black and elderly — died from heat-related causes during five days of intense and unrelenting heat in July 1995.
Today, as a slow catastrophe of a pandemic coronavirus continues to evolve, author and sociologist Eric Klinenberg sees a lot of Parallels with the summer of 1995.
“It was a disaster … including targeting the most vulnerable people in the city,” said Klinenberg, who wrote the 2002 book “heat wave: a social autopsy of disaster in Chicago” analysis of heat waves and its consequences. “African Americans were more likely to die in neighborhoods on the South and West to a much greater extent, especially in areas which have been depleted — the place that lost a lot of population and commercial infrastructure, where people were kind of hidden at home rather than go to public places to get support.”
Klinenberg said that while the cause of the accident was the weather, the overwhelming heat, combined with structural and social injustice, and inadequate response of the government — it is particularly bad week.
“This was no ordinary heat wave … it hit 106 degrees, the heat index felt, 126, and … what really sets this week was not a cool night, he remained in the 80-ies, so there was nowhere for the people of Chicago could turn for help, especially because the power went out in hundreds of thousands of homes. Couldn’t even turn on the air conditioning,” he said.
In 1995, then mayor Richard M. Daley publicly expressed skepticism about a surge of deaths should be attributed to the heat, and his administration was slow to recognize the disaster and to organize a response. Klinenberg sees similarities in the response of the Federal government to COVID-19 pandemic.
“You could see the heat coming in advance, scientists warn that it will be dangerous, the leadership in Chicago didn’t take it seriously,” he said. “When she became a deadly and dangerous situation, leadership, tend to focus on the management of public relations issues, and did not consider it as an urgent health crisis … in the absence of city leaders broke down in the same way as is happening now in the United States. In the absence of good leadership, our country is unable to cope with this COVID-19 crisis.”
While dark episode has revealed a striking discrepancy between the Chicago community, causing the city significantly improved its response to public health crises.
“The city is now a leader when it comes to acute emergency heat … it communicates more effectively, this works with local media,” said Klinenberg.
But many inequalities that exacerbated the 1995 victims are saved today. Underserved, high-crime areas, isolated elderly residents, and limited access to health care contribute to the spread COVID-19 in the city.
“These are basic things that are very difficult Chicago,” said Klinenberg. “As the city is going to deal with deep economic inequality, racial segregation, social isolation? We see that you can’t get out of these health problems just dealing with the problem at the time of emergency. You have to take the basic structure of the city seriously.”
Many areas with the greatest concentration of heat victims also have a high concentration COVID-19 deaths, with one exception: in the Latinx population where there is a high level COVID-19 cases, have a much lower mortality rate than the black population during the heat.
Klinenberg suggested that much of Latinx quarters, as a rule, busy business districts, which offer more opportunities and space to cool, the worse-hit “black” neighborhoods that do not have thriving business districts.
“In 1995, living in families with different generations and having a high density protective, of course, in this year of the pandemic coronavirus living in several generations consumer puts you at a higher risk, so you really have to understand the sociology of these developments, to understand what will happen,” he said.
A documentary based on the book by Klinenberg about the 1995 heat called “Cook: survival by postcode” comes out Monday at 10 o’clock showing.
Note: this story will be updated with videos.
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