Thursday, August 19, 2010

Survival Unaffordable

Recently a 76-year-old man was found dead in his home in Saitama, having perished from heat stroke. In the continuing heat wave, such news has become all too common. Indeed, with 31,579 people having been rushed to hospitals with heat stroke between June 1st and August 15th this year, individual heat stroke cases rarely make the news these days unless there is something unusual about them.

Nearly an entire school baseball team having to be hospitalized for heat stroke after practice games that began around seven in the morning was, for example, sufficiently bizarre--or at least unexpected--to merit special media attention. Ordinarily, starting in the cool early hours should have been enough to avoid such severe dehydration, but lately the early hours haven't been that cool: temperatures as high as 35 degrees by 10:30 in the morning have been registered, because nights don't cool off as much as they used to. In the Tokyo area, for instance, there have been 36 excessively muggy nights this summer so far, when the average had been 16 for the same period.
The heat stroke deaths of four people in their 20s last month also got media attention, because except for people engaged in strenuous activity heat stroke is thought of as being particularly likely to strike the elderly.

In the central Tokyo area (i.e., the 23 wards), there were 104 deaths from heat stroke in the last month as of yesterday.  Over 90% of those Tokyo deaths were people aged 65 or over. Somewhat surprisingly, over 95% of those people died at home, rather than out in the sun as one might expect. Indeed, 40% of them died at night.

Various reasons have been advanced for this, including older people not noticing the heat as much, or not drinking enough perhaps because they don't feel as thirsty as younger people might. Reduced overall stamina may be a cause, too. Reluctance to leave air conditioners on all night also seems to contribute: assuming that it will become cooler late at night, and setting the air conditioner to turn off after a couple of hours can be deadly if the temperature stays high.

The poor fellow in Saitama was a grimmer case. Investigation showed that he had lived for the last 10 years without electricity or gas; he couldn't afford to pay the bills, and used a flashlight at night when he used light at all. His son (the Japanese reports call him "the oldest son", but it's not clear whether there are any other children) is injured and unable to work, and it appears that the father either couldn't or wouldn't apply for government assistance, most likely the latter.

Although the Kanto Plains area doesn't get as cold as it does in, say, Hokkaido or Niigata, the Saitama winters over the last decade must still have been terribly harsh for an elderly man with no electricity or gas. I suppose that he survived the cold with many layers of clothes or blankets. The recent heat wave, with no air conditioning, no fan, little or no breeze, and relatively little relief from the heat even in the middle of the night, seems to have been just too much for him.

While I have plenty of sympathy for people who collapse from heat stroke while working in their fields or gardens, or while walking over the heat-softened asphalt on sales visits to their customers, I feel particularly sad when I think about this poor senior citizen who stuck it out for 10 years without basic utilities, before finally succumbing to the heat, because he couldn't afford the means to survive.

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