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What A 1995 Heat Wave May Teach Us About Responding To The Coronavirus Outbreak


In the summer of 1995, disaster struck Chicago - a heat wave so hot it warped train rails. It caught the city unprepared. Hospitals were packed, emergency crews understaffed and patches of the power grid failed. By the time it was over, more than 700 people had lost their lives, and many of them were seniors who died alone. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg says that tragedy might offer lessons for navigating the crisis we're going through today. He's a professor at New York University and joins me now.


ERIC KLINENBERG: Thank you. It's good to be here.

CHANG: So you study that heat wave, and you say in some cases, a person's social connections actually made the difference between life and death. Can you just explain that really quick? Why would someone's social network matter so crucially in an event like that?

KLINENBERG: Well, people getting sick in a heat wave typically fail to recognize that their body is breaking down. And so the thing that really saves you is if someone comes into the room and recognizes your symptoms and says, you know, you need to cool down with some water, or, we need to get you some air conditioning. And so...

CHANG: Yeah.

KLINENBERG: Actually, saving someone in a heat wave is very simple, but it requires social contact.

CHANG: Right. And now government officials are telling people, stay inside. Make sure to isolate yourselves. What kind of parallels do you see between that Chicago heat wave and this current pandemic, I mean, when it comes to adults who have fewer social connections and therefore might be at greater risk?

KLINENBERG: So there's a similar profile of vulnerability. We really have to be concerned about older people, about people with underlying health conditions. And, you know, to be honest, I'm a little concerned about the language of social distancing that we've been hearing from public health officials and government because really, what we need is physical distancing. Let's keep apart.

CHANG: Right.

KLINENBERG: But social solidarity - we need social solidarity more than ever because there are people who are at risk who are going to need a helping hand if they're going to get through that. That can be a knock on the door, maybe a delivery of some food or medications - you know, help making sure a person who is in need gets the care that could keep them alive. And so I think the wrong message is protect yourself, turn your back on the rest of the world, and wait for this to end. The right message is...

CHANG: Yeah.

KLINENBERG: You know, stay at home. Reach out to people in need.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about that. I mean, there is something that happens to a community when there's forced isolation. You know, before and during these various lockdowns we're city - we're seeing in various cities, we have been witnessing people hoarding food, hoarding medical supplies, toilet paper, basically acting for themselves and not for the greater good. Is there something that you, as a sociologist, can put your finger on that makes people flip a switch and act selfishly rather than come together and think of the greater good?

KLINENBERG: When you don't believe that the government is telling you the truth, when you don't believe that there's a public and shared system that will provide you the care and support that you need, the message becomes, take care of yourself. Protect yourself and your family because that's the only way you're going to get through it. And frankly, I think the divisiveness that we see coming from the top down in this country right now is making it very difficult for us to trust one another, to trust that the collective will provide for each of us and for us to promote the common good.

And so this is a testing moment because we are at a switching point in history, and we are going to figure out how many people live and die in this crisis, how much economic damage there is, what kind of world we rebuild when this ends. And if we can somehow reach for the better version of ourself, to check in on one another, to volunteer the way that people in the medical professions are just going to hotspots to help or the way that people who can are still delivering food - if we can muster up that better part of ourselves, we have a chance to turn it around and to build something incredible when this is over. But if we can't, I fear that this event will be much more deadly than it needs to be - have been.

CHANG: I am so glad that you're saying this because, you know, another thing I've been curious about during this social distancing, so to speak, is, you know - personally, I've been hearing from people I haven't heard from in years. It seems like in some ways, we are actually reaching out to each other more during this socially distanced time compared to the time when we had all the freedom in the world to connect. So I'm curious. Do you think this experience might actually leave our social network stronger in some ways when all this passes?

KLINENBERG: Well, I think a lot depends on what happens here in the next week or two. If we can flatten the curve, if we can stay at home, if we can prevent this from being as deadly as it might be, that will be a real collective accomplishment.


KLINENBERG: And frankly, if we can pass the right kinds of policies that will...

CHANG: All right.

KLINENBERG: ...Help everyone bail - get bailed out, I think that will give us some collective confidence, too.

CHANG: That is Eric Klinenberg, who's a professor at NYU.

Thank you.

KLINENBERG: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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