Let there be a few hundred deaths from dysentry somewhere in Africa or the International Red Cross announce “a humanitarian disaster” somewhere and Médecins Sans Frontiéres is scrambling across the tarmac and the French government is limbering up its press officers to come up with quotes about some failure on the part of the American government.
On August 12, it was noted casually in the French newspapers that 50 elderly people had died from the searing heatwave that was enveloping the whole of France. It was just part of the heat wave story. Sad, but not shocking. Old people do succumb to extremes of temperature. But a few days later, the figure had risen to 3,000 old people dead, most of them in hospitals, nursing homes and retirement homes. The story developed legs. Just another few days later, the figure had risen to 5,000 – a humanitarian disaster of Third World calamity proportions. In one more week, the figure had doubled to 10,000 dead from the heat in a country not quite the size of Texas. As of writing, the figure now stands at 10,400 elderly dead from the heatwave.
Granted, the heat was severe: temperatures in excess of 100F for many consecutive days, without the wisp of an ameliorating breeze in Paris, and for three consecutive weeks in the south of the country. But the elderly and infirm didn’t die from the heat.
They died from no air-conditioning.
Unbelievably in the 21st Century, the French have never installed air-conditioning, which was invented in 1902, in their hospitals, nursing homes or retirement homes. Equally mind-boggling, those institutions catering to the fragile and very elderly are not even equipped to make ice. So far as I can see from the TV news, attempts to lower the temperatures of fragile bed-ridden or wheelchair bound elderly folk consisted of nurses spraying their faces with water.
On 19 August, the Prof Lucien Abenhaim, the director general for public health resigned in a snit, but not before delivering this huffy pensée: “The heat wave [had] become an absurdly political issue and the subject of ‘unworthy and truly childish’ claims by the government's opponents.” He later added, “The French must understand that this kind of situation cannot be foreseen.” But the Health Minister, Jean-Francois Mattei, said the health authorities reacted too late. He said the flow of information from doctors, firemen and local hospitals to the top of the health bureaucracy must be speeded up.
Prime Minister Raffarin, along with many French doctors, weighed in by blaming the 35-hour working week, introduced by the Socialists, for creating chronic staff shortages as the crisis unfolded. Certainly, the 35 hour week has plenty to answer for, including a tanking economy, but this entire government appears to be in denial. You will note that every man jack of them is missing the point: No air-conditioning. Not even any ice. Ten thousand four hundred old people died because they couldn’t lower their body temperatures.
Doubtless 70-year old Jacques Chirac is being kept closely informed of the needless deaths of his compatriots as he vacations for the month of August in the cool, bracing air of the Quebec mountains.
Meanwhile, the situation is so grisly that the country has run out of storage space for the corpses. Given that this is the traditional month long August vacation, and given the raw energy with which the French drive, there will doubtless also have been dozens if not hundreds of road deaths in addition to deaths from normal causes to add to the 10,400 who died of heat stroke. This has caused the system to teeter even further. Some unclaimed bodies have been buried “temporarily” in pauper’s graves. The hospital and city morgues are full, as are the morgues in the funeral parlors up and down the country. Bodies are now being stored in parked refrigerated trucks normally used to transport frozen food long distances. Even then, there aren’t enough available refrigerated trucks, and some bodies are being held in refrigerated capsules in their own homes. Morgue workers are being called out of retirement.
The death toll will probably rise when the French return from their month long holiday and smell something désagréable coming from old Madame Blanchard’s place next door. Many of the elderly clinging to their independence by living alone will have been cooped up in their sweltering apartments during the month of August with no family to care for them and no vacationing health visitors, social workers or neighbors to keep an eye on them.
As of writing, there are in excess of 300 corpses yet unclaimed. It is the normal policy in France that if a body is not claimed within six days, it is buried in a pauper’s grave. But, given that it’s the month of the grande vacance, the French are cutting the relatives a little slack. As an official indicated understandingly, it’s August and many of the relatives may not wish to cut into their month long vacation to come home early to claim a body.
As the numbers of heat deaths climb, a final figure of close to 20,000 is being seen as not unrealistic – in other words, a humanitarian disaster.
Meanwhile, the death toll in Guantanamo Bay, which the French are in the habit of condemning with dainty disgust as barbaric, sweltering, fetid and inhuman, remains remarkably stable: None.