On a heat wave that killed thousands in France

The ''canicule'', what the French call literally the ''dog'' weather of the past fortnight, and which was blamed for causing up to 5000 deaths is over and the barometer is set to ''stormy'' - for politicians.

Director-general of health Lucien Abenhaim has resigned because of allegations that the authorities failed to react to the crisis quickly enough.  Our family holiday coincided almost exactly with the heat-wave, so we watched the story unfold from the comparative safety of a shady farmhouse  in the Normandy countryside. Even there, it was too darned hot.

The kitchen thermometer showed almost 30 degrees at midnight, when a huge red harvest moon lit the dry stubble of the wheatfields. By 9am most days, the mercury was climbing into the thirties, reaching 40 by noon. A short drive to a restaurant at 9pm felt exhausting. It was too hot to do much except lie back in the paddling pool under a large hat and think of Reykjavik. A friend struggled up from Le Havre to visit with two children in a car without air conditioning.

Lost, the colour of a ripe plum, and dripping with sweat, she tried to ask for directions from a bewildered farmer, and then realised she was talking Chinese instead of French. Sightseeing became hellish and a trip to a chateau was too much. The thermometer in the car showed 43 degrees, well over 100 fahrenheit, and trudging around the gardens was enough to give me painful heatstroke.

Lying in a sweltering attic bedroom with ice melting on my forehead, the children shouting outside, the world, life, seemed to be happening at the other end of a very long tunnel. This experience made me empathise with television pictures of old people, stripped to
their underwear lying on trolleys in the corridors of Paris hospitals with no air conditioning. The capital and all the apparatus of government had, as usual, closed down for the month of August, and the city was left to the flies, the tourists, the ice-cream sellers, old
people, immigrant labourers and families who could not afford to get away. Hospitals and doctors’ surgeries had been cut to the bone at this traditionally quiet time, so that doctors and nurses could join the annual exodus.

So old people had nowhere to turn, with absent GPs, and hospitals full to bursting. About half of those who died never reached hospital; the ones who did arrived at accident and emergency too far gone to be saved. The gravity of the situation was not at first clear,
precisely because it had never happened before.

The night-time heat was particularly deadly – a period of heat is endurable but the body needs some respite and that was not forthcoming. Meteorologists had predicted
a heatwave on August 1 but not the extent of it. It took until about August 7 for health officials to become aware that the weather was causing problems.

The number of people contacting emergency services was not at that stage greater than usual but they were much more ill. On August 10, president of the emergency doctors’ association, Patrick Pelloux, declared that 50 people had died as a result of the
temperatures. That warning was widely reported by the French press but ministers did not take it seriously enough, perhaps seeing it as a silly-season scare story. Health minister Jean-Francois Mattei was filmed at his holiday villa seemingly dismissive. But the news soon became much grimmer.

On August 12 alone 250 deaths were recorded by the Public Hospital of Paris, five times the normal figure and the average over the fortnight was 60% above normal in Paris and 37% across the country.

Finally, on August 14, Premier Jean-Pierre Raffarin interrupted his holiday and government ministers, doctors and nurses started to return from the beaches. By this time, morgues were full and people were having to keep bodies at home or have them transferred long distances for storage.

One family was interviewed on television upset and angry that they had to keep the corpse of their father in the living room for two days in temperatures of over 40 degrees and in contravention of the law of their religion, Judaism. Graves were not being dug fast enough, cemeteries and undertakers were unable to cope with demand.

The expectations people normally have of a civilised society were not being met. Then the television news showed the bizarre sight of hundreds of truckle beds being laid out in the refrigerated storeroom of a Paris market, to take the bodies. Social services began visiting the elderly.

By this time, the dog heat was almost finished but the political storm clouds were gathering over the dog’s breakfast that had greeted it. The government blamed the previous socialist administration for instituting a 35-hour week which they claimed contributed to the hospitals’ inability to cope.

The socialists attacked the health minister for his slow response. Premier Raffarin declared that the correct response to this human drama was unity, not political point-scoring. He is right.

Scalp-hunting will not help anyone. But fixing this problem for the future will not be easy. One of the toughest problems for politicians is that the apparent solution – installing air conditioning – helps to cause the problem – global warming.

The Scottish Herald
August 20th 2003