A husband and wife were found dead in their home – he in his 90s, she in her 80s; he in the living room, she in the kitchen. Cause of death: heatstroke. It was a sweltering August day in 2020. They lived in Adachi Ward, Tokyo. An air conditioner would have seen them through the summer. They didn’t have an air conditioner.
Many elderly people don’t, says Shukan Post (July 8-15). Or if they do, they don’t turn it on. “Poison air,” they complain. Expensive too, as energy costs soar, global warming menaces and warnings sound with increasing urgency against fossil fuels. Air conditioners, a big part of that problem, remain the solution to another: namely, the fact that the body can tolerate only so much heat.
There’s a happy medium, somewhere, between extreme abstinence and extreme indulgence. We’d better find it. A long hot summer looms. A worst-case scenario played out in the summer of 2018: 1,000-odd deaths from heatstroke and 90,000 people rushed to hospital. A more typical season sees 60,000 hospitalized – half aged 65 or over.
July 2018. A man in his 80s living alone in Tokyo failed to open the door one morning when his son came to visit. He was dead. The air conditioner wasn’t working. The day before, a repairman had come. “I hate air conditioners,” said the old man. The repairman explained that he’d been sent by the man’s son. He was turned away all the same.
Another episode involving out-of-order air conditioning occurred in a Gifu Prefecture hospital in August 2018. Five patients in their 80s died, “one after another,” says Shukan Post. The hospital director has been charged with professional negligence.
It is of course true that humankind managed for millennia without air conditioners. The inference is that air conditioning is a luxury rather than a necessity. It’s a hasty conclusion. Our ancestors didn’t live as many of us live now – in asphalt-and-concrete heat-trapping urban jungles, far removed from the cooling effects of natural surroundings. In the pre-industrial past at least nights were cool. They no longer are.
How bad will this summer be? The Japan Meteorological Agency speaks darkly of a high-pressure belt over the Pacific, another over Tibet, and hot humid air wafting up from the south. In layman’s terms: heat; brace for it. And for power shortages too, warns the government, urging households and businesses to reduce energy use in view of the low yen, the temporary closing of aging thermal power plants and various other factors beyond our control.
Such factors are proliferating. Shukan Post mentions one: a shortage of air conditioner parts, due to factory shutdowns in Shanghai during the prolonged lockdown this spring over Covid-19 fears. “We never imagined such confusion could exist,” Komei Denki president Toru Takano told NHK. It can and does. We’re left with this: think twice before turning the air conditioner on – and think twice before turning it off.© Japan Today