The first sign of trouble was more puzzling than alarming: A fan suddenly stopped working. If you put your ear next to it, you could still hear a faint hum coming from the motor.
Then a light bulb flickered and went dark. I guess it’s time to change that bulb, I thought. By the time I finished unscrewing it, my husband was reporting heavy static on a cordless phone. It dawned on us that we might have a malfunction in one of our house’s electrical circuits, so we flipped the breaker for the suspect circuit.
We were still scratching our heads when we heard two loud popping noises in the walls. Now we really had a serious problem. We shut down the main electrical line to the house and contemplated our situation: no power, no water (our well pump runs on electricity), and no internet service. We needed help—at a time when all non-essential workers in our state had been ordered to stay home because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Two days later, a utility worker finally came to our house and used a tool to identify the area where our buried service line had most likely broken—a spot well beyond the electricity meter where the utility’s responsibility ends. I asked him to recommend someone to fix the break. “Any electrician should be able to do it,” he said. “If you can find one.”
I left messages for electricians all over town. Only one even called me back, and only to say that he might be able to take a look in a couple of days. In the end, a handy neighbor repaired the line for us. By that time, I’d had five long days to think about all the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic is about to collide with other crises.
What will happen, for example, when an extreme weather event happens in the middle of a pandemic? Then the virus will really hit the fan. And it’s only a matter of time.
Coronavirus + climate change
Extreme weather events have happened throughout history, but they’re becoming more frequent and more intense because of human-driven climate change. Now imagine a summer heat wave, hurricane, wildfire, or flash flood striking an area where COVID-19 is also sweeping through the population.
Heat waves are already engulfing Arizona, Texas, and other states hard hit by the coronavirus. Some 40 million Americans could see temperatures above 100 degrees in the coming week, and the heat wave is expected to last at least two weeks.
In Phoenix, where the temperature reached 111 degrees yesterday, the pandemic means fewer cooling and hydration stations are open than in a normal summer. Many malls, libraries, and pools are also closed. For those who seek shelter in an air-conditioned building and may take public transportation to get there, congregating with others may increase the likelihood of contracting the coronavirus. “The COVID-19 pandemic amplifies health risks for many people in hot weather,” warns a technical brief from the Global Heat Health Information Network.
“The lists of people who are more vulnerable to heat are the same lists of people who are more vulnerable to covid,” says Kristie Ebi, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington who focuses on climate change and human health. They include older people; those with underlying health conditions; people with mental health issues; people with limited access to health care; people living in crowded housing; and farm workers.
As America’s population ages, its susceptibility to climate change (and new viruses) will only increase. An estimated 12,000 Americans already die of heat-related causes annually, and more than 80 percent of them are over 60.