Large-scale emergencies reveal underlying gaps in access and infrastructure

By Kiran Misra

In July of 1995, Chicago residents barricaded themselves inside their homes, stockpiling water and other essential supplies as they attempted to ride out a public health crisis that was killing hundreds around them. Just a few days prior, business was proceeding as usual. The White Sox played the Milwaukee Brewers, libraries hosted reading challenges for students on summer break. Local businesses planned Fourth of July sales and families attended cookouts. Then, the temperature rose, and people began to die.

Mayor Richard Daley insisted that nothing was out of the ordinary, that deaths were normal for the time of year, stalling the city from taking decisive action. But within a few days, more than seven hundred people had died. Temperatures climbed over a hundred degrees, with heat index readings over a hundred and twenty five as the city’s streets cracked, rail lines warped, and dehydrated bus riders had to be sprayed down with hoses to avoid overheating. A report of the event in Chicago Magazine recounts, “most victims were elderly and infirm and lived in the city’s poorest neighborhoods… For reasons ranging from illness and immobility to poverty and fear, none were prepared for an… event of such magnitude.” Newscaster Phil Ponce remembers, “they died with doors locked and windows sealed.”

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The heat exposed underlying tears in the social fabric, gaps in the city’s infrastructure created through decades of exclusionary housing policy, economic inequity, and social isolation. These divisions were—and are—largely drawn across racial lines; the Chicago Public Health Department found that Black Chicagoans were 1.5 times more likely to die than white Chicagoans. The harshest effects were felt by those who lacked access to networks of transportation or those who lived in areas without places to go inside and cool off, like stores or public cultural centers. “Of course forces of nature played a major role,” Eric Klinenberg, author of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, said in an interview. “But these deaths were not an act of God.”

Twenty-five years later, as COVID-19 takes hold in communities across the country, many of these issues still persist. In 2020, Black Chicagoans still live almost completely separately from white Chicagoans, in neighborhoods served inadequately by public transportation infrastructure and food resources. (The poverty rate for Black Chicago is actually higher than it was in 1995, and the racial wealth gap has widened over the past few decades.) Elderly populations are isolated and, according to some reports, remain at higher risk of contracting the disease.

Chicago’s homeless and incarcerated populations, who experienced the full force of the crisis in 1995, are once again poised to bear the brunt of the day’s public health disaster, due to an inability to self-isolate and lack of access to adequate sanitation resources. And Chicago jails have yet to respond to community calls to release the people held in their facilities—it’s “only a matter of time” before an outbreak hits this vulnerable group. In fact, incarceration numbers may soon rise as court dates for criminal and civil cases are on hold for at least thirty days.

The heat wave shaped how cities like Chicago deal with a public health crisis. In the aftermath of the heat wave, the Office of Emergency Management and Communications came together to bring police and fire departments, emergency responders, the 311 Call Center, Traffic Management Authority, and a public infrastructure center under a central authority. The city also started conducting 311 well-being checks on senior citizens for the first time. Cooling and Community Service Centers were created across the city, so Chicagoans with nowhere else to turn could get relief and access vital public services.

This time, it’s a virus, not a heat wave, that is taking communities to the brink. But Mayor Lori Lightfoot, like Daley, has drawn criticism for her slow response to the pandemic, refusing to let public employees close institutions and take time off and initially declining to close schools, even as it became clear social distancing was necessary to stop the virus’s spread. The Office of Emergency Management has not issued any statements about the coronavirus. And in an interview, a representative from Chicago’s 311 line stated that, “there are currently no plans to check in individually,” with at-risk populations like senior citizens, until the spread of the disease demonstrably worsens.

Gig workers in everything from food delivery to warehouses, as well as service workers like janitors and transit workers who can’t work from home, and face losing their jobs if they refuse to show up to infected workplaces, are at increased risk as society reorganizes itself to adapt to new ‘social distancing’ practices. Ever-increasing healthcare costs and lack of access to insurance will prevent many of the 28,554,000 uninsured Americans who don’t have nearly $35,000 to pay for treatment from going to the hospital after contracting the virus. While the elderly and those with chronic health conditions initially appeared to be most likely to contract the disease due to weakened immune systems, secondary effects of the pandemic can make life precarious even for those who never come into contact with anyone with the disease.

Virus-related layoffs have left thousands of workers wondering how they are going to keep the heat on and ensure food is on the table, and fears of going hungry are exacerbated as panic buying strips low-income Americans like those on restrictive WIC (a public assistance program that helps low-income pregnant women, breastfeeding women, and children under age five access affordable food) and millions more who are food insecure of options. Sharon Scott, a Chicagoan who lived through the 1995 wave remembers, “it overwhelmed everyone, poor people in particular. A lot of people died during that time. But [this time] is way worse. I don’t remember anything ever being like coronavirus. And life will probably never be the same after this.”

In 1995, social ties were a lifeline for people in Chicago; the city’s Latinx population was largely spared from the effects of the heat wave, living in areas with bustling commercial life and frequented public spaces, which strengthen mutual aid responses and social support. The city is well aware of these dangers of social isolation this time around, Its coronavirus preparedness guide states:

Being connected to people around you is one of the most important things you can do to prepare for, respond to and recover from an emergency. …Knock on your neighbors’ doors and learn about who lives around you, especially those who are elderly, live alone, have a disability or a chronic disease, are pregnant or have young children, care for older people or people with special needs, or depend on electric-powered medical equipment…Think about who needs to be on your own emergency contact list, but also think about whether you could build connections and be on a contact list for your friends and neighbors…

Residents are already stepping up. A Google Doc is circulating with information on where to find emergency food, housing, and medicine. Groups like Good Kids Mad City and Brave Space Alliance have been working on mutual aid efforts to make sure that as few people as possible end up stranded in their homes without food, water, or other necessities, like they were a few decades ago. But the problems entrenched in the structure of cities like Chicago—racism, underinvestment, and lack of access to vital services—remain a compounding factor during emergencies.

“None of these common urban conditions show up as causes of death in the medical autopsies or political reports that establish the official record,” summarizes Klinenberg in an interview with the University of Chicago Press. “The heat wave was a particle accelerator for the city: It sped up and made visible the hazardous social conditions that are always present but difficult to perceive. Yes, the weather was extreme. But the deep sources of the tragedy were the everyday disasters that the city tolerates, takes for granted, or has officially forgotten.”

In 2020, these everyday disasters are once again threatening to rise to the surface. ■



Kiran Misra is a journalist, policy researcher, and organizer working for the United Nations World Food Programme in Rome, Italy. She primarily covers Chicago’s civic systems and South Asian culture across America. You can find her on twitter here or online here.

Cover image by Ben Collins-Sussman (Creative Commons).

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