Deadly chill

Umberto Eco’s famous aphorism that «there is no news in August» was contradicted, tragically, in France this summer. The death toll of the recent heat wave is estimated at 10,400 people, most of them elderly, while it may exceed 13,500 by month’s end. Had the disaster taken place in Ethiopia or Indonesia, the deaths would have been widely ignored by the world’s press. But when temperatures that hover around 38 degrees Celsius for weeks on end are enough to cause a death toll in the City of Lights almost five times that of the terrorist assault on the Twin Towers, the civilized west is inescapably thrown into a state of shock. French President Jacques Chirac and the French government have been hit by the crisis. Anger and criticism have centered on the lack of preparedness of the national health system, the belated reaction of the authorities and the rising global temperature caused by the greenhouse emissions. These are all serious problems, but such criticism is, in a way, off target. The summer «massacre» has forced France – the country of the Enlightenment, which offered the world the liberating vision of modern-age humanism – to stand before the uncompromising mirror of reality. France was shocked by the image of solitude, alienation and anonymity that it projected. Old people who lived isolated in hotels, in dark apartments, or houses for the elderly dropped like flies. Often, their corpses were kept in freezers of the vegetable market, as their sons and daughters would not interrupt their vacations to bury their parents. Fortunately, Greece is nowhere near the acquis communautaire on this issue. The family is still a strong connecting bond and what makes man a man is not deemed an anachronism yet. Nevertheless, France’s bitter August is warning for our own not-so-distant future. A walk in the open-air markets after 3 p.m. or a stroll in the streets of Kypseli after midnight are enough to meet the silent army of lonely old men who scrounge around the garbage of our consumer-based culture in order to prolong their existence. Their boisterous silence is a reminder that the problem of our times is not the outside heat but the inside cold.