Q&A: What social services should be mobilized to deal with combined risks of hot weather and COVID-19?

Updated: 17 May 2020

Answer

It is important to empower and coordinate with government and non-governmental social services to reach those most vulnerable to the risks of hot weather and COVID-19.

Local government, along with offices and services for the aging, child and family services, services for people living with disabilities and other social safety net programmes are all key partners. These offices can be effective ways to reach vulnerable people during hot weather, as most will have established virtual and tele-access options for continuing support during COVID-19. It is also important to coordinate with prisons and other types of residential institutions, especially if they lack air-conditioning.

Civil society and religious institutions that perform social service functions are important too. This could include places of worship, community associations and clubs, food banks, homeless shelters and volunteer organizations such as the Red Cross Red Crescent Societies.

Ensuring that these agencies and organizations are aware of the heightened risks during hot weather and are equipped to provide basic information on heat awareness, along with referrals to more information and services, will help to reduce community vulnerability. Each of these groups can play a role in safely reaching (virtually or in-person) people who are highly vulnerable to the combined risks of extreme heat and COVID-19, if provided with the right training and coordinated support.

What can be done?

  • Provide basic training to formal and informal social service programmes on heat risks, identifying the most vulnerable and how to reduce their risks.
  • Mobilize social service programmes to identify vulnerable people among their clientele and ensure these individuals are contacted more regularly via telephone. Put a plan in place for the use of PPE and in-person referral to medical services where needed.
  • Train people in places of worship or volunteer organizations on heat stress warning signs and safety precautions related to COVID-19 so they can support in-person safety checks of those most vulnerable to heat risks who cannot be reached by phone. It is important to ensure the safety of those conducting checks through adequate safety training and the provision of PPE.
  • Empower social services with messaging to supplement traditional public health communication channels for heat and COVID-19 messaging. This can help to ensure redundancy in messaging which will increase positive outcomes.
  • Consider non-traditional partners that could supplement social service functions. For example, hotels may be willing to donate empty rooms as temporary accommodation for people experiencing homelessness. Shopping malls could be used as cool spaces.
  • Ensure key life-sustaining utilities (water, energy and internet/communications) do not cut services due to late/non-payment.
  • Address domestic violence levels as the combination of extreme heat and stay at home measures to slow COVID-19 can increase domestic violence.
  • Share information on the hottest areas of the city to help social service systems with targeting.

Evidence

The impact of a heatwave is amplified by people’s vulnerability and exposure which can vary throughout the city. Isolation, aging, pre-existing medical conditions and other factors increase people’s vulnerability to extreme heat.

Previous heatwaves have caused a particularly high number of casualties in areas that score the lowest on indicators such as health, income and education. In Chicago, the heatwave of 1995 demonstrated that social conditions are a pivotal element to increasing the chances of surviving a heatwave. In The Hague, urban heat island maps overlap with neighbourhoods that score lowest on the liveability index. In Nairobi, informal settlements are affected by micro-heat islands within the city. In order to minimize the impact of hot weather, governments should, in part, use formal and informal social services that target those most vulnerable to heat risks.  

Additional Reading and Tools

Echevarría Icaza, L., van der Hoeven, F.D. & van den Dobbelsteen, A. ‘The urban heat island effect in Dutch city centres: identifying relevant indicators and first explorations, 2016 in Leal Filho, W., Adamson, K., Dunk, R.M., Azeiteiro, U.M., Illingworth, S., & Alves, F. (eds.) ‘Implementing climate change adaptation in cities and communities: integrating strategies and educational approaches’, Climate Change Management pp. 123–160. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28591-7_

Klinenberg, E. Heat wave: A social autopsy of disaster in Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Singh, R., Arrighi, J., Jjemba, E., Strachan, K., Spires, M., Kadihasanoglu, A., Heatwave Guide for Cities, Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, 2019.

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Scott, A.A., Misiani, H., Okoth, J., Jordan, A., Gohlke, J., Ouma, G., ... & Waugh, D.W. ‘Temperature and heat in informal settlements in Nairobi’ in PloS One, 12(11), 2017. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0187300