With the world in the grip of an energy crisis, hundreds of millions of people are now facing fuel poverty as they struggle to keep their homes warm this winter. According to Chris Baraniuk, the consequences could be far-reaching and long-lasting.
Mica Fifield doesn’t need an alarm clock even on the coldest mornings. The pain in her joints jolts her awake. Her legs and knees were the most painful. She is lying there, aware that there are chores to be done around the house. But it’s difficult to get out of bed. Her terraced house in Lancashire, England, has no heat. The dormant radiators are pinned to their walls and are cold to the touch. Condensation has formed around the windows. And the pain is intensifying now that the weather is changing.
“We don’t touch the heating at all,” Fifield says, explaining how the cost of her gas and electricity has recently increased. She and her husband don’t know how much it will cost to turn on the heat, and they don’t have the luxury of finding out. She simply states, “We’re too scared.”
When we speak, it is still early autumn. And, despite the fact that temperatures will continue to fall in the coming months, the couple intends to turn off their heating for the duration of the winter, if possible.
Fifield is 27 years old and has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which causes chronic pain in her case. She also has costochondritis, which causes inflammation around the bones in her chest. It feels like she’s having a heart attack, she says. It causes pain and the sensation that something is pressing against her chest. She had planned to work in physical theatre and teach Zumba a few years ago, but her diagnosis changed everything. She is unable to work but receives government benefits, while her husband works part-time and cares for her.
The energy crisis that is currently affecting so many people around the world is having an impact on some of life’s most basic activities. When Fifield goes to the kitchen to make dinner, she rarely uses the oven because the air fryer uses less energy. Fifield is also concerned about her ability to charge her mobility scooter sufficiently to get around. She enjoys going to the swimming pool four times a week because it relieves her pain and provides her with a hot shower.
Despite these difficulties, Fifield says she doesn’t feel sorry for herself. That is not her perspective on her situation. She does, however, express a desire to raise awareness about chronic pain and how living in a cold home can exacerbate it.
Fifield’s story of adversity and perseverance is just one of millions that will be told this winter. Many other people around the world may be forced to make difficult decisions about when or if they turn on their heating as a result of rising fuel and electricity bills.
To sit in their living rooms, the elderly will wrap themselves in coats, scarves, and gloves. As they add an extra blanket to their cots, parents will be concerned about whether their babies are warm enough. Gas fires will be left unlit. Electric heaters will be stored in the back of cupboards. Couples will argue about whether it’s finally time to adjust the thermostat and fire up the boiler. There is no other option. But there was no money to pay for it.
In 2020, an estimated 36 million Europeans were unable to keep their homes adequately warm. Energy poverty affects 16% of the population in the United States, with 5.2 million households living above the Federal Poverty Line. In China, it is estimated that 24-27% of middle-aged and older adults are energy poor.
With the volatile energy market sending prices skyrocketing and the threat of blackouts and gas shortages looming, particularly in Europe, the situation could deteriorate even further.
Although the price increases are most severe in Europe, US consumers are not immune to rising energy costs. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has warned that the world is experiencing its first truly “global energy crisis,” which has been largely triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Many millions of people are likely to be affected, but the poorest and most vulnerable will bear the brunt of the burden.
The health consequences of all of this are not insignificant. Cold homes are harmful to their occupants, and can even be fatal, according to scientific evidence. Low temperatures increase the risk of stroke, respiratory infection, and falls or other injuries due to people’s decreased strength and dexterity. Cold homes can have both short and long-term effects on a person’s health, happiness, and even future opportunities.
Now that the summer of 2022 in the Northern Hemisphere has passed, doctors are already speaking with patients who are concerned about cold weather in the coming months. Charity workers are directing funds to assist the most vulnerable in paying for a small amount of heating each week. Some organisations plan to distribute warm clothing parcels or set up warm spaces where people can travel if they are able to avoid shivering at home.
Some health experts argue that this is not a one-time occurrence. They call it a public health crisis. And we disregard it at our peril.
We’re seeing whole families sitting round a dinner table wearing coats – Paul Doherty
Midday at a foodbank in West Belfast, Northern Ireland. Carrier bags stuffed with food line the shelves, waiting to be delivered. There are boxes of cereal, cans of soup, and cans of beans. Pasta packets. And diapers. Paul Doherty is toiling by a shopping trolley brimming with boxes of cooked ham donated that morning by a local business. He is a poverty activist, former political candidate, and volunteer who founded Foodstock, which operates this foodbank. He quickly places the ham in a large refrigerator.
Foodstock is one of several charitable organisations in Belfast that provide food aid, but it alone serves 400 households, and the number is growing, according to Doherty. He and his fellow volunteers provide much more than just food. Benefits are available, as is free clothing, including school uniforms at certain times of the year. With the arrival of autumn, locals’ conversations are increasingly turning to the cost of heating.
“To be honest, it’s people who are at their wit’s end,” he says. “You can see their worry and despair in their expression.”
He emphasises that fuel poverty is not a recent phenomenon. He claims to have met an elderly man earlier this year who, like Fifield, plans to retire in the coming months. He had turned off his heating for the entire previous winter. Doherty has recently received early morning calls from distressed parents. They’ve gotten up to prepare the kids for school. However, the house is freezing.
“We’re seeing entire families wearing coats at dinner tables. That is a fact. That has happened to me several times “he claims. While we’re talking, a smiling woman walks in and hands Doherty a paper envelope. After she leaves, he explains that the money will go into a fund to help people pay for their heating.
Health issues come up frequently in community conversations, he adds. He hears about asthmatic children. People who claim their mental health is suffering as a result of living in a freezing house. They are concerned.
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