Heat Wave: Should the Government declare a state of emergency?

Why if the temperature reaches 40 degrees Celsius, then only the government will consider it a heatwave emergency?

It is important for us to understand what is the role of the Government to declare a State of Emergency. An Emergency or Darurat is a situation related to security, economy and public order that cannot be controlled through the normal administrative system. Under the current situation, there is no need for the government to declare the situation as an Emergency. If the government declare the current situation as an Emergency, then all the government disaster machinery needs to be activated to reduce the impact of the heat waves. It will affect the social and economic activities of the people in Malaysia or in areas where the Emergency has been declared.

The Malaysian Meteorological Department monitors that temperature and classified the districts based on the three-day average temperature. Level 1 alert or yellow alert – when the daily maximum temperature will be between 35°C and 37°C for at least three consecutive days. The alert can shift from yellow to orange if the daily maximum temperature is forecast to be between 37°C and 40°C for at least three consecutive days and to red alert when the daily maximum temperature is forecast to be beyond 40°C for at least three consecutive days.

The government has indicated that a state of emergency will only be declared when the temperature reached 40°C. This is because at this temperature there will be a higher risk for people to develop heat-related complications, especially those working outdoors. The State of Emergency will enable the government to impose restrictions on outdoor work and use other Government machinery to reduce the risk of heat-related complications.

What is the difference between a state of emergency and a Climate Emergency?

There is a difference between a state of emergency and what the Climate Emergency Coalition of Malaysia is proposing to the Government, which is to declare the situation as a Climate Emergency. In their proposal, they want the Government to take concrete steps to address the impact of climate change. This will involve policy and structural changes, where we move from the current carbon economy to a carbon net-zero economy and limit global warming to 1.5°C, greenhouse gas emissions must peak before 2025 at the latest and decline 43% by 2030 as stated in the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

It is a long-term measure that the government should take. The report “The imperative of climate action to promote and protect health in Asia” published by the Association of Academies and Societies of Sciences in Asia (AASSA) and Interacademy Partnership (IAP) has highlighted the impact of climate change on human health. In the report it highlighted that there is a need for real-time and accurate data across Asia and Oceania, which requires the collection of both primary and secondary data and models with an appropriate feedback system. AASSA recommends a multi-sectorial framework to embrace a coherent approach. The health sector should be an active participant in discussions, action planning, and implementation of climate change issues in collaboration with other economic areas and activities.

What is the impact of 40 degrees Celsius towards a human?

When the temperature increases the capacity of the body to regulate the temperature will be affected, as one of the methods which the body use to disperse heat to the environment is through sweating which releases heat from the body. The human core body temperature is around 37°C, and our body’s thermoregulatory centre tries to regulate the temperature around 37°C. As the surrounding temperature increases to above 37°C, it will be more difficult for the body to remove the heat through sweating or evaporation of the sweat becomes difficult.

The impact of 40°C on humans depends on many factors, these include

  1. Age: children and the elderly are more vulnerable;
  2. Physical activities: – especially outdoor activities – when the ambient temperature is high, it is difficult for the body’s thermoregulatory mechanism to function efficiently as the capacity of the body to disperse heat through conduction and convection (sweating). When there is an increase in physical activity there is increased heat generated by the body and this heat needs to be dispersed to the environment;
  3. Co-morbid conditions: People with co-morbid conditions, e.g., hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular and kidney diseases, will be more vulnerable to heat-related illness;
  4. Medication: People taking certain medications are also prone to heat-related illnesses. If you are taking any medication, it is important to consult your doctor on the effect of those medications.

What will happen when a heatwave emergency is implemented?

When a state of emergency is declared, there will be an impact on our social and work activities. The government will try to limit people going and working outdoors or impose certain conditions for people working outdoors. This will limit the exposure of people to direct heat from the sun. However, even without the declaration of a state of emergency, the government has already implemented certain measures, e.g., the education ministry has issued a directive to limit outdoor activities among our school-going children.

Why is it important to have an emergency when the heat is not bearable for humans?

When the Government declare a state of emergency, then the government can take extraordinary measures, e.g., the limitation of exposure of outdoor workers by restricting the time work and the limitation of outdoor social activities.

What should Malaysians do to cope with the heat wave?

Individuals need to be aware of the danger of heat waves and be able to identify the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

The symptoms of heat exhaustion include headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, irritability, feeling thirsty, profuse sweating, increased body temperature, and decreased urination. If you are experiencing these symptoms you need to take precautionary steps to limit the effect of heat waves so that it will not progress to heat stroke.

The symptoms of heat stroke faced can vary such as:

  • High body temperature (usually above 40 degrees Celsius)
  • Altered mental state or confusion
  • Throbbing headache
  • Dizziness
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Dizziness and vomiting
  • Red, hot and dry skin (less sweating)
  • Breathing is fast and shallow
  • Muscle cramps or weakness,
  • In Severe cases, it can result in convulsions or loss of consciousness, and even death.

What are some of the indicators of dehydration?

Individuals can use their urine as an indicator for signs of dehydration:

  • Urine that is pale and odorless, and that there is a lot of urine is often an indication that the person’s hydration is good.
  • Slightly dark yellow urine can indicate mild dehydration, and the person should drink more water.
  • Medium-dark yellow urine often indicates dehydration, the person needs to drink plenty of water.
  • Darker, strong-smelling urine in small amounts can be a sign of severe dehydration, so the person needs to drink plenty of water.

What can employers do to help their workers?

Employers need to take necessary actions to limit the effects of heat on their workers. It is important that heat does not only cause health issues, it can also lead to a decrease in productivity. The report published by the International Labour Organization – Working on a Warmer Planet – the Impact of heat stress on labour productivity and decent work, highlights that excessive heat during work is an occupational health risk and will restrict workers’ physical functions and capabilities, work capacity and productivity. A temperature of 24-26°C is associated with reduced labour productivity, at 33-34°C, workers may experience 50 per cent reduction in their work capacity. It highlights certain industries in which their workers work mostly outdoors are more exposed, including agriculture works, environmental goods and services (natural resource management), construction, refuse collection, emergency repair work, transport, tourism, and sports. However, some groups of workers working indoors are also vulnerable, including factories, workshops, foundries, etc. In high-heat situations, workers who are performing basic office and desk tasks may experience mental fatigue.

Here are some of the measures employers and organizations can take to limit the effect of heat waves at their workplaces: There should be a policy and standard operating procedure in place for workers who need to work outdoors. The workers also need to be trained to take corrective actions when needed.

What can individuals do to limit the effect of heat waves?

Here are some steps that individuals and organisations can take to minimise the impact of heat waves.

  1. Make sure we drink enough water, basically, if we do outdoor activities, we must drink enough water.
  2. Dress appropriately: Wear loose, light and brightly coloured clothing that allows air circulation and helps sweat evaporate. Choose breathable fabric.
  3. Find a shady and cool environment to work and play in.
  4. Plan outdoor activities wisely: If you must be outdoors, schedule your activities at cooler times of the day, such as early morning or evening. Avoid prolonged exposure to the sun and try to find a dim area.
  5. Rest yourself and take regular breaks in a cool area, especially during strenuous physical activity or when working in a hot environment.
  6. Wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays.
  7. Be careful with medications: Some medications can increase the risk of heat-related illness. Consult your healthcare provider about possible side effects of your medication related to heat exposure.
  8. Pay attention to weather forecasts and heat advisories in your area. Take necessary precautions if heat waves or high temperatures are expected.
  9. Pay attention to vulnerable individuals: Pay attention to infants, young children, older adults and individuals with chronic illnesses, as they are more susceptible to heat-related illnesses. Make sure they are adequately hydrated and have access to a cool environment.

This article was written by Victor Hoe. The article was part of the interview with the MalayMail and was republished in the BorneoPost.

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