This Is Inequity at the Boiling Point
Rabita bends down, fills a bowl with sand, lifts it atop her head, climbs up and down the stairs. Up and down, countless times each day, even as the heat rises through the morning and the air gets sticky. Her legs ache from the climbing. Her head spins sometimes. Breaks can’t be longer than five minutes, or she’ll get a hectoring from the foreman on the construction site. Occasionally, she comes down with a fever and has to take a day off. When she’s on her period, it’s the worst.
The other day, she tried to shake the sand off herself, to no avail. The sweat had glued the sand to her skin.
Rabita, who does not use a surname, is helping to build a government housing project. She and her husband, Ashok Kumar, are Dalits, at the bottom of the Hindu caste ladder. They own no land in their village in Bihar, which has long been one of the most terrifying places to be a Dalit. They work on other people’s lands, when there is work, and Rabita gets paid less than half what a man makes.
And then there’s the extreme vagaries of the rain. It rains when it’s not supposed to, she says, and washes away the crops. People like her have to leave home to put food in their stomachs.
For years, Mr. Kumar had been working hauling sacks of vegetables at a city market, sending home money. The pandemic changed all that. Mr. Kumar came back home, borrowed money to make ends meet. Now he and Rabita work to pay off those debts. Their oldest son, Guddu, 15, works alongside them. Their 3-year-old, Sumari, hangs around.
Episodes of extreme humid heat at levels the human body cannot tolerate for many hours at a time have more than doubled in frequency since 1979, according to a recent scientific paper. South Asia and the Gulf Coast of the United States are among the places hardest hit. Sweat can’t evaporate as fast. The body can’t cool down.
The International Labor Organization callsheat an occupational health hazard, with construction workers like Rabita especially vulnerable. Most people can work only at half their capacity when temperatures exceed 91 degrees Fahrenheit, and exposure to many hours of heat can be fatal, the group warns.
Economic losses from heat stress are projected to increase to $2.4 trillion in 2030. But this cost, too, is expected to be unequally spread.
South Asia and West Africa are expected to be the worst affected, not just because of high heat and humidity, but because of how vulnerable laborers like Rabita are to begin with.