The sociology of blackout

By Artchil B. Fernandez

Modern life is basically dependent on electricity.  Electricity fuels modern existence and it is impossible to imagine modern social life without electricity.  The four-day blackout throughout Panay and Guimaras last week demonstrated this reality.

The public outrage that accompanied the power outage which occurred as the region celebrates the New Year showed the crippling impact of power failure.  Life grounds to halt.

Byrd and Matthewman (2014) point out that “electrical power is not merely infrastructure. It meets the International Risk Governance Council’s (IRGC) definition of critical infrastructure. Critical infrastructures are large-scale humanbuilt systems that supply continual services central to society’s functioning.  They are the subject and source of numerous threats.” Complex modern social life is dependent on critical infrastructure.  Without the support of electrical power system, modern life is likely to collapse.

Difficulties and hardships suffered by the people of Panay and Guimaras during the four-day power outage clearly illustrate how dependent people today are on electrical power system.  Appliances run on electricity, industries and businesses are fueled by electric power, and all gadgets and most machinery are electric driven.  Thus, blackout equals breakdown of modern living.

Impact of blackout to society is staggering.  Byrd and Matthewman (2014) identified some social effects of blackouts. These are economic cost, food safety, increase crime rates, and accidents and transportation.  Economic cost is the immediate and visible blow of the blackout.  The January 2-5 power outage cost Iloilo City Php 2 billion in economic losses while that of Iloilo Province is at Php 3.7 billion.

Study by Andresen, Kurtz, Hondula, Meerow, and Gall (2023) explored the social impacts of blackout and physical and mental health is among them.  They found an “increase in the emergency department (ED) visits due to carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. CO poisoning primarily resulted from improper and unsafe usage of generators during a power outage.”  Power outage according to them also triggers mental health problems.  “The longer duration that services, like electricity, were lost, the more likely signs of anxiety, depression, stress, and, in some cases, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder were to develop” (2023).

In addition, there is also the emotional toll (Rogers and Rubin 2019) of blackouts.  Power outage sap public morale and according to them triggers negative emotion like growing anger directed at the government.  Andresen, Kurtz, Hondula, Meerow, and Gall (2023) also note that “healthcare system workers are more likely to be overstressed and overworked during a power outage”

Social problem like alcohol and drug abuse can be worsened by blackouts.  “During power outages, some people may resort to abusing substances to cope with the unusual times, like alcohol and drugs, adding to the danger of power outages” (Andresen, Kurtz, Hondula, Meerow, and Gall 2023).

Medical sector is most vulnerable when blackout happens with human lives at stake.  Medical equipment is dependent on electricity to function.  Medical devices like oxygen therapy (HOT) equipment, ventilator, and dialysis machine require reliable, steady, and stable supply of electrical power.  Blackout put at risk human life especially that of patients and those in need of medical care.

Blackout affects crime.  “When the lights go out, crime rates increase. Security systems fail without electricity.  Blackouts provide opportunities for fraud, theft and exploitation,” Byrd and Matthewman (2014) contend. Andresen, Kurtz, Hondula, Meerow, and Gall (2023) also observe that “when power outages occur independently of a hazard, crime and various criminal acts were more likely to occur due to an increase in motivation to commit crimes.”

Deregulation and privatization are identified by Byrd and Matthewman (2014) as major culprits behind blackouts.  “Deregulation and privatisation have been major global trends within the electrical power industry across the past two decades. There is broad consensus amongst energy specialists, national advisory bodies, the reinsurance industry and organisational sociologists that these trends have exacerbated blackout risk” they argue.  Both are prime pillars of neo-liberal thinking along with trade liberalization.

Philippine national grid was privatized by the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2009 with the promise of better power service and stable electrical system.  The result is contrary.  In a span of eight months, Panay Island experienced region-wide blackout – April 2023 for three days and January 2024 for four days.

Profit, not public service is the prime motive of private companies like NGCP that now has the sole monopoly of the country’s national grid.  ERC reported that NGCP was expected to generate Php 183.5 billion profit from 2016 to 2022 but actually raked in Php 387.8 billion.  Despite earning exorbitant profit, NGCP failed to prevent the collapse of the grid in Panay twice in less than a year.  Once is enough, twice is inexcusable.

It is time to review the role of private corporations like NGCP in national life.  Privatisation promised better service but instead gave the public agony through lousy, sloppy, and messy service along with a decrepit power system.  Filipinos are paying a heavy social and economic price for the inefficiency and incompetence of NGCP.

Social life and society as a whole must not be left at the mercy of private corporations like NGCP.  The sociology of blackout has shown the impact to people and society of a total breakdown of power system.  Blackouts must be prevented at all costs.