PEOPLE BEFORE PROFIT – TIME FOR THE FIGHTBACK

By John Sillett

The recent collapse into administration of shop group Arcadia and Debenhams’ department stores was shocking, but not unexpected. Both companies have had their assets looted by their owners; Arcadia’s owner Philip Green has become widely seen as the unacceptable face of capitalism. Whilst the vultures pick over the bones of Topshop and its relations, there has been an avalanche of redundancies in many sectors, from construction to engineering. The pandemic has hastened the collapse or rationalisation of companies depending on footfall, like retail, hospitality and tourism.

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BLAME GAME: A GOVERNMENT SCARED OF YOUNG PEOPLE

climate strike birmingham 2019
by Howard Green

Since Monday, people living in England are no longer allowed to meet in groups of more than six. Although this is not hugely practical given that many employees and students are being required to return to work and study, these new restrictions show that our incompetent Government is prepared to occasionally act in service of public health rather than into the hands of the free market. But it’s very apparent that these restrictions are aimed at minimising social gatherings amongst young people, who have unjustly been the subject of blame for the recent upsurge in COVID-19 cases.

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THE GOVERNMENT’S ANTI-OBESITY STRATEGY STIGMATISES FATNESS AND WORKING CLASS PEOPLE

by Lotty Clare

Cw: fatphobia

Following the Prime Minister’s COVID hospitalisation and his revelation that he was ‘too fat,’ on July 27th Public Health England launched the ‘Better Health’ campaign as part of the national Obesity Strategy, encouraging people to lose weight and reduce the risk of becoming ill as a result of COVID-19. Whilst the research does indicate that being overweight increases the severity of COVID-19 symptoms, the government has received widespread criticism in its approach; namely that nothing is being done to address the underlying causes of obesity, and the broader, more pertinent crisis of health inequality.

The strategy is an attempt at a quick-fix before a second wave of this deadly virus hits. Some of the initiatives being rolled out include: calorie labelling in chain restaurants and on alcohol packaging; banning of TV adverts for high fat, salt and sugar content foods before the watershed; restrictions on buy-one-get-one-free (BOGOF) offers; incentives for GPs to refer overweight patients to weight loss programs; and NHS approved apps to calorie-count and reduce Body Mass Index. The policy document for the strategy recognises that economic deprivation is a significant factor in health and weight, but sets out no meaningful steps to address this.

Body Mass Index is essentially a calculation of a person’s weight and height to determine whether or not their weight is considered ‘healthy.’ It may be a relatively good proxy for looking at risk factors for groups of people, but on an individual level it is not in fact an accurate measure of health as it fails to take into account other indices such as muscle mass and fat distribution. Furthermore, fatness is sometimes wrongly conflated with being unhealthy. There are many fat people who are in fact fit and have no health issues, and the body positivity movement has achieved a great deal in dismantling false stereotypes and fat-shaming.

Calorie counting has also been proven to be ineffective in improving people’s health. Conversely, it can actually contribute to disordered eating, which millions of people in the UK already suffer with. There is a real worry that this focus on weight rather than holistic health, will give diet companies the green light to target young people with harmful fad diets, and further stigmatise fat people.

It is much easier to blow the fatphobic and racist dog whistle than to take a good hard look at racist economic marginalisation as being a risk factor for health problems.  

This intentional focus on the weight of individuals gives a permission slip for fatphobia and misinformation around fatness to run rampant. Victim blaming COVID sufferers for being ‘too fat’, rather than what surely amounts to criminal incompetence on the part of the government echoes the way they shifted the burden of the national coronavirus response onto individual citizens with the highly criticised ‘stay alert, control the virus, save lives’ slogan.  

Officials often point to environment, culture and individual behaviour in order to explain the causes of being overweight.  Sometimes this emerges with racist overtones, like pointing to South Asian communities having higher levels of obesity and higher levels of COVID infections than White British communities because of their ‘culture.’ It is much easier to blow the fatphobic and racist dog whistle than to take a good hard look at racist economic marginalisation as being a risk factor for health problems.  

Of course, there are people of all socioeconomic backgrounds who are overweight, but levels of obesity are disproportionately higher in deprived and disadvantaged areas.  Whenever the topic of obesity surfaces, so too does class and income. Food writer and activist Jack Monroe, who has spoken about her life in poverty, wrote in blog post recently: ‘Whenever food poverty, obesity, or food in general comes into the media spotlight, I adopt a mental brace position, awaiting the onslaught of tweets… with their hastily-Googled prices of spring greens and potatoes, crowing about how! cheap! vegetables! are!’

I’d like to see Boris Johnson try to feed his family nutritious food, and lose weight whilst on meagre Universal Credit and see how he manages.

This kind of ignorant thinking is common; like the old trope that poor people are lazy and stupid because they don’t manage their money properly. This is a flawed neoliberal way of thinking believes that people should make rational decisions toward purely economic and egoist ends. Ironically it is the poorest people who are most economical, knowing how to make a little last longer. I’d like to see Boris Johnson try to feed his family nutritious food, and lose weight whilst on meagre Universal Credit and see how he manages. I’d like to see him try and lose weight living in a crowded council estate with no parks nearby. Or with a chronic health problem, on a zero-hours contract and let him see how difficult it is to provide decent food every day. I wonder how he would cope in temporary housing with no oven or fridge, trying to cook up healthy meals. Or see how he’d fare as an NHS nurse relying for months on food bank parcel low in nutritional value.

Being poor is not just about being cash poor, it is also often being strapped for time, or having poor mental health because of the incessant daily grind of living in Tory austerity Britain.  Many working class households rely on discounts, so restricting ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ offers are cutting an important source of affordable food. The government’s strategy does nothing to transform our food system or make fresh fruit and veg more accessible. Shaming lower income people with calorie labels if, god-forbid, we eat out at a Pizza Hut once in a while rather than a pricier independent restaurant, doesn’t help anyone.

Just last year, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty published a damning report stating that poverty in the UK is ‘systemic’ and ‘tragic’ and that the social safety net has been ’deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.’  The UK has one of the highest obesity levels in Europe, as well as one of the highest levels of child malnutrition. About 4.1 million children are living in poverty in the UK, and in 2019 approximately 19% lived in food insecure households. If the government wants to take meaningful action towards tackling obesity, it is necessary to analyse it from a  food insecurity and poverty perspective.

If we have learnt anything from the many fault lines and flaws that the pandemic has unearthed, it is that social welfare, inequality and racism are  public health issues, and that individualist thinking fails when it comes to public health. Rather than promoting the idea that poverty and health issues are the result of individuals making the wrong decisions, let’s actually try to understand these issues for what they are: a political and ideological choice by the political class.

Featured image: Adapted from logo for the Better Health Campaign


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EMPTY GESTURES AND EXPENDABLE LIVES

nhs clap revolt london

by Kasper Hassett

Across all of the contradictory actions taken and advice given by the UK government in response to COVID-19, there is one recurring theme: emptiness. From clapping for a financially dire NHS, to confusing slogans, the government is keen to portray the national response to this crisis as a unified effort with the consensus of the public, healthcare staff and politicians. It seems a sense of morale is being treated as the antidote, rather than investing in real measures to protect the public from ill health. These meaningless gestures in place of action are costing lives, particularly of the working classes.Continue Reading

EDUCATION AFTER THE PANDEMIC: REFORM AND RENATIONALISATION

By Howard Green

Tony Blair, upon his election into government in 1997, famously declared that his top three priorities were “Education, education and education”. At the other end of the century, Vladimir Lenin proclaimed that education that didn’t teach about life and politics was indeed a “hypocrisy”. Education has been a central focus of politics for over a hundred years, and today is no different. As the Coronavirus pandemic has disrupted conventional ways of learning for many, the modern British educational system needs short term and long term reform if it is to adapt to the issues of the 21st century. With the advent of Zoom lessons and online assessments, now is the time to explore the full potential of digital technology as the new frontier of education.

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NOT A TEAM: HOW THE POLICE OBSTRUCT OTHER EMERGENCY SERVICES (AND TAKE CREDIT)

police miami car crash

by Kasper Hassett

CW: police brutality, racism

We tend to think of them as a trio: the police; the firefighters; the paramedics. They all answer the same phone line; they all blare the same siren on their way to the scene. Not all three, however, exist to support civilians, nor do they operate in unison, and this façade is what enables the police to be revered no matter how much they tear communities apart and instil fear.Continue Reading

THE ONLY WAY TO END POLICE BRUTALITY IS TO ABOLISH THE POLICE

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by Lisa Insansa Woods

CW: racism, violence, police brutality

A tide of anguish currently sweeps our world, hammering at the white supremacist order. On the evening of May 25th, George Floyd was mercilessly killed by a white US policeman. The world watched from their homes as Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, ignoring his screams as he called out that he couldn’t breathe. George Floyd was suffocated of his last breath. Three other policemen stood and watched. The state brutally murdered a Black man. The people decided to revolt.

Right now, we are seeing mass protests from the US to the UK to the rest of the world, both on the streets and online, physically and mentally. Police brutality pervades our society and the recent piling up of Black bodies such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery has become just too much. We need change. The only way to achieve this change is to abolish the police.Continue Reading

QUEER LONELINESS & THE IMPENDING MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS

by Kasper Hassett

CW: mental health

Long predating the lockdown, members of the LGBTQIA+ community have reported feelings of isolation and loneliness at alarmingly high levels. This reached a point where ‘queer loneliness’ was dubbed an epidemic, and the mental health of the community overall was recognised as dire. With many now separated from their support networks during lockdown, queer people are experiencing new lows in their mental health. Additionally, much of the previously mentally healthy population is also struggling, and NHS services are suffocating from cuts, meaning that many queer people will miss out on vital mental health services as a complacent wider world focuses on going ‘back to normal’. Continue Reading

ARE WE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER? COVID AND RACISM

by Lisa Insansa Woods

CW: racism

At the moment, we are led to believe that Covid-19 is a marauder snatching away our media, our minds and our vulnerable population and that the only way to defeat such a pernicious beast is to sing hollow cries of “we are all in this together.” Yes, this should be a time for us to unify in communal admonishment of the situation; a time where we should realise our shared will to thrive alongside our neighbours; a time to join mutual aid groups to help those more vulnerable in a true display of fraternité; but, in doing this, we should not be blind to the fact that we do not share an equal burden.Continue Reading

MIXED MESSAGES: THE SEMIOTICS OF COVID-19 ADVICE

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By Robyn Banks

In its infinite wisdom, the Conservative Government in England has chosen to change its messaging around Covid-19, from ‘Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’, to ‘Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives’. Putting aside the irony of both these proclamations (this government never had a plan to protect the NHS, and was about as alert to the virus as to a whale falling from the sky), this isn’t the only change that has taken place. There were also a number of subtle changes in the visual presentation of the advice that will have ramifications for how people both interpret and follow it.Continue Reading