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Smashed phone screens, poverty and the luxury of wiggle room

May 11, 2015 1 comment

My phone screen is now in smithareens. I’m leaving it faceup as its just about usable until i get a chance to check its all backed up. as soon as i move it the glass is gonna crumble out. Happily for me, this is not a disaster as I have day off tomorrow, and can, just, afford the £100-£130 for the replacement (prob moto g 2nd gen unless anyone has better suggestions for about that price and with 4g, sd card slot, front facing camera, and optimised on camera and gps quality. and something i can put cm on without too much faff).

For how many folks would this be so much more serious? If that were my only internet connection, for example, I couldn’t have researched a replacement. If I was low waged / had commitments such as kids then that could have pushed me over the edge into hunger. If I didn’t have time off tomorrow that extra job would have added to my stress.

I’ve had times in my life where I’ve been so close to the line that relatively minor things can totally fuck me up. That’s one of the problems with poverty, you have no wiggle room. Its like riding a bike on a narrow road and traffic racing past you – one hiccup and you’re pizza. Versus having a luxurious buffer where you hardly notice the pot hole as you have so much space to glide round it.

“The moral person’s guide to investing in Ebola stocks”

November 7, 2014 Leave a comment

Apparently there’s a way to justify cashing in on other people’s misery, while still reading the guardian with your spiced chai mocha and feeling good about your place in the world :/

So I have this issue where I can’t express coherently how disgusting this is. For a start, one of the reasons why we didn’t have a vaccine or treatment already for ebola is because of the very profit motive that now is good for investing. So it wasn’t worth pharmaceutical corps bringing such drugs to market when the potential consumers were (a) few and for only a short time (vs statins, antacids etc which people take for long periods of time) and (b) poor. “Pharmaceutical companies operate for profit. They research those drugs that will get them more revenue and a higher stock price”

Someone sitting in front of a stocks and shares website is going to get best returns if the big pharma they’ve invested in finds a medication or vaccine that they can patent and sell at the highest price the market can afford. They do not have the same interests as the communities currently being devastated by ebola. In fact, even without any new medication, ebola could have been stopped or at least reduced in severity months ago with basic public health interventions such as quarantine (with appropriate triage and levels of quarantine), water/hygiene/sanitation provision and contact tracing.  Those on the ground are best placed to know what needs to be produced to help them help others. Capitalism distorts what is produced to that which makes the most profit, not that which necessarily is good for people or the planet.

But apparently by investing in stock you’re actively helping the ebola crisis! “investors motivate for-profit companies to focus on whatever seems to provide the biggest return. So investing in companies because they are working on treatments for Ebola directly motivates a company to complete research on their pipeline drugs, as well as providing the capital for that research.” Or you could just you know actually donate directly to MSF so that they can afford to pay for the medications and staffing to treat those affected by ebola. Oh, but then you’d definitely not get your investment back – suddenly less interested? Well stop dressing up your mercenary urges as charitable when they’re actually just your self-interest that you’re trying to justify.

Yes folks need to pay their rent and bills. And yes folks will do all sorts of things to do that. But no, you’re not contributing to the ebola response by doing that. You’re doing what mercenaries everywhere and always have done.

On squatting, homelessness and haircuts

October 27, 2014 Leave a comment

When I was eighteen I moved back to London on my own, away from my parents and the small town in which I’d survived my teens. Working as an office runner for Saachi and Saachi in pre minimum wage days, the pay was terrible – all my coworkers were young guys still living with their parents. A platonic friend had let me stay in his spare room until I could find something better. That plan was shortlived – within a couple of weeks he’d acquired a new girlfriend, and she was not keen on me staying there. Refusing to give up on London so quickly, I spent a few days rotating amongst my new workmates’ sofas and then discovered by chance that there were a lot of squats out in East London, where folks were protesting the building of the M11 Link Road, so I headed over and ended up living there for a few months.

I lived in a few different places along the route, until I ended up in a big old shop which had been abandoned years before. The shopfront was huge, and above it there was a 2 floor apartment that would have originally been used by the shopkeeper. The flat looked to have been abandoned years before the shop itself, and had been reoccupied by pigeons. The squatters were taking a room each and doing the disgusting cleanup needed. I couldn’t face that though, and stayed in the shopfront, keeping my stuff out the way during the day and pulling out my bedroll at night. The original squatters were super sweet, and looking back on it, had probably seen my vulnerability as a young female, and so invited me in. We had communal meals, rotated tasks and talked about green politics, the state of the world, philosophy and history. I quit my shitty job at some point and threw myself into the campaign against the road, and against the Criminal Justice Bill which was about to become law.

To get to the shop from the rest of the protest site I would shortcut across a small park with some benches in the middle, always occupied by a few street drinkers. They felt threatening to me, though I don’t recall them ever even saying anything to me. They had unkempt shaggy hair and filthy old clothes and random bags of belongings. As I hurriedly walked past, they stank of stale sweat and alcohol. One evening I got back to the shop and, to my horror, was introduced to one of them, John, who was coming to live with us. I felt like me home was being invaded by one of the people I looked to it to escape from. The squatters had taken me in however, and though I felt really uncomfortable about this old alcoholic moving in, I didn’t feel able to say anything.

As I said above, though I really should probably have taken responsibility for cleaning out one of the rooms above, the stench and filth of years of being used as a pigeon loft had put me off. John however just got stuck in. Full of enthusiasm he carried out to the bins bags and bags of yuck, and began bleaching the surfaces, which I had to admire. I was out most days working on the campaigns, or skipping for food or whatever. John didn’t seem to notice how warey I was of him, and was friendly and welcoming when I got home.

One evening he asked me for a favour. Could I please cut his hair for him? He had scissors ready and insisted he trusted me, though I kept telling him I’d never done it before. His hair was below his shoulders, neglected from living on the streets. I had no clue where to begin, but he was kneeling on the floor expectantly, telling me he was sure I could do it. Ok, here goes!

It was actually easier than I thought it would be, and kinda fun! I quickly chopped off the ragtails, and copied what I’d seen hairdressers do, took chunks of it between my fingers following the arch of his head upwards, I shaped a close crop, leaving it a bit longer on top. It took a while, as I experimented and figured out how to not leave choppy steps, but sort of merge it all together. My fingers were covered in grease from his unwashed hair, but I figured I could wash them and they were still cleaner than his were after he’d been cleaning the upstairs rooms! Afterwards he was really thankful, and had a shower and a shave. I felt much more relaxed around him too. But for other reasons, a few weeks later I moved out as I’d found a new place.

***

A few years later I was at a demo in London. I can’t remember what about. A pleasant looking middle aged couple approached me, the man seeming really pleased to see me, but I had to admit to him that I couldn’t remember who he was. Well, of course it was John. Story was, after I’d left, he’d began a romance with the florist next door and now they were happily married. He’d spotted her and had wanted to smarten himself up, I presume hence the haircut! And then I learned even more. He had been much younger than I’d first thought, and had only been living on the streets for about 18 months. In a really short time he’d lost his job, and then his partner had left him and he’d lost his home and that was how he’d ended up out there. He was drinking because it was cold and miserable and suddenly he’d gone from having a half decent life to being outcast.

***

He thanked me, but never knew how much I had judged him. How much I’d just seen that stereotype of street drinker and hadn’t thought about how he’d ended up there, or how he might move on. The squatters who’d taken us both, and who knows how many others, were making good use of abandoned buildings, creating a home and small community that transformed John and I in different ways. For John it saved him from a brutal and probably short life on the streets. Though his eagerness to get his life together was what made most difference to him, as I can imagine others wouldn’t have found such a dramatic change. That he was relatively newly homeless must have helped – he didn’t yet have years of drinking and ill-health to contend with. I don’t know why the squatters invited John particularly in to the shop – maybe they’d already interacted enough to realise that it would be mutually beneficial. I was brought face to face with my prejudices, and also experienced communal living in a non capitalist environment. Squatting is now much more difficult due to laws brought in to target such terrible people. Did I mention yet how the building was empty, abandoned, given over to pigeons before the squatters moved in and transformed it into a home? That the only reason at John and I ended up there was due to poorly paid or insecure work?

Anyway, I didn’t want to end on a downer as to me this is a really uplifting memory. I’ve probably got some of the details wrong, but I’ll never forget the sensation of John’s greasy, matted hair as I snipped it off, nor the shock of the handsome, happy man he was just a few years later. :) Yayy for the squatters who took us both in and who put so their time and energy into creating such a great little communal home.

Ebola – nothing more than my ramblings

August 28, 2014 4 comments

So the WHO have published a roadmap to stopping worldwide Ebola transmission in the next six months. $490m is all they’re estimating is needed! That’s about half of what we paid for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, or a third of the Edinburgh tram system. And its all relatively straight forward. That’s the thing. The public health nerd in me loves that this is so understood. That there is best practice waiting to be rolled out. And as a nurse, that I have a very limited knowledge of Ebola, yet the treatments that can make such a massive difference to patient outcomes are providing basic nursing care (I don’t mean the experimental antibody serum which has been given to four so far, but the hygiene measures and symptomatic treatment such as rehydration, pain control and coagulation support that is available locally).

My alarm bells went off reading about the metrics – obviously measuring ebola incidence is essential to evaluating the response, and that’s quite right. That is the only thing that matters. But achieving metrics and targets have a habit of damaging the actual thing to be improved. An easy example is how achieving the 4 hour wait in A&Es led to patients being kept in ambulances outside the unit, and I think have led to other stupidities within hospitals, such as non A&E units set up that are really nothing more than holding pens for patients, meaning they frequently end up in 3 different settings, including destination ward, leading to disorientation and chances for errors due to lack of continuity of care. In terms of Ebola I worry that the metrics could become localised as targets, as they’ll be passed down through chains of officials, each also wanting to individually look good, and then pressure put to not diagnose in order to reduce official transmission figures in that way.

So yes, as you might have guessed, I was doing some early feasibility research on going out to volunteer. In general, loose cannon volunteers are worse than useless in disaster areas. And due to the massive personal risks involved, I would only want to go with an organisation I trust to have sufficient capability and experience to keep healthcare workers as safe as possible. Anyway, the good news for my mum is that MSF are actively looking for medical staff to go out, but not nurses. And I’d be more useful after my tropical nursing diploma anyway, which is due to be completed end of January. So my existing plans for next 5 months aren’t changing at this time.

I’m glad that I chose to study nursing, that I got myself to capable general nurse status, have my public health masters, and am on track to have tropical nursing diploma within 6 months. I like it that I have found a way to make a meaningful difference in the world that fits well my nerdy/science brain, together with my other characteristics such as liking to have work that is physical as well as mental, and practically help people and problem solve. I haven’t the capability or temperament for counselling, or emotional trauma work, but I do like to help people. I like that I have made myself into a person that can be useful in crises because that is what I’ve wanted since watching M.A.S.H. as a kid :)

Yeah, ebola. So, probably 20 000 people will die because economic inequality and war and power and racism mean that this epidemic was able to get so horrific. But it is well within our human capabilities to bring it under control, and we probably will.

Privilege, oppression and guilt

February 2, 2014 Leave a comment

I wrote this as a followup to my previous post about the privilege of travelling as a reply to those sweet souls of you who told me not to feel guilty. :)

I don’t feel guilty or defensive about the privileges I have, such as being white, English and able bodied. And nor should you about yours. The point is to be aware of them, to avoid using them to trample on others and to seek to challenge the systems that uphold them whenever we can.

Understand that life is easier for us because of them and that that is normally invisible to us. That someone without our privileges has to work harder to achieve the same things and that if, instead they are in a poorer situation than us, it is likely because of how society benefits us rather than anything innately better or worse about either of us.

Don’t feel guilty just because society has been structured by others with our privileges to benefit those like us – we did not make those systems of oppression and they are beyond our individual power to defeat single handedly. Feel guilty only if and when you use your privilege to harm someone without it. And even then just feeling guilty is missing the point. We are all human, and therefore perfectly imperfect and constantly able and needing to grow and learn and develop and improve ourselves. Be as gentle with yourself as you would be with a child that hurts someone else because they didn’t yet know better. Apologise to the person you’ve done wrong to, without needing or expecting necessarily their forgiveness – they’ve likely had this happen way too many times before so don’t make this about you needing absolution from them. Making them relate to you is part of the self importance of privilege. Teach yourself about how that particular system of oppression functions. Become aware how you might benefit from it in a range of situations so that you can become better at avoiding trampling over someone next time. For example if you have male privilege, be aware that your voice will be listened to above a female voice, and that you have been socialised to dominate conversations whilst females have been socialised to yield and make space.

Lastly, and most importantly, though we are not at fault (unless you are!!) for bringing about systems of oppression, we should never collude in their maintenance. As a white person I should never (unless it would be dangerous) be silent in the face of racism but should always challenge it. Having the freedom and power that privilege has given me means I have the responsibility to do whatever is within my means to oppose the oppression of others, but always taking my lead from them rather than furthering their oppression by using my privilege to take a lead in their struggle!!

Privilege and oppression are complex systems, developed and maintained through millions of interactions, “common sense” ideas and official laws and processes. We all benefit from some systems of oppression (eg I am white) and are oppressed by others (eg I am female). Because we are social animals we have evolved to quickly absorb and learn the rules and dynamics of whatever society we are born into so that we can negotiate our life in it. This means the systems and rules within whatever society we are brought up in are normally invisible and neutral to us unless we put effort into understanding them. But they are not our fault, and learning about our privileges is not to beat ourselves up about them. Do not abuse your privilege. Do not use them to take advantage of others. Do not maintain or build systems of oppression by colluding with them. Be part of beautiful, vibrant human endeavours to live in a world free of oppression.

Bhopal diary snippets – first 10 days.

December 22, 2013 Leave a comment

I meant to have written more, to document and describe the situation as I learned, but it is still too overwhelming and confused in my brain. I have been keeping a daily diary, and intend to continue to throughout my trip. So here are some excerpts. I would like to be able to write something more coherent, but nothing coheres, there is just a jumble of feelings (mostly anger and sadness) and images and data swirling around. I could write something but it would be formulaic and I would be more conforming to a rhythm of am article than actually saying anything meaningful because there is no narrative in my head yet.

Read more…

Union Carbide factory, Bhopal

December 14, 2013 1 comment

We walked hardly 5 minutes through the densely populated district from the clinic and suddenly we were at the union carbide factory gates. This factory filled with toxic chemicals to make pesticides, with untested technology and equipment, had been built right where thousands of people lived. And yet after it was no longer profitable, union carbide (now wholely owned by Dow Chemicals) did not keep up the maintenance despite leaving there tanks of MIC – the highly reactive and deadly gas that leaked and destroyed so many lives.

The factory is now just an iron skeleton with old pipes and tanks and machinery surrounded by trees and flowers. Parts reminded me of a video game with iron stair cases climbing up to exposed platforms from which hang thick vines.

The tank itself which finally, inevitably given the negligence, leaked causing so much harm is lying peacefully on it’s side, surrounded by verdant life. The guard who showed us round is one of the thousands of survivors from that night who still has extensive health problems due to the inhaled poison.

A lab was there – big bottles of chemicals just there, many broken. A packet of bright orange powder split open on the floor. Nobody has come to even make a pretense of cleaning up this contaminated abomination. The perpetrators walked free. The local people still suffering from their negligence and inhumanity.

Near the gate, on the way out, I noticed a small garden had been made by the guards. Just a few flowers but obviously being tended with a raised edge so it can be watered.

The factory was so peaceful. So horrible. So beautiful in rewilded post industrial decay yet with such horror associated. I’m still overwhelmed with all I’m seeing and learning here so can’t really process much.

Here humans prioritised profit over other humans and devastated a community.

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