All Of Our Dignity

It would be impossible to forget Antonio. His abandonment and isolation had been so complete, nobody even knew how old he was. We guessed about 8 or 9. He lay in a cot, lifeless and listless in a dark corner. The lack of animation was the not the outcome of his severe disability and blindness but rather caused by extreme neglect.  The institution “housed” around 150 adults and children.  It wreaked of human waste and human disregard.

My index finger gently brushed against his palm and he gripped it tightly as his face broke into semi-toothless smile.  He had lived a life cut adrift from love, attention or even basic human acknowledgment .

Antonio’s story inspired a shared effort by the government of North Macedonia and the UN to end placement of children in large scale institutions. Children like him would be provided with family-based care, connection and stimulation in community settings.

The plan was knocked off script when locals in the town of Timjanik angrily refused  a mayor’s request to accommodate some of the children . We went there with the minister to find out why. On arrival, we sustained a three hour volley of abuse and hostility from several hundred protesters.  People watching this back in the capital on livestream  were horrified. Pundits, influencers and activists began lambasting the protesters as primitive, callous and hillbilly.

We listened carefully. Their’s was a small town in decline. It could have been in Oklahoma or South Yorkshire.The townsfolk had previously been dependent on industry and agriculture. For generations their income and opportunities had been on a modest, upward trajectory. But they now feared their children would have a much more  precarious future. They had lived with years of unfulfilled promises to fix their roads, improve their schools and provide a pre-school. They longed for someone to give a voice to them, alongside the regular campaigns they heard from human rights activists for migrants, sexual minorities and people with disability.  Like Antonio, in their own way they felt abandoned.

But why did these two different forms of deprivation and abandonment compete with each other? Broadly speaking there are three catastrophic burdens in childhood  that drive lifelong inequality:

  1. Discrimination or Exclusion based on race, gender or disability  for example. It creates barriers that exclude one from opportunities, justice and often the basic safety that others take for granted.
  2. Income Poverty through  a lack of the basic means to survive, thrive and access opportunities to reach one’s potential.
  3. Emotional Poverty through the absence of the basic nurturing and protective parental relationships due to violence, neglect or other forms of dysfunctional parenting (also known as childhood adversity). This is often transmitted inter-generationally and unintentionally.

If you look at  Black Lives Matter, Hillbilly Ellergy and Good Will Hunting through the lens of identity, they seem so different to each other. When we look at them through the lens of fairness and dignity for all, they seem the same. It sometimes feels like we have forgotten a sense of ourselves as a whole, we are looking for the differences and barriers. This fragmentation polarises us into differing sides in a counter-productive culture war.

People in places like Timjanik perceive human rights champions  to be selective in the injustices they seek to address. Those living with rural and town poverty  feel both politically and economically abandoned. They are at the fag end of a painful transition from an industrial to a knowledge economy. This transition has concentrated opportunity in large cities at the expense of almost everywhere else. Those same champions scratched their heads as populists have hoovered up support in poor and abandoned communities. Despite their best intentions, they must bear part of the responsibility for the growth in populism and polarisation.

I felt this recently back home when I  took a group of young adult care leavers for lunch in London. They had each lived with all of the three catastrophic burdens described above. It is hard to think of a more deprived group in the UK.  We walked past a protest march urging us to support the rights of an oppressed minority in a far flung country. The comparatively wealthy looking protesters obviously felt that from our position of privilege we should all support this vulnerable minority oversees and that this was the most important human rights issue of the moment. But whose privilege is it? One of the young people in our group said he could not imagine the same protesters marching for kids in care. To highlight injustice, without acknowledging it is not the only injustice is itself an injustice.

Coming back to the story of Timjanik. The following day at an unrelated press conference  in the capital, we were asked by journalists about the events in the town. We were expected to join the public condemnation of the protesters behaviour. Instead we articulated the townsfolk’s grievances and their struggles and explained that we could understand them, though did not agree with them.

Within two hours our inboxes were flowing with warm messages from people in Timjanik. They had not expected that we would actually listen to them and tell their story. They had needed to be acknowledged and heard. To understand that we think they matter too. From a collective refusal to host the small group home just 24 hours prior, it was now back on.

From that moment on, we numerically balanced our public facing advocacy. We gave equal attention to the situation of the overall population and to those living with one or more of the three catastrophic burdens . If we did a public event on exclusion of Roma minority or children with disability one month, we made sure we also had an event on poverty or a  population-wide issue like education or health the next. This struck us as fair, just and effective.

A few weeks after the protest, the government agreed a strategy to transfer all children out of large scale institutions through family re-unification, foster care and small group homes. The government named the strategy “Timjanik” in testimony to what we had all learnt from these events.

On October 15th last year, the last remaining children were removed from large scale institutions. The situation may have improved for children in state care in North Macedonia, but there is still so much to do to prevent exclusion, poverty and adversity in the lives of children the world over. We can only do this when everyone finds their place in a shared story of justice and fairness. We need to “re-universalize” our human rights story.

And the children in the story? Antonio is out of the cot, living in a small group home with adequate care and stimulation and for the first time in his life, he is enrolled in school. Today in Timjanik, the locals visit with cakes and play with the children at the small group home.  Just ordinary people in an ordinary place with the extraordinary courage to reimagine a better tomorrow in a world that protects all of our dignity.

 

 

 

 

 

That British Class Thing

On top of the things James Brown said were great about “Living in America”, an additional one for me is the outsider’s perspective it gives on my own country.  Interest in the UK is now fuelled by lockdown binges of Peaky Blinders on the one hand and Downton Abbey on the other.  A confused American friend recently asked “So where do you come from on this British class thing?”

In his 1960s infamous and groundbreaking  comedy sketch  John Cleese ridiculed our class system. It feels like an awkward subject today as it did then.  Many of us just wish class had retreated along with black and white TV, outside loos and coal sheds. So I reformulated the question in my head to the less awkward “which type of community did you grow up in?”  After that pontification, my answer was : “poor, urban and multicultural”

I wrote about the poverty bit before, We were so far at the bottom of the ladder, we didn’t even make it onto the Cleese class sketch. I spent my formative years in inner city  South Birmingham and North London. Without any fuss, we grew up with a diversity which was as influential as class in shaping our identity . Many of our school mates were only second or third generation British. Their grandparents had arrived in the migration waves that followed the second world war, forged ties across communities and faced down the duel struggle of poverty and racism.

There were rites of passage for all teenagers . First kiss, first football game…and in those days first smoke. But poor, urban kids like us had specific obsessions: Music, fashion and navigating trouble.

You could hear all types of music in our neighborhood, but Reggae was the main soundtrack and everyone wanted to be a DJ. In those days this was usually through a “sound system” with wobbly speakers piled on top of each other, booming out fresh imports from Kingston at neighbourhood parties. The average age of first buying a vinyl record would have been around 11 or 12.

Reggae and punk had been the most subversive music of the previous teenage generation . Back then, punk bands had no DJs to spin tunes between performances, so they hired reggae sound systems.  The Punk and Rasta collaboration that followed was celebrated in Punky Reggae Party by Bob Marley and inspired a uniquely British, urban sound. It can be traced from the The Specials and the Beat and through to UK streetsoul collectives like Soul II Soul and Massive Attack and on to Amy Winehouse and even Stormzy. We loved Jamaican Reggae and US R& B, but we also had a sound that came from our own communities and reflected our experiences. It was political, but not ideological. It reflected our anxiety about violence and unemployment. The teenage toaster of the Beat, Ranking Roger sang of “Love and Unity”. Community and shared struggles above hatred and racism.

Despite our poverty, we were also irrationally obsessed with style. The precise geometry of where a trouser hem ended and a shoe began  and the colour of the socks in between.  The nurturing care of a pair of Brogues, High Tops or Nikes. The shame of being turned out in something below par. We were not peacockish. You just had to hit a certain standard and then you could go about your regular business.

The diversity affected the way we held ourselves and spoke. It was completely normal for someone of say Irish or Indian heritage to curse with a Yiddish word in a Jamaican patois accent….or the other way around.  . We were poor, but our style and music was our source of dignity.

There was also a whole heap of trouble. It was not like The Wire. There were less crack dens and guns. Communities like ours could be vibrant and aspirational-with the music, Asian food, Irish pubs. But just beneath the surface, it seemed like an assault course of gangs, violence and drugs too. Joining a gang and dealing drugs were easy-access compared to healthier options. Poor kids like us did not go to university.   Those with strong, united families tended to navigate better than those from broken or dysfunctional homes. For many , our futures hung by a thread. I was a proper tearaway, kicked out of multiple schools and in trouble with the law. I was eventually rescued by the influence and care of a wonderful teacher

It was a blessing to grow up with so much diversity. As Ezra Klein wrote in “Why We Are Polarised”: research shows how super-diversity with multiple identities and influences sets you up well for co-existence. Difference only becomes divisive and polarising when there are just two sides facing off across a single fault line. This is worse when bad politicians amplify identity above ideas and hate above hope. That type of politician is not faring so well in this pandemic. When difference is cut across multiple lines, it is a strength.

Covid 19 exposes the inequities of class and race, but it also shows how much we yearn for community, not tribe. As New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote”Community is based on mutual affection and tribalism on mutual hatred”. In this pandemic we are now united by our shared vulnerability and dependence on the same public systems and low pay delivery workers. Even our conservative Prime Minister acknowledged that our National Health Service is powered by love. Its workforce is radically diverse and disproportionately hails from similar streets to the ones I described above.  Thats where I come from in the “British Class thing” . Here’s to Love and Unity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Children’s Pandemic

A month of Pandemic measures and I already wince at a handshake or touched face on Netflix. Just yesterday, New York was bustling, packed and confident. Now it is cautious, dispersed and masked. If our relationship with the world around us has been instantly transformed, what about the impact upon children in their formative years?

It may be the single blessing of this ruthless pandemic that children are least vulnerable to the virus. But sadly not the potentially deadly ricochets and aftershocks it leaves in its wake. This week the UN Secretary General reported that health and food system impacts will increase other childhood diseases and malnutrition. The number of children living in extreme poverty is projected to increase from 386 to as much as 450 million as a direct result of a new Covid19-induced economic crisis. Extreme poverty is always a killer and likely to take more children than the virus itself. Perhaps reversing 2-3 years of global progress on preventable childhood deaths.

There is barely a child on the planet whose life has not been affected by the Pandemic in some way. 1.5 billion are at home and not school. At least tens of millions of children will be born into this crisis, mostly in conditions that would have been different if it weren’t for the pandemic. Children cannot see their friends and suffer major disruptions to learning, life and play. Sports tournaments, excursions and hackathons all shelved, teenage romance on hold. A recent study suggested that prolonged quarantine in general can make a person 4 times more likely to have poor mental health. The pandemic shocks touch all children .

Fortunately many children have the shock absorbers of a safe home, loving family and freedom from poverty, social exclusion or war. If just one from the set is missing, the impact of the pandemic is likely to be deeper and life-changing. There is now a new single thread of additional vulnerability tying together children in tightly packed slums in African cities with those in camps in Syria and Yemen. It extends to the low income children in rich countries like the UK and US and those at risk of severe acute malnutrition in the poorest countries. It also hits the approximately 5% of the world’s children with disability and the 15-20% in seriously dysfunctional, neglectful and violent homes. This pandemic has been merciless in piling more pressure on to those least able to absorb it.

The bottom billion have no means for social distancing or hand washing. Their health systems often have just a few ventilators and Intensive care beds. They are not thinking of flattening the curve, but rather a couple of dozen cases flattening their entire health system. Prevention of other childhood diseases is already disrupted, including vaccination programmes on hold in 23 countries. 30 million conflict affected children are dependent on humanitarian assistance which is likely to be battered as supply chains buckle and aid financing and fiscal space contract. 40% of the world’s children don’t even have hand washing facilities.

Remote learning is a great solution for most children, but even here in New York city it is estimated that 300,000 low income children don’t have the digital means to participate. School closures will widen the two main learning gaps. The first between countries with high performing education systems who have the agility and means to switch and those countries which cannot run their education system effectively at the best of times. The second gap is between the learning outcomes of wealthy and poor children within countries. 368.5 million of those poor children have also been cut off from essential school feeding programmes which are often the only source of nutrition. Children in need of special learning support at school or dependent on relationships with teachers and friends to mitigate the pain of violent and neglectful homes are suddenly adrift. All against a rising backdrop of increased reporting of intimate partner violence and child abuse from India to Greenland to Australia and all points in between.

If the Coronavirus was a pantomime villain waiting behind a curtain for an opportune moment to pounce, it did so with precision. Thus far, dwindling internationalism has made us too weak to address the Pandemic in the whole. But you cannot partially address a pandemic. Even during the Cold War, the USSR and the West realized this and joined forces to end smallpox. And thats what our polarised world needs to do now. If everyone is not safe, no-one is safe. The virus shows our interdependence and in the end, maybe thats its virtue.

This is not insurmountable. WHO, UNICEF, the Red Cross, scientists and artists have joined forces in the Solidarity Fund to mobilise resources for a vaccine and for prevention and response work in low and middle income countries. Scientists shared the genetic sequencing on the virus very early on and are collaborating across borders despite nationally-minded governments. There is also a global initiative to galvanise leaders into more collaborative and internationally-minded policy-making in response to the pandemic.

We have also seen national governments and societies prioritise children. 83 countries have adapted their social protection systems to help shield poor families and children from the crisis. Health, education and social work systems have often adapted to maintain basic services. Armies of school and health volunteers are helping minimise the impact of the pandemic upon children.

We should now see maintaining supply chains, aid flows and health systems in poor and humanitarian contexts as a first line response for us all, even though it seems far away. Look how far the virus has already travelled. We may also need to invest in social protection to help the bottom billion socially distance, particularly those in densely packed and poorly resourced urban slum and refugee/migrant camps.

In wealthy and poorer countries alike we should support adaptions for teachers and social workers to have exactly the same amount of contact with children as they had before the crisis and for school feeding programmes to be delivered to homes. When adapting education we need to prevent remote learning widening the gap between wealthy and poor.

Albert Camus may have appreciated the importance of teacher contact and continued learning. In 1957 he dedicated his Nobel Prize for literature to the teacher who was there for him in the midst of poverty and adversity. His masterpiece The Plague is once again a bestseller and remains a testimony to our interdependence and collective strength in the face of this crisis. In it, he wrote: “No longer were there individual destinies, only a collective destiny, made of the disease and emotions shared by all.” .

A Tale Of Two Pandemics

Will Covid19 Widen Inequality?

With Rugby & Football postponed and social gatherings replaced by social distancing-the only hope for an exhilarating weekend was a long bicycle ride. As Hudson suburbs gave way to inner city Bronx & Harlem before the more prosperous heartland of Manhattan- a simple bike ride shows how different income groups cope with Corona Virus. In prosperous neighbourhoods, cafe bars and barbers shop were half or three quarters empty. There was not a hipster to be seen. By contrast, poor migrant areas were bustling. It’s a bike ride-not a piece of scientific research. But do high rents, poor pay, insecure employment, no sick leave & “for profit” health systems prevent the poor from social distancing? Do they need to carry on as normal? Even when they are frightened of the virus?

We may all be frightened of getting sick. But the poor often fear the sickness itself less than the life consequences. One pay check away from homelessness, the potentially ruinous out of pocket hospitalisation costs or the direct relationship between todays work-shift & tonight’s family meal. Over time the secondary costs will hit the poor the most. If children are out of school, who will look after them? Online learning is a brilliant solution for social distancing, but those who already have the worse learning outcomes also have the worse connectivity: the poor. In the end, there will be job layoffs. Corona virus will break some businesses and the working poor will be the first to go.

27 million Americans don’t have health insurance. The world’s wealthiest country equals many middle and low income countries in having dramatically worse health outcomes for it’s poor. Brits shouldn’t be smug. Low income males in the UK die almost ten years earlier than the wealthy. Many of the non-communicable diseases and conditions that render Covid 19 lethal are much more prevalent for those in poverty. In the poorest countries on the planet, weak health systems may be overwhelmed by Corona Virus. This will divert resources from other child killers such as ebola, measles, cholera and pneumonia.

Child poverty is not the only driver of lifelong inequality. Adverse childhood experiences such as family violence and neglect also lead to serious inequality throughout adulthood . How do you think #StayAtHome sounds to a child who only feels safe when they are not at home? Whose only soothing & supportive relationship is with a teacher or a school deskmate. The pandemic will turn their already fragile world upside down and minimise their chances for recovery. When schools were closed during the Ebola crisis in West Africa increased rates of sexual abuse and exploitation of children were recorded.

Privileged cultures, wealth and education rightly equip children with skillsets to better navigate complex challenges in a way that often eludes the less well off. This is highly relevant in a pandemic. The ability to distill a stream of useful facts about the virus amidst an explosion of noisy fake news. The agility to regularly absorb and update ones knowledge and act up upon it. Adaptation to change and uncertainty and knowing where to seek help. When something goes wrong for a poor or high-adversity kid and they are knocked off course, it takes them much longer to get back on their feet.

In many countries including the US and UK, inequality seems to be expanding and social mobility declining. If you grow up without university educated parents, your future prospects seem to be in decline. It is rarely articulated, but deep in the sub-conscious of working class and poor people this trend has transformed voting trends. Growing inequality has created space for populist braggarts who shun science and international cooperation. The very people who now appear shrivelled and sheepish next to scientists with international networks of practice.

Covid 19 is not just a public health crisis. It will be an economic and social crisis, a jobs crisis, a housing crisis and it will certainly be a child crisis. It needs a social strategy as well as a public health strategy. Are we the Italian balcony Sopranos who celebrate our shared humanity by singing our hearts out together? Or the hysterical supermarket goers who elbow each other out the way to buy endless supplies of loo roll? I think time will show us to be more like the sopranos, but that social strategy needs to bring us together rather than build wedges to drive us even further apart.