:: Friday, January 06, 2006 ::

Why is Scotland sick?

It seems that every day new figures come out exposing the atrocious problems of health, poverty and inequality in Scotland. First came the devasting report in the Scotsman, which compared health figures in different postcodes. Last night Channel 4 News reported that Britain faces a huge rise in cirrhosis of the liver - a potentially fatal condition which can be caused by the consumption of an excess of alcohol. And guess where was soaring ahead of the rest to the top of the cirrhosis charts? You guessed right. Scotland.

It makes one thing clear. Scotland is not one happy nation all gathered round the saltire. We are a nation that is dramatically divided on class lines.

If you come from the poorest areas of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and many other places then there is a good chance you will not be in work, you will smoke and eat poor quality food, drink too much and die younger. Men in the poorest area of Glasgow will, on average, be dead at the age of 54. FIFTY FOUR YEARS OLD. This is a figure that would be shocking in Latin America. It is a figure that would be bad for a developing country. Yet we live in one of the richest nations on earth. We live in a country that is home to the Royal Bank of Scotland who made a record £8 billion in profit last year.

To put this figure into perspective. Only in sub-saharan Africa is the average male life expectancy below 55.

And if you are wealthy in Scotland you are doing well. The wealthiest areas have an average male death rate of 88 years old. This is the highest in Europe, surpassing even Scandinavia. You could be one of the healthiest people in the world.

To quote the Scotsman article "Most ominously, life for the poorest seems to be getting worse. The average life expectancy for those in Third Scotland fell by eight weeks since the last sample in 1992 - over the same period, it rose by two years for Scotland as a whole."

So why do we have this inequality. Why are our poorest citizens so sick? In fact, why do we have so many people still living in poverty?

The issues are complex. Quite clearly the poorest in our society smoke too much, drink too much and eat far too unhealthily. Poverty is at the root of this. In the poorest postcodes a large majority live in workless households. In some areas two-thirds of people are on invalidity benefit. If you live like this then it is harder to find fresh fruit and vegetables. Corner shops in the schemes are not well stocked with them.

In many parts of England you can get access to street markets. This is a great place to get cheap goods, including locally sourced fruit and veg. You can see this type of market in most of the poorer areas in London and in most smaller towns too. For some reason in Scotland we don't have this. Yeah, it's nice to go down to the farmers market here in Edinburgh if you can afford it. Nothing I like better. But most people can't afford to pay £15 for an organic chicken when they can get a factory produced one for £2.50.

If money is tight then you need to make sure that the food you buy is cheap and filling and will not be wasted. So a trip to somewhere like 'Iceland' (cheap frozen food store) is one option. You can buy a huge bag of frozen food made from processed meat or potatoes and covered in batter for maybe £1.50. You know it will be eaten and that your kids will eat it too. Yes, it will give you heart disease, make your children obese and shorten your life. But worrying about that becomes a luxury for the rich, or at least those with a regular wage.

In the first half of the Twentieth Century George Orwell commented about the British working class obsession with gardening. My family mostly came from the mining community and they were all into their gardens. They grew and ate their own vegetables and this was in the centre of industrial areas. But if you come from some schemes its just not an option. Living in a tenement, a flat or tower block? Then you are unlikely to have access to a garden or allotment. By the time it gets to the second or third generation without access to a garden, then the awareness is gone.

The post-war housing scheme (and the pre-war slums) have a lot to answer for and this is just another one to add to the list.

Eating chips and deep-fried whatever alongside pies and crisps and fizzy juice and sweets has just become the culture for working class Scots. Education is part of the answer, and it is what the Scottish Executive (our government in the Scottish Parliament) is relying on. But serious effort and direct action is what is needed now. Healthy, nutritious and FREE school meals for all children in Scotland, regardless of income, in a necessity now. More support for things like food co-ops is also vital. Many communities do things like this. These are small things. Things that can be done cheaply right now if there is a political will. I think more drastic action is needed to tackle the problems in the long term, but this would be a start.

Drinking and smoking are also big killers. Alcohol problems are becoming something of an epidemic in our society. We keep ourselves numb to get through life. When there is nothing down for you, when you live in poverty, then you need it even more. Drink and fags are a coping mechanism. When your skint it is harder to cut down on the booze and fags. I support the ban on smoking in pubs but it won't stop the poorest from smoking.

We need to recreate communities, to bring back the communal. Irvine Welsh wrote a great essay on our violent and alienated communities last year, which I recommend to anyone.

There have been attempts to tackle inequality, through things like tax credits which have helped some out of the poverty trap. But the figures speak for themselves. We need radical action to tackle poverty and inequality in Scotland. That means redistributing income, getting people back to work in jobs with decent pay and conditions, and taking control of our own resources. If Venezuela can cut poverty by 7% in a year, so can we.

These are just some initial thoughts. I would be interested in any feedback.


:: Alister | 10:57 am | save this page to del.icio.us Save This Page | permalink⊕ | |

2 Comments:

Well written, powerful post.

By Blogger Renegade Eye, at 4:39 am  

One of the best and most sensible things I've seen about Scotland's health crisis for a long time.

By Blogger rs_azzuri, at 4:26 pm  

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