This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday July 6 2017.
I have written in recent articles about the spirit of rebellion developing among the public as a result of what disasters have revealed about the shortcomings of the governments of Sri Lanka and the UK.
Lights On, Nobody Home
In 2012, I was asked to do some consultancy work for a London company that organises events and exhibitions on an international basis. They were organising their second Aidex exhibition, held in Brussels, aimed at establishing networking and marketing opportunities for organisations providing goods and services in emergency and development situations. I was asked to establish contacts between Aidex and Sri Lankan organisations. The obvious place to start my research was the Ministry of Disaster Management. It was initially encouraging to find that the e-mail addresses and telephone numbers (even residential numbers) of personnel at the ministry were publicly available. I wrote to all these people and telephoned a large number of them. I did not get a single reply and no-one picked up the phone.
I published an article in advance of the Aidex event in which I wrote: “Surely there must be some Sri Lankan organisations similar to those who participated in AidEx 2011 and found it so beneficial to their business! Surely there are some Sri Lankan organisations who could make tremendous gains from participating in AidEx 2012.” Aidex 2012 was very successful. Not a single Sri Lankan attended.
Crisis, What Crisis
It was no surprise to find that the Ministry of Disaster Management was not prepared for this year’s floods because they had not been prepared for previous natural disasters. The emergency services in the UK responded magnificently to the Manchester bombing and the Grenfell Tower fire. However, they were stretched very thin because government policies over many years had brought about a reduction in police and fire service personnel (not to mention shortage of nursing staff). Many fire stations had been closed because of austerity measures.
Humanitarian Response from Humans rather than Politicians
How can one see anything positive in this? For one thing, one can feel inspired by the bravery of the firemen in West London and the prompt response of police in a number of terrorist incidents. The Sri Lankan government was slow to get its act together immediately after the tsunami, but a local relief effort that got underway almost immediately is generally agreed to have been a success despite the understandable confusion which accompanied it at times. Even in the poorest, most remote areas people flocked to the roadside to hand over money, clothes, bottles of water and bags of rice and lentils. Temporary shelter for the displaced was provided in schools, other public and religious buildings. Communities and groups cooperated across ethnic and religious differences. An effective, spontaneous immediate response was organised locally, followed by the government and international agencies. This was in sharp contrast to the response to Hurricane Katrina. There are complaints in Sri Lanka today about militarisation but Sri Lankan soldiers performed heroically and efficiently in the aftermath of the floods as they did after the tsunami, when 20,000 soldiers assisted in relief operations.
Word from the Ground
My friend Amelia Ayewan has been tireless in her efforts to help the victims of Grenfell Tower. One of the great benefits of the much-reviled social media is the opportunity offered to spread news of what is going on, news that you do not get on TV or in the newspapers. Amelia has spoken to many people around Grenfell Tower, including policemen and firemen, and she passes on what she has heard. This is not irresponsible gossip. Volunteers at Grenfell Towers are hearing and sharing things that the government does not want people to know.
Personal stories bring home the reality of government policies. A friend of Amelia’s wrote: “A few days ago I walked into a shop on Portobello and ‘Uncle’ was gone… just an empty chair where he used to be sat, every day- now perished in the fire. I felt so sad. On Saturday evening, I went to buy injera (Ethiopian flatbread) and was relieved to find the regular lovely man serving me…mainly because he hadn’t been there last time…. ‘I am so glad to see you” I said. It turned out that he has lost about 18-19 people in the fire that were coming to his shop to buy injera every week… including a family of 5 that came twice a week every week for years.”
A volunteer passed on what a fireman had said: “He said there are 120 fire engines in London and 60 attended. He said they got there and were shitting themselves but ran in. He went to the 11th floor and got 10 people out, some could walk but the smoke was making people collapse so he had to carry people. They had to make an emergency stop on the way down because he had to give CPR to a six-year-old girl whose body couldn’t cope with the heat, the smoke and the stress. She didn’t survive.” The fireman said one of the worst things was the sound of people on the floors above screaming, sobbing and crying.
The fireman was furious about “the cost cutting that led to the shitty cladding that had no fire breaks and went up like a touch, that it had happened after the election so we could have put an end to the cuts to emergency services.”
End of Ideology?
One positive outcome might be an end to austerity policies. The UK government has had to commit itself to spending millions of pounds to make tower blocks safe. The disaster has shown the utter evil of the ideology of privatisation, outsourcing, deregulation and cutting spending on public services. Labour’s amendment to the Queen’s speech calling for an end to cuts to emergency services was rejected by MPs by 323 votes to 309, a government majority of 14. Nevertheless, there have been hints of wider moves to loosen austerity in the wake of May losing her majority at the general election.
Dr Sarah Wollaston, the Tory MP who chaired parliament’s health select committee before the election, said there was considerable strength of feeling among her colleagues on the backbenches and in cabinet that action was needed to ease the pain. There have been signals from a series of influential ministers, including Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Justine Greening and Michael Gove, that the 1% cap on public sector wage rises ought to be reconsidered.
The Home Office minister Nick Hurd told Parliament that increasing police pay was “under active consideration”. As I write, several reports have been published demonstrating beyond doubt that the austerity ideology is mistaken and harmful. A research report by UCL and NIESR was published quietly on July 3 and ignored by the government. The report analyses earnings growth among Pay Review Body occupations. The researchers found that median hourly earnings of UK workers dropped in real terms by almost 6% between 2005 and 2015, with some sectors suffering worse drops than others. The report showed George Osborne’s policy of pay restraint on public sector workers began to bite after 2010, as police officers, teachers, midwives, radiographers, nurses and doctors saw a marked decline in median hourly earnings. Police officers saw median real earnings fall from £20 an hour to £18 an hour over the same period.
There are already alarming staff shortages in hospitals in high cost areas like the south of England, including hospitals used by constituents of Mrs May and Mr Hunt. Nurses point to evidence of a £3,000 fall in their pay since 2010, and their governing body, the Nursing and Midwifery Council, has now reported that for the first time ever, more of their members are leaving the NHS than are joining. Brexit will mean less hospital staff will be going to the UK from the rest of Europe.
As the Guardian put it in an editorial: “U-turns have succeeded U-turns – in a series of hairpin bends leading down to an abyss – which can only reflect a struggle between Downing Street neighbours.” One wonders when the government will resolve the issue and start to invest in the people who rose so heroically to their tasks after the recent disasters.