It may seem poor timing to polemicise on the causes of Britain’s horrendous death toll at the hands of the coronavirus. But many people in the UK and around the world are starting to debate just that. So, at the risk of being labelled insensitive, I think, in the very midst of the pandemic, this is precisely the moment to address this question. And the answers are likely to be disagreeable to say the least. The government and the official UK opposition Labour Party are far too compromised to ask the big questions, both being highly complicit in the whole sorry mess.
It’s a bloody mess to be sure. Poor housing, poor health infrastructure, decades of social care underfunding and good old fashioned government incompetence. But there’s more, much more. And it centres around the health of the nation. And that is the thorniest of things to discuss. It boils down to one central question; are we all victims of a dysfunctional, greedy, corporatist culture that puts profit first and foremost, or are we culpable for our own failing health. The unpalatable answer is both.
Boris Johnson, famous for his public school banter, declared on national TV after recovering from the dreaded virus, that he succumbed so easily because he was fat and that we should all look to trim off those surplus pounds in order to better face off the virus. There is truth contained in his Old Etonian buffoonery, but the question of the nation’s health is a whole lot more complicated.
A number of years back I reviewed a book by David Kessler entitled, The End of Over Eating. In this thesis, the good professor was at pains to show that the food industry had rewired our brains so that we were unable to resist the deadly cocktails of sugar, salt and Trans fats. These lethal components were so cleverly mixed as to make the products virtually irresistible to we, the consumers. So when Boris suggests that it’s just a question of a little more self control, he is either being disingenuous or simply wrong.
I don’t think it would be hyperbole to pronounce that the entire food industry in the developed nations is not fit for purpose. Not only loaded with refined sugars, indigestible trans-fats and criminally high levels of salt, but we have to contend with unacceptable levels of pesticides and a whole cocktail of cancer producing chemical preservatives. Eat organic, I hear Boris telling us. Yes please, if you provide the whole nation with a massive pay rise. We would need it to pay for our massively increased food bills. A better strategy would be to regulate the entire food industry and legislate against all cancerous chemicals and additives in the food chain. But our corporate beholden governments seem reluctant to take even the most meekest of measures.
There are areas where we, as individuals, can make healthier choices. Fruit and vegetables over crisps and sweets. Water rather than fussy drinks. Whole foods rather than processed foods. But, and it’s a massive but, when we’re surrounded and bombarded by junk food from cradle to grave, it’s not so easy to make healthy choices. Ask any harassed parent.
There is, however, an area where we can take matters into our own hands, and no amount of blaming corporates or governments will suffice. I refer of course to exercise. Yes, the gyms and sports centres have been closed more or less throughout the pandemic but what about pre Covid? Ok, they’re open but expensive. Still no excuse. At the time of writing, walking and jogging, not to mention jumping and skipping are still free in the UK. Canal walks are free. River walks are free. And our abundance of city parks and national parks are still free. But the truth of the matter is, as a nation we have totally lost the culture of daily exercise. And to some degree we have to blame but ourselves. And here’s a strange thing. During the first lockdown, when the weather was sublime, I didn’t see the masses of my fellow citizens out exercising. Why not? What where they doing? I estimate a five percent increase in walkers and joggers in my area but no more. Here was the perfect moment to re-calibrate our exercise regimes but instead, too many people chose to cower in their houses and live life online. Fair enough, I hear you say. It’s an individual choice. And so it is. But the ramifications of a hugely obese nation is obvious for all to see. An overwhelme health service and a tragically high mortality rate during the current pandemic. I doubt this is a particularly popular point of view but one that, at the very least, should be publically aired.
These issues and the corresponding statistics will be pored over for decades, but in the meantime we can take matters into our own hands. Improve our diets where we can, drink more water, up our vitamin D intake during the winter months, and definitely, rain or shine, get to your local park and exercise. As for the government regulation I spoke of earlier, don’t hold your breath.
Of course, the health of the nation involves much more than just diet and exercise. Slowly but surely, moving up the political agenda is the horrendous toxicity of the air we breathe. No amount of good diet and exercise can side step around this one. You can choose to walk or ride a bike every day but you simply can’t escape the toxic fumes and particulates in the air. Only government regulation can tackle this one. And, given the power of the fossil fuel, airline and automobile industries, progress on this front has been glacially slow. Breathing in this lethal cocktail of pollutants day in day out plays havoc on our respiratory systems. And guess which friendly virus just loves a compromised respiratory system? You guessed it. Coronavirus.
Then there is the decrepit state of the nation’s rental housing stock. Damp, rundown and cramped; three of the adjectives that immediately spring to mind. And of course, grossly overpriced. All this is heaven sent for our friendly coronavirus. Years of living in a nation where the landlord class has been over pampered and under regulated has created the perfect breeding ground for respiratory ill health.
So a picture starts to emerge of a profoundly sick nation. And no amount of extra funding for the NHS can realistically sort the problem. A national health service is there to treat disease and injury. But what is required is a national health strategy that actually prevents disease and promotes good health. Every year Sport England publishes its fine sounding platitudes to get us all walking, running and jumping. But nothing changes. Why? Initially, it seems an intractably difficult question to answer, but perhaps the answer is blindingly obvious: vast swathes of the country have been and still are blighted by generational poverty and deprivation. The central priority for millions of people is not going for a jog, but simply keeping head above water. Coronavirus simply exploits the situation and does so with relish. People on zero hour contracts cannot afford to quarantine for weeks on end. So they avoid the test and trace systems and, surprise, surprise, they continue working. Meanwhile the coronavirus happily skips from host to host. End result: one hundred thousand dead and it’s not done yet.
Build back better, say Boris, but he and his millionaire government can’t even ensure that children are adequately fed during the school holidays. In fact, pre Covid, many children regularly go to school hungry. This, in the sixth richest nation on the planet.
The expression, ‘joined up thinking’ has been used so many times it should be entered into the museum of national cliches. But joined up thinking is precisely what is required. Health, education, housing, transport, leisure and universal income all linked together in a coherent strategy. A strategy that would require strong and binding clean air and healthy food legislation. A transport system that renders the private motor car a luxury rather than a necessity. Subsidies taken away from the fossil fuel industries and diverted towards the renewable. Housing fit for purpose both in quality and price. A punitive tax on frequent flyers. A health system that prioritizes prevention above cure. An education system that promotes healthy living as a core subject. And, underpinning all this, a form of universal basic income that once and for all relegates soul-destroying poverty to the dustbin of history. Then, and only then, can we realistically expect the whole population to make informed decisions about their personal health. Meanwhile the dying continues and the poor continue to die, as they always have done, in ever greater proportions.