This is a difficult post to write, but I think it has to be written. So please, don’t make the mistake of thinking what I’m about to say means my heart isn’t breaking at the tragic loss of lives in yet another US school shooting.
As I write, the news media are showing constant footage and updates about the terrible events in Newtown, Connecticut, where a gunman has entered a school armed with multiple weapons and killed, according to the latest report, at least 27 people, including 18 children, having already killed both of his parents and, so it’s reported, his brother.
It’s an awful, awful situation. I have three children, though now grown up, and one of them is a teacher, so my heart goes out to those affected. But at the same time as I’m appalled and shocked, I can’t help thinking ‘But what about…?’
You see, because of the things I write about, and the research I do for what I write, I’m aware that there are things which are just as bad – and on a much greater scale – going on constantly in this country. The news channels are devoting non-stop coverage of the events in Newtown, and it’s understandable. What isn’t understandable is why the events in this country – also horrific, and hurting far greater numbers of people – barely merit a mention in the news media, let alone saturation coverage.
Already, in the US, the pro-gun lobbies are mobilising to defend the ‘right’ to carry guns. Within minutes of the coverage beginning, I had already heard a commentator talk of how the ‘gun lobby’ was trotting out its well-worn claim: ‘Guns don’t kill people. People kill people‘, and is even trying to use the tragedy to call for more guns, arguing that fewer people would be killed by guns if more people had them ‘to defend themselves’, and that schoolteachers should carry guns to defend their pupils.
The mind boggles. But the thing is, they’re partly right. People do kill people – but guns allow them to kill others in far greater numbers than they could otherwise. Because people kill people, the more you can keep them away from guns, the more sense it makes. If you put guns in their hands, more people are going to die.
But we face a parallel situation here in the UK, and it’s what is causing those barely-mentioned and much larger tragedies I referred to above. Not because we put guns into people’s hands, but because we have power in the hands of people of ill will, stupidity, or both.
Power doesn’t kill people. People kill people. But power allows them to do so on a vast scale. Perhaps you think I’m crass to do anything but join in with the public show of horror and grief about the events in Connecticut – but let me tell you about some of those almost-hidden tragedies first, and then if you still think I’m crass, at least you’ll be making an informed judgment.
In Newtown, 29 people died in today’s shooting, plus the gunman, according to the latest news. It’s truly awful – but here are some other figures, which I hope will shock you commensurately. Because they should:
24,000 is the number of people who died in the UK last winter because of ‘fuel poverty’. That’s 24 thousand people who died because they couldn’t afford to heat their homes properly, and who died either of hypothermia, or of illnesses resulting from their inability to keep warm.
It’s truly a national scandal. And yet I can barely recall a mention of it on the news channels, and little more in the press. Certainly nothing like the coverage that we’re seeing now about the school shooting – or even the near-continuous coverage of the very sad death of Jacintha Saldanha. One royal-related death is big news, but 24,000 avoidable deaths, in a single winter and from a clearly identifiable, remediable cause, are apparently not. But then, the progress of the Olympic torch around the country was deemed worthy of mass coverage when the plan to privatise the NHS wasn’t, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.
Our government has the power to do something about fuel poverty, in order to prevent a repeat of this national shame. So what is it doing? In a time of steep rises in fuel costs that are expected to continue for the foreseeable future – it is capping benefit rises at 1%, well below the general rate of inflation and miles below the rate of increase in energy costs (13% up to October this year, and another 8% or so from January)
330,000 – or 1.9 million
I wrote a couple of months ago about the government’s planned change from Disability Living Allowance (DLA), which is currently paid (in varying amounts) to some 3.2 million people, to the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). Iain Duncan Smith’s Department of Work & Pensions devised the new payment with the specific goal of excluding at least 500,000 people from the new payment who currently qualify for DLA, as a cost-saving measure.
Basing my calculations on this figure, I showed that the change will push at least 85,000 people below the poverty line – but that figure is based on an extremely unlikely hypothetical scenario in which every single person excluded is single and has no dependents. On a more likely situation, the number of people pushed into poverty will number in the hundreds of thousands.
But it appears I was over-cautious. Yesterday, the Tory Minister for Disabled People, Esther McVey, told the House of Commons that, of the 560,000 people who will be assessed for the new benefit by 2015, 330,000 are expected to be excluded from the benefit. That’s an exclusion rate of 59%. 3.2 million people receive DLA, so if the same failure rate applies as they become due for reassessment, that means around 1.9 million disabled people who will lose crucial support. Using the same calculations as I applied to the 500,000 initially flagged to be excluded, it means almost a million people pushed below the poverty line.
Factor that into the death rate from energy poverty, and you’re looking at a situation where the 24,000 deaths last winter will look like nothing compared to what we’re going to see, let alone the 30 innocent deaths in Connecticut.
453 – and counting
That’s the number of additional suicides that happened last year, compared to before the financial crash. As growing numbers of people face financial catastrophe, more and more are seeing suicide as the only escape. The government’s response? To demonise the unemployed, disabled people and low earners who are forced to claim benefits – and then to cut those benefits and deepen the despair, while the rich get richer.
73 – a week
This, according to the campaign group DPAC, is the number of deaths (including suicides) among disabled people as a result of the government’s programme of Work Capability Assessments (WCAs), which is categorising people as fit for work when they are plainly not. 70% are eventually overturned on appeal – but the stress of the process and the fear of losing essential support are killing some and causing others to commit suicide. And the government is responding by capping benefits even for those who do pass the test – and closing Remploy, which provides suitable work for disabled people, while Iain Duncan Smith sneers at them and tells them ‘this is better’.
24,000. 330,000. 1.9 million. 453. 73 a week. All numbers at least as deserving of mass media attention as the 30 killed in Connecticut – and all conspicuous by their absence from the BBC and other news media.
Power doesn’t kill people. People kill people. But people with power can kill a lot of people – and this government is wreaking havoc among ordinary and vulnerable people.
The deaths of the 30 (as of now) innocents in Newtown will, rightly, bring people out onto the streets in the US – for prayer vigils, to lay flowers, to protest in favour of (and, insanely, against) gun control.
If the people of the UK became as aware, en masse, of what is taking place under the coalition government as they surely are now of what has happened in Connecticut, the streets would be packed with people protesting – and streaming to the polls in 2015 or earlier to get rid of those in power, killing people.
Which is, probably, why we’re not seeing those other numbers and many like them on our television screens.
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