IIn a society shaped by deep inequality, there is a hierarchy of human life. An invisible matrix of social class, nationality and ethnicity determines how much individual lives are worth in Britain. When 72 people died at the Grenfell Tower in 2017, the British intellectual and musician Akala stated: “People died because they were poor.”
Residents repeatedly warned that the tower, which was covered in cheap, flammable sheathing, was not safe. Those residents not only disproportionately working class, but also black and brown; many slushies came from other countries. Had they been rich, white penthouse dwellers, their pleas for help might not have been ignored until the moment their houses caught fire. Even after the deadliest structural fire on British soil in three decades, solemn promises to relocate survivors were not kept. Time and again, it seems politically permissible to ignore the most disadvantaged people in society.
Millions of people still languish in homes that are effectively death traps wrapped in dangerous coatings. Although the Labor Party is correct in declaring this “extraordinary”, these grim facts are not surprising. According to the party, up to 11 million people live in potentially unsafe properties, some of whom have been forced to file for bankruptcy after receiving huge bills for repair works and fire patrols. An open democracy revealed investigation that the government has even been accused of attempted cover-up; the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government reportedly told local authorities that it was “appropriate” to block freedom of information requests for high-rise buildings covered with potentially dangerous aluminum cladding.
These are the sharp edges of a much broader housing crisis. In 2019, around 3.6 million people lived in overcrowded housing. Unsurprisingly, this affects low-income people the most and often Severe impact on family relationships and physical and mental health. Children living in crowded housing are much more likely to develop meningitis and respiratory illnesses, while research shows that such housing has provided fertile territory for the spread of Covid-19. There are other housing problems that mainly hit the poor as well, such as humidity, another threat to public health. Adults in overcrowded housing are also significantly more likely to suffer from psychological distresswhile precarious and unsafe housing has been linked to clinical depression.
The Grenfell disaster should have sparked a national debate on Britain’s housing crisis. That it was not so is indicative of a macabre hierarchy that everyone knows exists. After all, those most likely to suffer the consequences of the British social crisis are the poor and people of color. They lack an organized voice in society, and people of these origins are sadly underrepresented both in the media and in parliament, while voter turnout is lower among the poorest in society.
Which brings us back to the coating. If well-to-do white middle-class professionals had lived on the flames that burned, urgent measures would have been taken. But Grenfell was not a catalyst for a drastic and belated change because his victims were condemned to the bottom of the British hierarchy of human worth. And until a society that assigns different amounts of value to human life is overcome, those horrors run the risk of repeating themselves.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism