That’s what it’s all about. Isn’t it? Our most basic needs.
For some, who were comfortable, these basics are threatened in the current climate. For some they have constantly been under threat. For the lucky ones, all is well. For now.
The fact remains that food needs to be grown by someone. Seeds need to be sown and nurtured. Given the right amount of nutrients, sun and water. Given time to mature and then harvested. Like Midas, even if everything else was made of gold, we could not eat it. Even if we put hundreds of satellites in space, we need our basic needs met.
Over the past few months I have appreciated growing a few things from seed. Sunflowers, mint, coriander and sage. Not enough to keep me alive but enough to give me a smug feel of being someone who grows stuff. I have little trays laid out by the windowsill and they fill me with pride each day they reach out for the sun, a few millimeters more than yesterday. What must it be like to be a real farmer!
In India, more than 11 thousand farmers ended their lives in the year 2016. Too much rain. Too little rain. Aberrant weather. Poor quality seeds. Exploitative middle men. Illness in the family. Monsanto. Easy access to pesticides. False promises of relief measures, incentivising a farmer suicide. The government promises money but fails to deliver again and again. It then blocks articles and videos that try to make this information public.
Kheyti is an organisation that helps small farmers design and implement low-cost farming interventions. “Greenhouse-in-a-Box” is a low-cost greenhouse bundled with end-to-end services. This greenhouse fits in 2-5% of a small farmer’s land, protects crops from environmental risks and grows 7 times more food using 90% less water.
This prolonged lockdown is going to affect many individuals and small businesses. Many are starting to worry about their very basic needs. Uncertainty, insecurity and the feeling of being stuck is rising everyday. Helplines are receiving more calls. Food banks have had to expand beyond capacity. The indirect and unintended consequences of the pandemic might be worse than the direct and predicted ones. As incomes fall away, despair in our communities will rise further.
Each of us needs to think of one person we know whose income might be affected by this and call them. We need to think of one person recently bereaved and call them. Not text. Not e-mail. Phone call. Speak. Directly. Ask questions. Connect, have a chat, come up with ideas and creative answers. Signpost to resources. Reassure. Give hope. Together, figure it out.
This too will pass but before that it will test us. All of us.
Dying from Inequality – Samaritans commissioned eight leading social scientists to review and extend the existing body of knowledge on socioeconomic disadvantage, ie. being poor, addressing three key questions:
Why is there a connection between socioeconomic disadvantage and suicidal behaviour?
What is it about socioeconomic disadvantage that increases the risk of suicidal behaviour?
What can be done about it?
A few excerpts:
Neighbourhoods that are the most deprived have worse health than those that are less deprived and this association follows a gradient: for each increase in deprivation, there is a decrease in health. Additional support for those living in deprived areas is needed to reduce geographical inequalities in health and the risk of suicidal behaviour.
Economic uncertainty, unemployment, a decline in income relative to local wages, unmanageable debt, the threat or fear of home repossessions, job insecurity and business downsizing may all increase the risk of suicidal behaviour, especially for individuals who experience socioeconomic disadvantage.
Unmanageable debt is an important risk factor for suicidal behaviour. Financial advice and support for those at risk of having unmanageable debt can help reduce the risk of mental health problems and suicidal behaviour.
Suicidal behaviour and mental health problems, such as mild-to-moderate anxiety and depression, could be reduced through labour market policy design, such as higher spending on active labour market programmes and unemployment benefits.
People living with socioeconomic disadvantage and inequalities are more likely to experience negative events during their life, such as job loss, financial difficulties, poor housing, and relationship breakdown. This can lead to negative emotions and increase the likelihood of suicidal behaviour.
“Terrible poverty causes brain damage”, says Charles Nelson, a professor of neuroscience and paediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
In 1989, when the communists were overthrown in Romania, 170,000 children were abandoned and were living in government-run institutions under very poor conditions. Nelson and his team started studying them in the late 1990s. They found that the kids were deprived of key experiences during critical periods of development. Babies lay in cribs for their first year or more and their visual experience was limited because often the ceilings were painted white. There was no one to talk to them and care-giving was limited, so they were deprived of psychosocial stimulation. Their physical growth was greatly stunted too. The kids were very very small.
“We had a rule: no crying in front of the kids. But I can’t tell you how tough it was.”
The team wanted to find out if high-quality foster care for these kids could rectify the negative impact of poverty they might have. They recruited a sample of 136 kids, from 6-31 months of age and randomly assigned half of them to high quality foster care. The other half remained in institutional care. Foster parents from Bucharest were volunteers who had been intensively screened and interviewed. They were paid a small wage and provided with material support such as toys and diapers. The families were closely monitored by social workers.
Two years into the study they found that across the board, the kids in institutions lagged behind in language development, IQ and mental well being. The prevalence of anxiety and depression were reduced no matter how old the kids were when they were placed in foster care.
They are now about 16 years old. Those in institutions are starting to experience significant mental health issues such as psychotic disorders and paranoia. 20 of them showed a sharp drop in IQ from the age of 12.
One year following this research, the Romanian government passed a legislation banning the institutionalisation of children below the age of 2 years unless they were severely disabled. They also started government foster care.
This is a classic example of science giving rise to political will to improve lives of kids.
UK’s Child Poverty Action Group reports that 3.9 million children in this country live in poverty at present. This means more than one in 4 children are growing up in families with less than 60% of the median income. In the US, 15 million children live below the poverty line. Western levels of poverty may not be anything close to the hardship endured by many in developing countries but it has long lasting detrimental effects on the physical and mental health of children.
With a strong political will, child poverty can be alleviated but despite setting goals and targets, our government is spectacularly failing to deliver. Dealing with child poverty and its life long consequences is not a matter of political choice but that of moral duty.