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Opinion: Why we all need to care about the Grenfell Tower fire

In trying to make sense of the London tragedy, one writer believes we Kiwis must learn from the heartache.

“We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.”

This quote, from writer Tennessee Williams, was posted by a friend on Facebook yesterday. And as beautiful as it is, I find these words – amid all the terrible events in London in the past few days – a little disconcerting.

Trying to make sense of it all, of the unfolding crime that is Grenfell Tower, I find myself again and again trying to focus on the good. And you didn’t have to look hard to see the strength, the solidarity, the kindness of local residents to one another. The bravery. Those firefighters deserved the thunderous applause they received as they drove away from the smouldering carcass in which so many died. A working class hero is indeed something to be.

And yet…

This selflessness that surges to the surface at times such as this, it’s a damn fine thing. But I ask myself, why do we have to wait until disaster strikes for compassion and caring to come to the fore? Why does it take the noble deeds of ordinary folk to make us see what kind of world this could be?

For me, Grenfell Tower is not simply a tragedy and a case of gross criminal neglect– it is a distress flare. A blazing cry for help addressed to a system where inequality and poverty are part of the scenery. On and on we go, electing new governments, shifting Cabinets and painting the skirting in red or blue, slapping cheap cladding over a rotten structure. But nothing changes.

And inequality isn’t just ‘a sad reality’. As Mahatma Ghandi said, “Poverty is the worst form of violence”.

Today new stats show there have been 194 deaths in New Zealand over a seven-year period from family violence. This included 56 child abuse and neglect deaths. Of course family violence happens across all socio-economic spheres, but it flourishes in particular soil.

To quote a 2013 Child Poverty Action Group Report: “Poverty impacts on families and neighbourhoods, and is the product not only of national economic and social policies, but how those policies are implemented and administered. Thus, while it can be argued individuals choose to maltreat or neglect their children, the environmental factors that contribute to family stress cannot be ignored. Focusing on individual behaviour will continue to put children at risk of abuse.”

Sometimes bad things happen and we don’t know why. But every day bad things happen and yes, we absolutely do know why.

The huge economic pressure from low wages and cramped living conditions puts enormous, unbearable pressure on families. Poverty means reliance on food parcels and kids going to school so hungry that they can’t focus or learn, furthering their disadvantage; cold, damp housing lands babies in hospital with respiratory illnesses; cuts to our mental health services mean cries for help go unheard and our young people die, needlessly. I could go on…

Hang on, I hear you say. It’s only Tuesday and, quite frankly my dear, you’re getting me down.

But wait. I haven’t got to the good part. Here it is.

None of this needs to happen. None of it.

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We CAN build dry, healthy homes that are affordable. We can build state housing that is safe and that ends people’s sense of isolation. We can build upwards, with medium density apartments designed so kids have somewhere to run and play and parents can get to know and support one another, and our elderly can live among a thriving community.

We CAN implement wide-scale apprenticeship programmes that give young people the hands-on skills to, quite literally, help build our future. We can pour money back into mental health, fund mentoring programmes for our youth, increase the living wage, improve working conditions (we did it with zero hours), bring in some form of control for rentals so even if we can’t own, we can at least live in a good quality home with security of tenure instead of making our kids shift schools every year or so.

And yes, we can do all this AND welcome in people fleeing poverty in their home countries. Think what we’d save on our health bill alone, were we to provide a healthy foundation for everyone, regardless of race, age, income, gender.

In this election year, what we need is political leadership that delivers a brave blueprint of the kind of society we want to be. A vision that stretches beyond their electoral term.

Because actually we don’t have to live in a perpetually burning building. We really don’t.

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