Appalling images of a blazing London housing block were beamed around the world last week, after a 24-story building was ravaged by fire in minutes. Fifty-eight people died or are missing presumed dead, although the toll could have been far higher were it not for Muslim residents commemorating Ramadan late at night, noticing the blaze and waking residents.
This tragedy has devastated dozens of families, with a high proportion of the victims being Muslim immigrants or from the poorer segments of British society. Beyond grieving for those who died a horrific death, deeper social issues are being raised. I regularly drive through these parts of London, and have seen the aging and decrepit tower blocks that dot the skyline. The burned-out shell of Grenfell Tower is today visible from miles in all directions — a damning indictment of the authorities’ failure to protect their most vulnerable constituents.
Local authorities in wealthy Kensington are awash with cash, yet failed to direct sufficient resources toward poorer residents, in order to prevent needless deaths. Grenfell Tower recently underwent a refit, principally so that the flats would not be an eyesore for nearby millionaire residents. The external cladding used reportedly acted as a chimney, funneling the fire rapidly from its starting point on the fourth floor.
One could almost put a price on what the local authorities believed these people’s lives were worth. They reportedly rejected fireproof cladding which cost just £2 ($2.55) per meter extra, instead choosing a product banned in the US because of its flammability. Imagine being told that you lost your children to the flames for the sake of a couple of pounds!
The intense national anger is thus understandable. I do not take seriously the spurious allegations that this was deliberate retaliation against Muslim residents following recent terror attacks. However, there is growing evidence that the blaze may constitute manslaughter through gross negligence.
We have seen human compassion at its best — crossing racial and religious divides — as locals donated clothes and food and opened their homes to bereaved and homeless families. However, much of this support was only necessary because the authorities were nowhere to be seen. Why was it left to local churches and community centers to coordinate the affairs of survivors? A safety net of administrative support was in place within minutes of the recent Manchester terrorist attacks. Why were residents compelled to go and protest at local council offices in order to get attention?
Prime Minister Theresa May briefly appeared at the fire site and avoided meeting victims. Then she followed this blunder with a robotic TV interview wholly lacking in human compassion. When she later did meet survivors, the damage had already been done.
The immense gulf between the wealthy residents of Kensington and those who burned to death in poverty is a modern parable for the deep injustices of our times.
The government is keen to distance itself from blame, yet ministers blocked proposals to enforce the installation of sprinklers in tower-blocks. With no functioning fire alarms, the instructions telling people to remain in their rooms in the event of fire, and residents’ warnings over obvious safety risks that were ignored, one is left with the impression that the authorities could hardly have done more to guarantee that this tower became a death-trap.
This callous treatment reinforces perceptions by locals that they are unwanted. Many of them are slated to be forcibly relocated out of the district, out of reach of jobs, schools and family connections. There is no room for them in a district where a high proportion of properties are unoccupied, owned by wealthy overseas investors.
The message is unmistakable: If you are a poor, immigrant, working-class family, then you are an inconvenience; you are undeserving of elementary safety measures to prevent your kids from burning to death in flats unfit for human habitation — all within shouting distance of some of the most desirable and expensive properties on the planet.
We can weep for the children heard screaming as their bedrooms were engulfed in flames. We can grieve for the refugee who fled the horrors of Syria to die in an inferno in an unfamiliar city, or Khadija Saye, who perished just as she was achieving recognition as an artist. However, beyond these individual tragedies, this disaster cuts to the heart of so much of that is wrong with Britain today. It is a nation under a regime of austerity, where public services and benefits have been slashed. Even the police have faced brutal cuts at a time they are expected to be stepping up to a growing threat of terrorism.
Austerity Britain is a nation of food banks, precarious employment, diminished social mobility, a health system at breaking point, and a housing ladder with the first rung hanging above most people’s heads. Britain in 2017 is not a good place to be poor and on the fringes of society.
The immense gulf between the wealthy residents of Kensington and those who burned to death in poverty is a modern parable for the deep injustices of our times. In elections just days before the fire, Britons voted in large numbers for a more compassionate nation which does more for those whose lives are a daily struggle to keep their heads above water.
The Grenfell Tower fire was a wake-up call, a beacon which nobody could miss. If the authorities fail to respond by changing course toward an agenda that maximizes social justice and combats inequality, then the fire of public anger will soon be lapping at the doors of government.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate, a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.