The death of a toddler shouldn’t be a ‘learning experience’

Tower block in London, UK
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On 15 November, the inquest into the death of 2-year-old Awaab Ishak in 2020 concluded that the toddler died due to prolonged exposure to black mould in his family’s flat. Since 2017, Awaab’s family had complained to Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) about the damp and mould in their home, and had requested to be re-housed. RBH, the social housing association responsible for the Rochdale council flat, failed to take action. The toddler died on 21 December 2020, having been discharged from hospital two days prior.

Unfit for human habitation

A post-mortem examination revealed fungus in the toddler’s blood and lungs.

Senior coroner Joanne Kearsley said:

Awaab Ishak died as a result of a severe respiratory condition caused due to prolonged exposure to mould in his home environment.

She added:

Action to treat and prevent the mould was not taken. His respiratory condition led to respiratory arrest.

Surveyor Daniel McVey, who inspected the property two days after Awaab’s death, told the court that it was unfit for human habitation. Despite this, RBH refused to rehouse Awaab’s family following his death. His mother was pregnant at the time.

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Responding to the inquest’s conclusions, the family’s barrister Christian Weaver shared:

Racist treatment

According to solicitors Kelly Darlington and Alice Wood, in the lead up to Awaab’s death, RBH suggested that his parents were responsible for the mould and damp in the flat due to their “lifestyle and bathing habits”. Highlighting the racist undertones of the association’s suggestions, Garden Court Chambers barrister Sonia Birdee tweeted:

A statement written by Awaab’s parents addressed RBH directly, and the family’s lawyers read it out:

Stop being racist. Stop providing unfair treatment to people coming from abroad who are refugees or asylum seekers. Stop housing people in homes you know are unfit for human habitation. We were left feeling absolutely worthless at the hands of RBH.

No justice, no accountability

At the inquest, RBH’s director of customer and community Nadia Khan said that Awaab’s preventable death has been a “big learning experience” for the association. Calling out this lacklustre response, social housing campaigner Kwajo Tweneboa tweeted:

In spite of pressure to resign, RBH chief executive Gareth Swarbrick remains in his £185k-a-year position following the toddler’s death. He hasn’t apologised to Awaab’s grieving family. 

Indicting all those responsible for Awaab’s premature death, Labour MP for Streatham Bell Ribeiro-Addy shared:

According to a statement by Greater Manchester Tenants Union, Swarbrick landed a £41,000 rise in pay between 2019 and 2021. Highlighting RBH’s unsafe and unjust practices, the union stated that the social housing association is leaving “hundreds of good homes empty for demolition”. Disgusted, the union shared:

We’ve seen this before

In a statement, Swarbrick said that Awaab’s death “should be a wake up call”. But social housing tenants, including Awaab’s family, have been sounding the alarm for years.

The circumstances surrounding Awaab’s death reflect those of the Grenfell Tower tenants. People living in Grenfell Tower repeatedly urged Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTO) to take action to change their unsafe living conditions. KCTO and the local council ignored these calls, and failed to take action which could have prevented the fire killing 72 residents.

Grenfell United, a group of survivors and bereaved families from the Grenfell Tower fire, shared:

The government promised change in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy. However, it hasn’t enacted any recommendations made at the inquiry.

Furthermore, nine-year-old Ella died from asthma caused by the excessive air pollution in and around her Southeast London home in 2013. Her mother shared:

Not an isolated incident

Ahead of the inquest into Awaab’s death, Manchester Evening News reported that a number of flats on the same estate also had significant damp and mould. RBH is responsible for all the flats on the Rochdale estate.

Landlords, councils and social housing associations are leaving families to languish in unsafe conditions up and down the country. Highlighting one case of many, Tweneboa tweeted:

Sharing a thread of countless cases in which landlords, councils, and housing associations are ignoring tenants’ urgent calls regarding their dangerous living conditions, ITV News investigations correspondent Daniel Hewitt tweeted:

Reminding us of who is ultimately responsible for the proliferation of unsafe housing in Britain, Shivani Sharma tweeted:

We must see accountability at all levels for those responsible for the death of young Awaab. Now is the time for urgent action. It’s time to develop a housing sector that empowers communities, and ensures that every person can live in safety and dignity. This is the only way we will see an end to these unjust and preventable deaths.

Featured image via Ben Allan – Unsplash

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  • Show Comments
    1. The UK, like many societies, values individual home ownership as a financial asset and as an unalloyed good. This is true across the political spectrum and is central to the beliefs and life choices of, I suspect, most readers of this site who see nothing wrong with their children inheriting substantial unearned wealth – although the same readers will excoriate the richest 1% for doing the same on a larger scale.

      There are consequences to that value: a general reluctance to provide good quality, publicly owned social housing in anything like the liberality of health care through the NHS. But if we can have medicine free at the point of delivery, publicly funded and universally available, why not housing?

    2. As a child in the 1960’s, we lived in a council house, in London, where the walls were so covered in mould, despite my mum going around every day, frantically trying to clean it off as much as was possible, that I suffered constantly with bronchial problems, as did my siblings. I find it obscene that this is still happening in 2022!

      Unfortunately, it seems that deaths of children, because the social housing stock in the UK is so deteriorated – due mostly to the selling off of the best of it by Thatcher in the 1980’s – is the prime cause.

      This is especially the case when government after government have refused to keep building newer, and better, homes for those who prefer Social Housing to the slavery of ‘owning’ their own home, or who are unable, or unwilling, to fall into the home buyer’s trap!

      There, it seems, is the problem, as each Tory government, since Thatcher, have pushed the ideology that owning the roof over your head makes you somehow better than those who don’t.

      I believe that too many government figures are also Landlords themselves, who take advantage of the lessening ofTenant protections, to make money out of people’s misery.

      I have to agree with Airlane1979’s comment, that housing should be thought of in the same way that we’ve grown up to think of the NHS: as a necessity of life, and something we should be aiming for, for everyone that prefers it, instead of making Banks and their Investors ever more wealthy, by paying for Mortgages we’ll never truly be able to afford.

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