Letters to the Canary: pandemics, problematic politicians, and political posturing over social work students

Letters to the Canary
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The Canary is excited to share the latest edition of our letters page. This is where we publish people’s responses to the news and politics, or anything else they want to get off their chest. We’ve now opened the letters page up so anyone can submit a contribution. As always, if you’d like to subscribe to the Canary – starting from just £1 a month – to support truly radical and independent media, then you can do that here:

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This week’s letters

This week we have people’s thoughts on viruses and pandemics, the Tories failing to attend a UN meeting on disabled people’s rights, and the problems facing social work students in England.


Jonathan Kennedy tells us in his book that we have been thinking wrongly about evolution as just “the survival of the fittest”: it is not simply about “human strength and intelligence” – but as much “about the way that we have developed to live and thrive in a world dominated by germs”.

He tells us that “the only reason that humans don’t lay eggs is that a virus long ago inserted itself into our DNA”. Dinosaurs were larger than us – but did lay eggs. He informs us that ”there are as many bacteria in your body as there are human cells”. There are good and bad bacteria, and the good ones in our gut are essential for digestion.

There have been plagues and pandemics throughout history. Germs decided the outcome of the Trojan War in the fifth century BC. The Athenians wanted to avoid fighting the superior Spartan force. The rural population retired behind Athens’ city walls to await Spartan departure, then used their superior naval force to win. However, the city became overcrowded and insanitary. Despite sound strategy, waves of infectious diseases in Athens gave victory to Sparta.

Greeks believed that angry gods sent diseases, but Hippocrates – as part of the Greek Enlightenment – rejected this and advised physicians to “observe a patient’s symptoms, diagnose what is wrong and take an appropriate course of action”. He thus became the father of medicine and doctors’ Hippocratic Oath was named after him.

Read on...

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The Plague of Justinian in the fifth century was apparently bubonic plague transmitted by fleas. People and rats rapidly died, but the pathogens survived in gerbils and marmots in Central Asia: they transferred it back to rats. Much of humanity perished and the Greco-Roman and Persian empires waned to be replaced by the Arabian Empire.

A feudal society emerged in Europe following the fall of the Roman Empire. This was triggered by the Black Death. There were epidemics in China and germs headed along the Silk Road to Europe. Stagnant feudalism was replaced by a capitalist system seeking profits and growth: most people then lived in towns.

Human expansion squeezes space for animals: extinctions result from loss of habitat and conflict with people. Contact also results in the transfer of pathogens via zoonotic diseases – the most recent being Covid. We must be better prepared for more such pandemics in future.

Carol Broom, via email

Response to a Canary article on the Tories failing to attend a UN meeting over disabled people’s rights

I just wish the UN had teeth rather than telling the government they are letting down those citizens who are disabled by targeting them every time for cuts, sanctions and being denied the benefits they are entitled to.

Rishi Sunak – like Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, Theresa May, and David Cameron – has no regard for poor people who rely on benefits because they are too ill to work. If things continue then I can see no alternative but to rise up in civil disobedience to hold the government to account and open people’s eyes to the fact that the Tories promise whatever will get them elected (having no intention of delivering) – spreading lies, half truths, and complete myths about the opposition to stop them from winning at the polls.

The only good thing about our current system of FPTP is the voter ID seems to have alienated the Tory base by preventing them from voting. There were no grounds for introducing this apart from preventing the opposition parties’ supporters from voting – but they shot themselves in the foot with it!

Dave Barclay, via email

‘Warm words but no action’ on English social work bursaries

The minister for care has responded to the hundreds of social work students and recent graduates who recently joined a call to reform bursaries across England.

An open letter to the UK secretaries of state for health and education set out arguments for an end to the unique nature of hardships social work students face.

In response, Helen Whately MP, a minister at the Department for Health & Social Care who shares responsibility for social work training with the Department for Education, said:

“I can assure you that both departments are committed to support the profession and those aspiring to enter the profession.”

However, John McGowan, general secretary of the Social Workers Union, which has supported the students in the campaign, commented:

“The Minister’s warm words sadly contained no promise to change the unfair bursaries system in England. We have already seen Welsh and Scottish governments take notice of the unique challenges social work students face and we had hoped the Minister would promise to look into the issue.

“Sadly, neither the Government, nor the Labour front bench, have agreed to meet with the students to discuss the issues they face.”

Students on social work courses often complete front-line work as part of their courses, helping the most vulnerable in society. This means many social work students face unique levels of financial hardship as they are unable to work part-time while completing their studies.

Student bursaries for social workers in England are unequally distributed and limited in number. Where bursaries are available, the funding for them has been frozen for over eight years, resulting in a real-terms cut in support for many students and the numbers of placements capped.

Joe Hanley, a lecturer at the Open University, commented:

“There is nothing new or substantive in this reply, and it essentially dismisses the voices and experiences of social work students who have had their financial support crippled by the government in recent years.

“As is typical, the minister simply points to targeted funding of routes like fast-tracks and apprenticeships as a justification to ignore and disadvantage the vast majority of social work students who still qualify through mainstream university programmes and are increasingly struggling. At a time of rapidly rising vacancy rates, caused by her government’s policy and neglect of the workforce, this is unacceptable.”

The campaign is being coordinated by the Social Workers Union and the British Association of Social Workers following representations from students affected by the issue. The organisations have already written to Labour policy makers to ask for their support for reform, which met with silence from shadow ministers.

Rebekah Pierre, BASW England professional officer commented:

“Despite acknowledgement from the Government that students are facing challenges with the cost-of-living crisis, it is disappointing that there is no commitment to making the student bursaries system any fairer.

“With an ongoing recruitment and retention crisis in social work, we urge the Government to rethink their position and commit to supporting every student that wishes to pursue a career in social work”.

Simon Francis, Campaign Collective, via email

Want to get involved? Email membership(at)thecanary.co and we’ll publish your letters, too! Terms and conditions of publication apply.

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