Life-expectancy in Glasgow’s East End

Not all the daily statistics on Covid-19 fall into the depressing category, but some of them certainly do, and foremost among them is the daily reminder that the poorer areas of Scotland show the highest number of deaths.

It’s easy to make political capital of the figures, and in particular to argue that the high mortality rate in such areas as the East End of Glasgow is due to the present government’s mishandling of the present crisis.

If only matters were that simple.  The life-expectancy of men in Glasgow’s East End has long been a national disgrace.  According to recent statistics they can ‘expect’ to die nine years before their counterparts in India; those born in affluent Lenzie, a short drive away, can expect to live twenty-eight years longer.

All this was before the virus, and before Nicola Sturgeon and before Boris Johnson and before Tony Blair and before Margaret Thatcher.  None of them can be blamed for causing the problem, but of all of them can be blamed for not addressing it, and because of their neglect the population of Scotland’s poorer areas, east and west, north and south, brought generations-old ‘underlying health issues’ with them into the current pandemic; and these issues were directly related to endemic structural poverty (I’ve just held myself back from saying ‘organised poverty:’ but it was very close to that).


Overwhelming the amenities

The truth is that Scotland has never caught up with the social upheavals of the Industrial Revolution and Agrarian Revolutions which in the 18th century suddenly drew (or drove) thousands of Scots from the relative security of rural life into the chaos, bewilderment and ruthlessness of burgeoning commercial and industrial cities where the explosion in population overwhelmed all the amenities.  Glasgow was, of course, the prime example.  In 1700 its population was around 12,000.  By 1780 that had grown to 43,000, by 1820 it was an estimated 147,000 and by the early 20th century it was creeping up to a million.

Many of the migrants had been allured by the dream of new opportunities; many others had come because, from Sutherland to the Lothians, they had been driven off the lands of their forebears; and many more had come because the Potato Famines of Ireland and the Highlands had reduced them to starvation and desperation. 

The city they came to was utterly unprepared for them: content to offer jobs, but little else.  Newly arrived relatives crowded in on relatives already struggling; there was no safety-net for the unemployed or even the dream of a national health service; the concept of a school in every parish (or even a church in every parish) became meaningless overnight.

And overarching it all, and fatal to the hopes of multitudes of the migrants, the number of men desperately searching for a job far exceeded the number of jobs available; and as if that weren’t enough, potential employers saw many of them as unemployable.  Some were physically incapable of it; some spoke the wrong language; others professed the wrong religion; some could easily be accused of bad timing; each one reduced the profit-margin; and in any case, women and children were cheaper.

Today, mass migration to such conurbations as Cape Town and Brasilia results in the mushrooming of huge shanty-towns on city-outskirts; in early-modern Glasgow it resulted in slums at the city’s heart: poor housing, poor diet, poor sanitation, poor education, and an ever-falling life-expectancy.  Every epidemic, whether diphtheria, typhoid, influenza or tuberculosis, took its toll; and while the epidemics passed, the accumulation of ‘underlying medical conditions’ continued, immunity declined, the lessons weren’t learned, and now another invisible killer has come and taken its toll.

There were successes, of course, among the migrants, and the East End still produces strong and robust individuals.  There have also been significant palliative measures such as the Old Age Pension, the Dole and the NHS.  But for cities like Glasgow (and the same story could be told of Dundee, Edinburgh and Aberdeen) there has been little, if any, improvement in life-expectancy.  We all know about it, but those who could do something about it, don’t; and those of us who can’t, don’t call those who can to account.  No political party has put it at the top of its manifesto, and neither has any government, of any colour, in the course of the last two hundred years; and the unemployed don’t have a trade-union.

So then, two hundred years after Dr Thomas Chalmers was appalled by the conditions he found in his Tron parish in 1815, the men of Glasgow’s Calton district can hope for no more than to make it to the age of sixty-seven (the national average is eighty); or, alternatively, somehow to make it to Lenzie (or Morningside)

Meanwhile, the rest of us, dream of the ‘new normal’.  When will the fitba’ start?  When will the pubs and restaurants open?  When will cinemas and theatres open?  When can we get back to church?

May God forgive us.  The immediate challenge facing us is to bring the current epidemic under control, but when we look beyond that, our eyes should be fixed not on recovering our personal freedoms but on raising the life-expectancy of the men of Glasgow’s East End.

Where do we begin?  By recognising that the greatest threat to health (and to the NHS) is poor housing.

What’s the problem?  There are no votes in it.

Unless we give ours: a vote for the men of the Gallowgate and the Saltmarket.