The death of a "freeloader": When will we accept the results of austerity?

As an eighteen year old dies trying to flee a ticket inspector in Athens, police in Britain boast of apprehending a mother shoplifting to feed her two children. All across Europe, people are struggling to survive.

“Let’s not get used to death” reads a poster you see on walls around Athens. It’s a simple message: we should never stop being shocked by the death and suffering caused by the choices of European leaders and the Greek government. From suicides to “accidents”, the list of casualties has names added to it daily. From Dimitris Christoulas, the 77-year-old who, in April last year, took his own life in Syntagma square, to Babakar Diaye, the 39-year-old man from Senegal who fell on the train tracks from a great height and died after being chased by the municipal police in downtown Athens, the end result is always the same: loss of human lives.

But sometimes the going gets too much. Sometimes the morning news reads like a page out of Les Misérables. Last night, an 18-year-old died in the streets of Athens. Caught without a ticket on a trolley bus, he tried to escape the inspector who had just stepped on board by pushing the emergency button and jumping out of the door. He lost his balance and hit his head on the curb. After being taken to the hospital, the doctors pronounced him dead.

The scenes described by an eyewitness make the case sound truly appalling. He speaks of how the boy was trying to explain that both he and his parents were unemployed, and that he simply couldn’t afford the ticket or the fine. He speaks of the inspector physically assaulting him and ripping his shirt, and the bus driver joining in before the victim made a desperate attempt to escape. And he speaks of shocking scenes where the other passengers almost mobbed the inspector, shouting at him: “you just took a kid's life for one euro”.

More shocking is the reaction seen by some using Greek social media - commentators, authors, politicians. “The inspector was only doing his job,” they say. “It’s not his fault if a freeloader decided to jump off the bus”. This was the death of a “freeloader”. Not of an unemployed kid with no future, but of a guy who simply didn’t feel like paying his fare. This mirrors the attitude some government officials have shown in the past, such as the newly appointed Minister of Health, Adonis Georgiadis, who took up the post in December last year. “Those that cannot adapt, die,” he has said.

In a tragic parallel that defies borders, almost at the same time as the incident in Greece hit the news, the Cheetham & Crumpsall (Manchester) police station account tweeted:

I don’t know the specifics of the case, but the tone is what gets me. The seemingly unconnected fact that she was trying to steal baby food with two kids in her arms. Just as in the case of the 18-year-old, the subject is disconnected from the cause. Poverty and the inability to pay for transportation or food, does not get in the way of the law. The haves are not supposed to empathise with the have-nots. So the list of victims gets bigger.

In Britain, the criminalisation of squatting cost lives last winter. Cheap housing is non-existent in London, and unused properties are boarded up to keep unwanted no-goods out, while landlords plot how to squeeze every penny out of the poor. Come next winter, train fares are expected to rise by more than four per cent, making commuting work even harder for those displaced to the suburbs. This same thing happened in Greece, making job-seeking impossible for many, even if there were jobs to be had in the nation's ruined job market. What will it come to in Britain?

It's farcical. The inequalities that triggered the Arab spring - whose unravelling we are witnessing today in Egypt - are being repeated in austerity Europe. The social fabric, the welfare state that held it together, is being torn down. If you become unemployed, the chances of you getting back to work get slimmer and slimmer if you don’t have some sort of back-up. In places like Greece, Spain, Portugal and now Britain, this a new, extreme reality. In this new reality, we could all end up being cast as “freeloaders”. And our deaths, be they the result of cold, persecution or despair, will be labelled as a “failure to adapt”.

A homeless man sleeps on a vent outside a closed metro station in the centre of Athens. Photograph: Getty Images.

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.