“I can’t breathe.” Three simple words that have become a powerful rallying cry for our generation. Many of us would attribute the phrase to George Floyd or Eric Garner who exhaled those words moments before they were murdered but, according to the New York Times, it has been said by over 70 people who have died in police custody. The phrase resonates with black and ethnic minority people as it perfectly encapsulates the suffocating injustice of racism, as Ben Okri writes “’I can’t breathe’ goes beyond saying that you are depriving me of freedom, of humanity, of respect. It says: “You are depriving me of the right to air itself.”
“I can’t climb any more, mum”. This was the moment that Ella-Kissi Debrah’s mother, Rosamund, first realised something was wrong. They had been attempting to climb the Monument to the Great Fire of London when Ella was six. It seemed odd as Ella had always been fit and active. She loved swimming, dancing and football. “She was incredibly fast.”, according to Rosamund.
Three years later, Ella was admitted to hospital after suffering an acute asthma attack. This would be the 30th time that she would have to be admitted. It would also be the last time.
The initial cause of her death was attributed to a rare form of asthma but Rosamund thought Ella’s rapid decline could not have been explained by just that. Following the inquest into Ella’s death, Rosamund discovered that there were huge spikes in local air pollution around the time Ella died. Rosamund contacted a leading air pollution expert to examine whether this could have contributed to Ella’s asthma attacks. The expert produced a report which mapped Ella’s hospital admissions with the air pollution spikes around their home. It showed that one of the worst air pollution events occurred just before Ella’s fatal asthma attack.
His findings sparked a seven-year legal battle which finally ended earlier this year with the ruling that Ella would be the first person in the UK to have air pollution on her death certificate. The coroner concluded that “excessive air pollution” was the main cause of Ella’s death.
It would be easy to dismiss this story as an unfortunate set of circumstances. An unlucky girl who grew up in the wrong place at the wrong time. But we should mourn for Ella just as we would George Floyd.
Rob Nixon describes environmental harms as a form of ‘slow violence’. It is ‘slow’ because it cannot keep pace with our 24-hour news cycle and social media timelines. It is often only seen through numbers and statistics which do not inspire the same emotion as a 9-minute video of a 46-year-old man crying for his mother as he is being choked to death. At the height of the second wave, a friend of mine told me how she had become increasingly numb to the daily tally of Covid deaths. The numbers fail to capture the magnitude of pain and suffering that this virus has caused for so many people.
It is easy to flick past Ella’s story and not see the inherent injustice. There are no graphic videos of her suffering to share or retweet. In the three years before she died, her lungs collapsed on five separate occasions and she once had to be placed in a medically induced coma for three days. By the time she died, her mother had lost count of the number of times she had to resuscitate Ella after finding her lifeless in bed. Like George Floyd, Ella couldn’t breathe.
Millions of people in the UK breathe toxic air, the effects of which are felt disproportionately by communities of colour. Air pollution can both cause and exacerbate severe health problems including heart attacks, strokes and asthma in people living in highly polluted areas. Children seem to suffer especially with asthma being the main cause of school absenteeism and twelve children dying every year from asthma in London.
Over the last ten years, the UK Government has consistently failed to meet its own targets to curb air pollution. Between 2015 and 2018, the environmental NGO, ClientEarth took the UK government to court three times over its record on clean air and won on each occasion. The Government has also previously received several warnings from the EU Commission over its failure to address harmful levels of air pollution. 99 percent of Londoners currently live in areas with levels of toxic air are which exceed the World Health Organization recommended limit.
A quick glance at some of the worst hotspots in London for air quality could lead one to assume that air pollution is a problem equally shared but this is not the case. Black, African and Caribbean people account for 15.3% of all Londoners exposed to illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide but make up just 13.3% of the city’s population. Whilst this fact alone may not be striking, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has painfully shown why the black and ethnic community should be demanding greater accountability for the Government’s failure to tackle air pollution.
From the start of the pandemic, it was clear that the black and brown people’s experience of Covid was significantly different to white groups. People from black and minority ethnic groups were being hospitalised and dying at a greater rate than their white counterparts. Whilst it was initially speculated that this may due to genetics, a recent study has concluded that patients of Black, Asian and minority ethnicity were twice as likely to be admitted to hospital with severe symptoms from regions of highest air pollution.
Newham is just a few miles away from Ella where lived. It has the worst air quality in the UK and 72% of its residents are from ethnic minority backgrounds. The borough is bordered by the Blackwall Tunnel and home to London City Airport and the A13 – three major pieces of transport infrastructure that allow other Londoners to travel through and around the borough whilst leaving gallons of toxic air pollution for Newham’s residents to deal with.
You would think that this would mean that Newham would be spared any future major infrastructure development but, unfortunately, the situation is about to get worse.
Later this year, construction will start on a four lane tunnel that will go under the River Thames and end in Newham. The scheme, called the Silvertown Tunnel, is being championed by Sadiq Khan as a solution to air quality and congestion but it is difficult to understand how another road tunnel which would make it easier for people to drive would help local air quality or congestion. A group of 25 local medical professionals recently declared the tunnel to be an ‘assault to local health’ and it is clear that black and ethnic minority communities in Newham will be suffer the most.
Just like Ella, the residents of Newham are being subjected to a grave and slow violence that is so often perpetrated against black and ethnic minority people. They probably will not get the same media spotlight as George Floyd but they are still just as deserving of justice. In Newham and across the UK, black and ethnic minority people are being slowly choked to death by a political class that considers their lives as not worthy of protecting or saving. We need to start talking about air pollution like we talk about police brutality because it is killing black people and the Government and Sadiq Khan are not doing enough to fix it. We need to start demanding justice for Ella, the people of Newham and all the black and ethnic minority people that are struggling to breathe right now. We cannot not let them suffer anymore just because we can’t see it.