‘Out of the mouths of babies…’

Examining the health crisis facing children in Britain, Jon Duveen asks what this means for the system causing such a social disaster


It is not often a newspaper carries a series of articles, seemingly unrelated, in one edition of the paper, that expose a glaring hole in the policies of the political parties. Yet that is what happened in The Guardian of the June 19, 2024. In three reports spread across different pages issues were raised about the status of children’s health, globally and in the UK.

There is an old adage that says how a country treats the most vulnerable in its society is a measure of how civilised that country is. We know that in relation to the Tory Government and its treatment of the elderly in need of care that this is true. It is also true about how the Tory Government treats disabled people. Now clear evidence is emerging that it is additionally true of how the Tory Government treats children.

The first article, on the front page, was a report from the Food Foundation:

“The average height of five-year olds is falling, obesity levels have increased by almost a third and the number of young people with type 2 diabetes has risen by more than a fifth”.

The report concludes:

“millions are now facing a “timebomb” of avoidable health conditions”.

The second report, on page 2, was about a study from the Health Effects Institute (HEI) that states that air pollution has:

“overtaken poor sanitation and a lack of clean water to become the second biggest health risk factor for young children around the world”.

The study makes clear that among children under five, air pollution is second only to malnutrition as a risk factor in mortality.

The third report was about how the:

”lack of access to outdoor space at schools is exacerbating Britain’s child obesity crisis”.

Taken together, these three reports detail how the Tory Government has failed to protect young children and allowed their health to decline. For the Tories, profits can be made from the “aggressive promotion of cheap junk food” and the pollution of our air. For the Tories, this is more important than children’s health. How else can you explain the decision of their Government to shelve policies to tackle obesity and the promotion of junk food until at least 2025, when even the experts are clear something needs to be done urgently?

But it is not just the Tories who are afraid to raise these issues. The sound of silence from the Labour Party is also deafening. We have a generation of children who will have worse health than their parents and grandparents and this is not being addressed in Starmer’s promises or aspirations. In a country with the sixth largest economy, children are less healthy than their parents. Why?

The first report makes the blame clear; poverty and inequality are the drivers for this state of affairs. It is not just that parents cannot afford to feed their children, although many teachers will tell you, from their own experiences, that this is a real problem and the growth of food banks also testifies to this. It is also that their wages and benefits will only provide the cheapest foods and junk foods.

These foods will fill you up but do not contain the full range of nutrients children need. Behind all this is the economic system that drives families and people into poverty and depends on the inequality it produces for its survival. Capitalism seeks to make everything a commodity. Why should the essentials for life – food, water, housing, energy, health, etc. – be made into commodities? Why should the owners of capital profit from providing the essentials for life?

However, decommodifying the essentials for life has ramifications throughout the economy. To grow nutritious food, we must ensure that the soil is healthy and sustainable. To have clean and clear water we need to ensure rivers and streams are not polluted. To have decent housing we should guarantee that buildings are insulated and that the materials used in their construction are sustainable.

It is not beyond the wit of humans to develop a system that will socialise these essentials so that we can have a system based on human freedom. As the Communist Manifesto says:

“we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.

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