The UK should worry about obesity, not Ebola

The original article was published in The Student Online on the 28/10/2014 and can be accessed here.

It’s deadly, it’s on the rise, and we’re all at risk. I’m talking about a health crisis that’s posing a much greater threat to the UK than Ebola: obesity. That the government is scurrying with studied haste to address the former while continuing to sideline the latter is laughable now, but will have dire consequences for Britain’s long term future.

Over a quarter of the adult UK population are classed as obese, which as well as having a significant impact on personal health, places vast financial strain on the NHS and the economy as a whole. But it’s not a question of smugly telling people to eat less. Biological factors can influence obesity, but another far more important factor places the fight against obesity squarely in government’s ball court: socio-economic inequality.

Widely published studies display the direct link between people’s incomes and their waistlines. Furthermore, those who shrug off the suggestion that healthy food is more affordable now have an international Harvard led study to contend with, which shows that families seeking to shop more healthily pay around £360 more per person per year. Supermarkets know that customers from higher-income backgrounds are prepared to pay more for healthy food, and adjust their prices accordingly, which reinforces the vicious cycle of unhealthy diets among those who cannot afford raised prices.

Despite much political blustering, obesity has only been addressed by the government in piecemeal fashion, which is simply unacceptable. If it is society’s collective responsibility to account for inequality, then the government has a key role to play. Firstly, education about obesity’s effects ought to be part of the school curriculum, along with a greater impetus towards enjoyable physical exercise. Secondly, universal access to affordable healthy food ought to be made a government prerogative. But how to effect this? Legislation forcing suppliers to fully display the dietary contents of products and the subsidisation of healthy food production are unlikely to have much impact. Likewise, restricting the dietary options of different demographic groups in accordance with obesity risk can be immediately dismissed as both unworkable and unpleasantly authoritarian.

Unfortunately, lowering food prices is likewise not a viable solution. Within the European Union prices are already unrealistically low; supermarket competition pushes down prices while continuing to demand such a high percentage of profit that for smaller scale farmers it is often a struggle to sell for more than the cost of production. And thus the solution to these structural issues comes back to the crux of a familiar, yet unaddressed problem: making the minimum wage a living wage.

Emphasising the structural factors is not to deny the onus of individual responsibility in maintaining a healthy weight; while biological factors should not be disregarded, by blaming all our problems on genetics we risk disempowering those whose real inability to stop overeating stems from lack of psychological support. For many obese people, addiction, depression, and other psychological issues are the fundamental causes of overeating, and thus increased government funding for counselling and support groups would also have a positive impact.

Nobody is attempting to undermine the severity of Ebola. But government assistance should be going to the people who actually need it, and whereas obesity is now a factor in over ten per cent of deaths in the UK, the likelihood of an Ebola outbreak on British shores is negligible. Thus if the actions our government are taking are in order protect the health of people in Britain, then David Cameron is barking up entirely the wrong tree.

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Racism and public protest at The Barbican

This article was originally published in ‘The Student’ on 07/10/2014.
It can also be viewed here.

Exhibit B: a satirical human zoo featuring caged, chained and mutilated actors in scenes of silent and unmoving degradation. Intended to draw attention to black oppression, this art installation of Brett Bailey was closed last week by its hosting gallery, the Barbican, in response to a picket line of two hundred protestors and a one-thousand strong petition arguing that it furthered rather than challenged racist attitudes. Both news sources and the Barbican itself are complaining that the protestors missed the point. However, while the issue of Exhibit B’s racism itself is not clear cut, the positive example of successful peaceful public intervention is.

Featuring scenes of torture, imprisonment and sexual slavery, Exhibit B is both harrowing and horrifying. This is of course Bailey’s intention, yet prominent protestor Simon Woolley points out that while Exhibit B ‘induces white guilt, it does nothing to promote black empowerment.’ As a white Afrikaner who grew up comfortably in the Apartheid regime Brady arguably has a unique perspective on racism; however, his past also lends connotations of imperialism to the Exhibit. As the satire of the exhibit was entirely implied there was nothing to prevent a particularly twisted audience from actually enjoying the fetishisation of slavery.

If Bailey’s motives are pure then he could have challenged racism more progressively, for example by lending the actors he employed active rather than entirely passive roles. Approaching the topic of race from a more sensitive angle would certainly have been the more artistically difficult, and arguably braver option. As it stood, the gratuitous depravity of Exhibit B suggests that neither Bailey nor the Barbican had given much consideration to black audiences of the installation. It is convenient to claim a veneer of progressivity while simultaneously staging an exhibition with such blatant shock and media value; while art should be challenging, both gallery and artist ought to have noticed how Exhibit B rather oversteps this mark.

Despite complaints to the contrary, artistic freedom of expression does equate to a license to be wantonly insensitive. Galleries have the right to stage any exhibition they choose, but it is unnecessary and distasteful to promote artwork which does more to harm than promote equality. When the thorny issue of which category Exhibit B falls into began to cause protest, the choice whether or not to respond fell upon the Barbican. Perhaps the most progressive aspect of the entire situation is that they did.

Unfortunately, the Barbican has since made it clear that they did so not out of honest respect but because they felt the situation had become too unpredictable. This is offensive to the protesters themselves, who were both peaceful and entirely legal in their actions. In fact it was not even their intent to silence Bailey’s artistic creation, simply to make public their disapproval. It is the Barbican itself which chose, unnecessarily, to close Exhibit B entirely. This was neither some act of censorship by the establishment, nor a case of an angry mob oppressing a voice of dissension. This was simply a peaceful protest by local activists against something which overstepped the values of their community; a peaceful protest which met, however bizarrely, with an unexpected success.

There is therefore one undeniably positive outcome of this awkward situation. Art is intended first and foremost to be interpreted by its audience, and in this case when the audience spoke they actually had their views acknowledged. Therefore whatever our personal interpretations of Exhibit B, we should be gratified that it has demonstrated the power of peaceful, democratic action to affect societal issues.