Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

Do we care enough to stop cruelty to the weak?

So this was a good week for the highlighting of institutional heartlessness wasn't it?

The Francis Inquiry into gruesome conditions at Stafford Hospital confirmed what many already knew. But no matter how often we hear about cancer sufferers being bullied, bedsore-ravaged patients soaking in their own urine, elderly patients being told they've 'slept through' their chance of a cup of tea, we still shrink inside when confronted with such ostentatious displays of ineptitude and cruelty.

If the intolerable situation at Stafford, which is likely to be replicated in parts of both the public and private health service across the country, could be entirely attributed to incompetence, lack of resources and inadequate training, it would be a little easier to live with. And to fix. What really hurts is that much of the problems come down to sheer malice, a contempt for the weak that borders on sadism and seems to feed off visible fear.

The disgusted, derisory face of the nurse who appears to despise the ill and infirm, who takes pleasure in 'not hearing' their faint requests for help to go to the toilet and quickens her pace when there's a telling-off to be delivered (perhaps some audacious troublemaker has got out of bed without permission) – anyone who's ever seen her in action will know how long it takes to regain faith in strangers after being placed in the hands of such a creature.

In my case, I had just gone through a three-day labour and was half the woman, mentally speaking, I usually am.

I didn't have the fight, or the courage to confront my own sister sans merci until I was strong enough to be discharged. And then I was too elated to even look behind me as I sped out of the revolving door.

What breeds such inhumanity from man to man, woman to woman? The Francis Inquiry wasn't the only reminder this week of just how low those with power will stoop to humiliate those whose bad luck or vulnerability irritates them. Sadly, the weaselly apology from Enda Kenny after a new report into the Magdalene laundries this week didn't quite fill the hole of anger and pain still gaping inside the victims of those grotesque 'refuges'.

Orphaned children, abused girls and expectant mothers working as state slaves in the equivalent of open prisons, having meals withheld or their hair cut off for acts of disobedience, forbidden from making friends with other inmates, often with no comprehension of the 'crime' which led to their incarceration – well, we've all heard the horror stories.

I'd imagine even Charlotte Bronte, who pulled heartstrings over the world by placing little Jane Eyre in such a hellhole, wouldn't have believed that 150 years later a country in the developed world would still be condemning innocent girls to the same fate. And yet here we are in the 21st century, still waiting for a formal state apology and for compensation to be paid to the Magdalene survivors. Maybe it'll come once they're all dead.

The history of our 'care' institutions, whether they're hospitals, old people's homes or correctional facilities, is one of those in power ignoring or covering up the testimonies of those in their thrall. We saw the same instincts at play in the Jimmy Savile case. The Francis report is a solid response, but before anything can change, we have to work out why so many of us are rigid with bitterness and rage from which the only escape is making others suffer the same.

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