Irish housing: homes for people not for profit

Irish housing: homes for people not for profit

Irish housing: homes for people not for profit 

housing estate at sunset
sibeal devilly

30th August 2021

 

What is one accessory from childhood or your preteen-era that you would still wear today? This is a question that often has people reminiscing over plastic beaded bracelets, Heelys, and tattoo chokers. For myself, the answer is easy: a red badge inscribed with six little words: “Bollocks to Austerity. Tax the Rich.”  

 

Thanks to the Irish voters’ remarkable ability to have faith in political parties who have succumbed to drinking the neoliberal Kool-Aid of low governmental intervention in markets, eleven years later the badge is as relevant, the situation worse, the fight harder, and the representation remarkably similar. Today as in 2010 we see a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach backed by the Greens in power, although in 2021 the blame is no longer conveniently escaped by Fine Gael. 

 

The badge sits today, as anti-establishment as ever, on my desk in my over-priced Dublin rental. Were it not a grim sign that things don’t seem to change for the better economically in this country, the placement might just seem poetic. Sadly, it serves more as a reminder of a fight that never quite seems to be over. 

 

So, how did we get here? From the declaration of independence to the establishment of the Irish state, we vowed this country would serve her people better than the exploitation of colonialism. We would eradicate tenements, remove a foreign source of power, and be a country returned to her people. Yet today, we see public housing riddled with rats, a build-to-rent heavy rental market that has been proclaimed a “government sponsored cartel,an average single first time buyer age of 42, and an asylum system described as “devastating” by its residents. 

 

This is all before we even look to rising levels of homelessness, a crisis with levels dubbed “not high” by our then (and current) Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar in 2017. Is this symbolic of the governing parties of Ireland? That old tactic of insisting that an issue is not yet at crisis level while burying heads in the sand until such point as a crisis occurs? 

  

And of course, while talking about housing it would be remiss not to mention Direct Provision (DP): a horrifying and inhumane situation arising in the modern era in the same state which writes off mother and baby homes as a shameful thing of the past – a state which does its utmost to avoid the necessary conversations around them both. These serve as two features of Irish accommodation that you would be hard-pressed to justify, and so the government simply doesn’t even try; it just seems to hope people will forget about DP. It isn’t supposed to be a home anyway, more of a (never-ending) stop-gap, so why would the conditions need to be any good? Can’t we let the market fix that too? Furthermore, the state of accommodation and halting sites for members of the Travelling community in Ireland makes a mockery of modern anti-racist sentiments in the country. 

 

Part V of The Planning and Development Bill (1999) called for developers to have to include a proportion (up to 20 per cent) of properties or land in a development sold to the state (the local authority) as social housing, in developments of nine houses or more. These developments are known as mixed tenure estates,” whereby private property owners and social or affordable housing residents live in the same development.  

 

A revision to the Act in 2002 (by a Progressive Democrat/Fianna Fáil government) allowed for a financial payment of the equivalent value of the land to be paid to the local authority, much to the delight of building associations and developers around the country who had opposed Part V since its inception. This revision meant that while the housing supply was increasing, social housing was not being contributed to the stock, allowing for an increase in private ownership in the market. While it was found that Part V had a relatively limited contribution to social housing output, the revision meant that, in many cases, no developmental contribution was made at all.  In 2015 this proportion was further reduced from 20 per cent to 10 per cent. 

 

Additionally, with a renewed property bubble spiking housing prices, often local authorities could not afford to purchase land or properties from developers, resulting in no addition being made to social or affordable housing stock whatsoever. 

 

Part V is symbolic of the shambolic planning that is a legacy of the Irish state. The long-term consequences of the revision (which is once again up for amendment in 2021) meant that public and affordable housing stock was not boosted. Lack of intervention by the government ensured housing prices were not capped, and so the unaffordable inflation of both house prices and rent continued. 

 

The right of a private landlord to make money is protected in our Constitution – but the right to housing is not.”

While the state could not afford 20 per cent or 10 per cent of developments, the ESRI this year estimates that by the end of 2021, the state will have spent €1.4 billion on the payment of the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) to private landlords, subsidising a lack of state infrastructure with social welfare which perpetuates inflation of rents, which the government also refuses to cap.  

 

The right of a private landlord to make money is protected in our Constitution – but the right to housing is not. So, while rents have been allowed to increase by 4 per cent per annum, a figure which is not matched by salary increases or indeed by increases to minimum wage, the taxpayer is not just footing the bill for their own unaffordable rent, they’re footing the bill for HAP too: even the government can’t afford the rental market in this state. 

 

And really, none of this should be surprising. The Irish property market is not advertised as forever homes, but as investments, whether at a small-scale to individuals with money to invest in the build to rent market, or to vulture and cuckoo funds looking for the investment of their neoliberal dreams. 

 

The state’s solution to the problem of the Irish housing market seems not to be much different in the Irish modern state than it was during the era of British landlords: emigration of our (domestic) young. Admittedly today, the solution of emigration is paired with an assumption that inheritance will balance the disadvantage of our generation, not exactly the method of redistribution of wealth the leads to a successful welfare state – I come back to the solution of my favourite accessory: tax the rich. 

 

The legacy seems to remain of a land that does not provide viable opportunity or quality of tenure to its people, and so watches them set sail for countries happy to welcome the hard-working Irish with open arms. Trendy as world travel may be, our government doesn’t seem to recognise that it is no coincidence that those who stay are of either considerable means or those for whom leaving is not an option. For those in the middle, when faced with the prospect of rental inflation which exceeds salary, and with home ownership being a prospect only when paired with inheritance tax, if you’re lucky enough to have something to be taxed on, leaving is logical.  

 

A post-colonial society, successive Irish governments have behaved like anxious school children, scared  that the headteacher (the market) will chastise their adult choices. To save themselves the anxiety of taking the reins on the Irish economy, politicians have distracted themselves by blowing bubbles and crying to supranational supervisors when inevitably the bubbles of fantasy burst. For all the criticisms of Irish people throwing the baby out with the bath water during political scandals (with Phil Hogan still licking his wounds over this tendency), in election after election, we never seem to learn that no matter how shiny a bubble may seem when it’s growing, it really does always burst. 

 

 

 

Featured photo by Tom Thain

This article was supported by: STAND Opinion Editor Olivia + Programme Assistant Alex

 

Simone Biles: the mental health conversation that needed to be had

Simone Biles: the mental health conversation that needed to be had

Simone Biles: the mental health conversation that needed to be had

gymnast jumps backwards
Ellen Coburn

11th August 2021

 

Imagine this: you are the reigning Olympic champion. You are the most decorated athlete in your sport. You are considered the greatest gymnast of all time. You have the world watching your every move with inconceivably high expectations. You enter Tokyo 2020 as the favourite to sweep up five gold medals. Now, imagine that under that kind of scrutiny, your body starts to fail you in one of the biggest moments of your career. 

 

Very few people in the world can relate to this crippling pressure and these enervating expectations. Very few, that is, except for Simone Biles. The five-time Olympic medallist and 25-time world medallist pulled out of the Olympic Women’s gymnastics team-final on July 27 and subsequently the individual all-around final that took place on July 29. It was a decision that sent the world into disbelief. 

 

The vault that Biles competed in the team final before her withdrawal was so off that former Olympic gymnasts stated that Simone was incredibly lucky to land on her feet and that it was remarkable she emerged without a career-ending injury. After the announcement that Biles would not compete in the remainder of the team finals, there was wide speculation that the gymnastic sensation had sustained a physical injury. What later emerged, however, was that Biles stepped away in order to protect her mental health.   

 

Simone Biles is a person. Not a superhuman, not a robot, and most certainly not a screen for us to project onto. As America’s golden girl and as a global superstar entering these Olympic games, being able to stand up and say “enough” is nothing short of courageous and admirable.”

Biles said that the dangerous vault was the result of the “twisties” – when a gymnast’s mind and body are no longer in dialogue while twisting in the air. The gymnast feels disassociated and completely out of control while trying to complete a skill. The twisties can be life-threatening and are usually the result of high levels of stress and pressure. Simone Biles is a person. Not a superhuman, not a robot, and most certainly not a screen for us to project onto. As America’s golden girl and as a global superstar entering these Olympic games, being able to stand up and say “enough” is nothing short of courageous and admirable. It takes most people years of working in their profession to be able to speak up when they feel their mental or physical health is threatened. But at just 24 years old, Biles – who is a woman of colour in a notoriously white field, and who is a survivor of sexual abuse suffered while training in the very sport in which she excels – was able to do so on the world’s biggest stage. Biles is showing that no matter what age you are, no matter what profession you’re in, no matter what stage you’re on, if you do not feel okay you can walk away. If the greatest of all time can do it, we can too.  

 

Biles’s decision is part of a wider cultural movement working to destigmatize mental illness which has become particularly prominent during the Covid-19 pandemic. Slowly, young people are emerging at the forefront of a mental health revolution where we are becoming more familiar with recognising the signs of mental illness. We are becoming more comfortable with confiding in one another and more aware when our friends are not themselves. Prominent figures stepping forward and shedding light on the subject just serves to further eliminate any taboo left surrounding the subject. This is particularly significant for Simone Biles as a Black woman, as it is estimated that only one in three Black people experiencing mental health issues with reach out and get appropriate help.  

 

Simone is not the only young athlete to come forward about the reality of mental health. The 23-year-old four-time Grand Slam champion, Naomi Osaka, bowed out of the French Open in June. Osaka explained how she had been suffering with anxiety and depression beginning after beating tennis legend Serena Williams at the 2018 US Open. After Grand Slam officials threatened to expel Osaka from the French open for refusing to participate in news conferences, she decided to withdraw. Black female athletes have been amongst the first to stand up and say that enough is enough. Historically, Black female athletes like Serena Williams and Biles herself have been subjected to relentless body-shaming racism and prejudiced treatment by their sports’ governing bodies. Such conditions make it all the more remarkable that these women are abolishing the “play-through-the-pain” burnout mentality that so many young people today have grown accustomed to.  

 

On  August 1, Biles made the decision to step onto the Olympic floor once again to compete in the balance beam final. She returned to competition on her own terms and in her own time. She made the decision, not for her millions of fans or spectators, for herself and by doing so, Simone Biles has forever distinguished herself not for what she has accomplished but for who she is. 

 

These athletes endure constant pressure to win and constant scrutiny when they falter. We put them on pedestals and expect them to deliver time and time again as we hide behind the protection of a screen that shields us from pressure, criticism and strain that we will never understand.  However, by prioritizing self-care over self-denial, by sending the message that even the best in the world needs time out, by being brave enough to be true to herself at the very moment the world was watching, Simone Biles wins all of my medals. 

 

 

 

Featured photo by Andre Quellet

This article was supported by: STAND Opinion Editor Olivia + Programme Assistant Alex

 

Internships in the era of Covid-19

Internships in the era of Covid-19

Internships in the era of Covid-19

woman taking a video call from her bed
sibeal devilly

9th August 2021

 

An academic internship can be a very positive experience, yet when you are applying, it can be difficult to know what opportunities will suit your own interests. The experience may vary from learning what you don’t like in a working environment, to being introduced to the nine-to-five world, which is often so alien to students who are used to working part-time or odd hours in industries such as hospitality and service. In deciding which organisations to apply for during the pandemic, options have become somewhat limited, with many companies understandably deciding that virtual internships were not desirable or viable for their organisation with the year that was in it. Applications were therefore quite restricted, but the process itself wasn’t changed much by the pandemic: a cover letter introducing yourself and a CV peppered with part-time work experience, adorned with college modules relevant to the work of the organisation. 

 

Securing a placement can be a process of trial and error – and error may often feel like the operative word. An interview I sat last March, for instance, did not go my way. When nervous, I stumble over words and forget the points I have mastered at home; the “pitch of the person” that’s down to a tee all but disappears when faced with a conference room table and professionals in suits.  

 

My interview for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) resembled much of the “from-my-bedroom” rhetoric students have cited in the last sixteen months: trying to find the most “professional” looking background in a college house, adjusting angles to make sure your bed frame isn’t popping up behind you, maybe removing a Guinness poster stolen from your part-time job from the wall behind you. I at least had the good sense to put sticky notes around my laptop, with the most important things to say staring back at me, and a camera green light as a reminder to make virtual eye contact with my interviewers. 

 

The beginning of my interview was a surprise as I discovered my interviewers don’t use a waiting room function, and I was thrown into virtual small talk with the office director three minutes early while waiting for the second interviewer to join the call. Mutually disinterested in the well-rehearsed one-liners about the “strange times” we’re living in, I found myself watching the minutes pass on the clock, quietly questioning my belief that early means on-time and that on-time means late. 

 

To my surprise, a week later I received a call offering me a six-month contract starting in January, and in the week of the 18th of January, as lockdown dragged on, I wanted nothing more than a job to fill my time with. Once set up in the remote ether of the EPA, HR provided an induction through MS Teams with other interns based around the country. We were given about 18 hours of Microsoft software training, going through applications like Word, Excel, and Outlook. While in more normal times one might expect a few cups of tea and coffee and a bit of chat in a meeting room throughout IT induction, sitting in your bedroom while being run through how to operate a spreadsheet, unfortunately, is not the path to falling in love with Excel.  

 

“While working online certainly has its disadvantages, the experience provides a broader perspective within the college experience.”

College told us that we would likely have slow starts to our placements, based on the experiences of the students in the first semester. It’s hard for organisations to know how much work to assign an intern, or how to show them the ropes remotely, while trying to manage their own daily operations online too. I began reading journal articles on the project I’d been assigned, absorbing as much knowledge as I could on the process of professionalising regulation in the public sector (something I could barely define a month previously at my interview). While feeling unsure of my footing, and battling imposter syndrome over being a student getting paid to do professional research, I turned to my unlikely new friend Excel. Although equations and formulae didn’t factor into my work, I began creating a spreadsheet of all the sources of the knowledge I had consumed so far, colour coding boxes to fill time between tea and crossword breaks with my housemates (our collective lockdown hobby-come-obsession). 

 

While learning to navigate the virtual workspace, I discovered that the benefits of remote work environments extend well beyond the ability to roll out of bed at five-to-nine or constant access to hot water bottles when suffering through the monthly onslaught of cramps: it extends to networking too. Throughout my research it became clear that the experts in my field of study were based in Australia and New Zealand. They are years ahead of Europe and serve as the exemplar to academic writing on the subject globally. And while they may have managed to avoid the severe lockdowns that much of the rest of the world have suffered, they have still had cause to learn to navigate remote working. So, while restricted from travelling more than 5 kilometres from my house, I held a meeting with global experts based on the other side of the world. The only difference between speaking with them and speaking with my manager based in Wexford, was a visit to worldtimebuddy.com and 7am call rather than an elevenses chat. 

 

One of the things the EPA do for their interns every year is hold a day where they present on the work they’ve done during their contract. It’s an opportunity for interns to reflect on what they’ve accomplished and to practice the much-dreaded skill of presentation. This year as with all else, it came about a little differently. A message from the Ddirector asking if I would like to present at the office Town Hall: I wouldn’t be one in a list of interns, I would be one in a list of interesting projects being undertaken within the office, presented to around one hundred colleagues. Never one to shy away from an immensely stressful challenge, I replied that it sounded cool and that I’d love to present (a questionable degree of truth to that). In fact, the presentation mirrored much of my interview in December. The comfort of my own house, the ease of post-it notes on my wall and ignorance to people’s concentration levels created the perfect storm to present without fear of memory lapse, unexpected interruptions or the dreaded dry mouth. All of these benefits contribute not only to a positive personal development experience, but also to the opportunity for a humble brag in future interviews, and indeed, in online articles. 

 

While meeting colleagues and trying to make an impression online is difficult, you might be surprised to have your first introduction in your local pub on a Saturday night. Doing your best to be discrete while you stare at the face of someone who might be in your team meetings every week, or who might just be a non-webcam dead ringer for them. You might have the bright idea to initiate your first encounter with this colleague with the help of some liquid courage, wishing the next day it had been a cafe you’d been at rather than the local after a [redacted] number of pints. 

 

While working online certainly has its disadvantages, the experience provides a broader perspective within the college experience. All in all, an academic internship is always a great thing to have on a CV coming out of college. It shows employers that you’ve managed to get experience while being a student, and that you’ve thought in broader terms than classroom learning. During COVID, it shows that you’re adaptable and that, to some degree, you can manage your own time well. It also helps students to get a relevant work reference and meet people working in fields in which they might be interested.  

 

 

 

Featured photo by Surface

This article was supported by: STAND Opinion Editor Olivia + Programme Assistant Alex

 

Will global tax reform make the world a fairer place?

Will global tax reform make the world a fairer place?

Will global tax reform make the world a fairer place?

crowd holding a biden 2020 banner
Aoife McDonald

5th August 2021

 

In April of this year, US President Joe Biden proposed a reform of the global tax system that would set a minimum global corporate tax of 15 per cent.  

 

Agreed upon by the Group of Seven (G7) nations in June, the G20 in July, and now backed by 131 countries worldwide, the potential agreement will be the biggest overhaul of the international tax system in decades. All going well, the new tax rules will be legally binding worldwide by the end of 2023.  

 

The idea of a global taxation system, however, is not new. Some of the early ideas, which surfaced following World War II, were aimed at funding the United Nations or repairing war-torn economies. By the 1960s, the discussion had shifted toward international taxation as a form of multilateral aid for developing nations. 

 

In 1980, the discussion surrounding global taxation came to a head due to a report published by the Independent Commission on International Development Issues, known as the Brandt Commission. The report, entitled ‘North-South: A Program for Survival’, called for “universal taxation” – the collection of revenue from rich countries which would be redistributed to poor countries.  

 

Unfortunately, the timing was not right. Soon after the release of the report, President Ronald Reagan came into power in the US. His tax-cutting agenda quickly shut down the possibility of a global tax regime, and since then, tax regimes have been caught in a race to the bottom.

 

“Today, fewer than 20 countries have corporate tax rates over 30 percent, in comparison to more than double that number at the turn of the century.”

Between 2000 and 2018, 76 countries cut corporate taxes, while only 18 kept them the same or increased them. Today, fewer than 20 countries have corporate tax rates over 30 percent, in comparison to more than double that number at the turn of the century.

 

Now, in the wake of a global pandemic, President Biden has seized the opportunity for serious reform. Following the G7 negotiations, Janet Yellen, US Treasury Secretary, announced that “The G-7 economies came together to agree the post-pandemic world must be fairer, especially with regard to international taxation.”

 

But will it really be fairer?

 

The proposed global tax reform asks nations to agree to a minimum corporate tax rate of 15 per cent, with an aim to reduce the incentive for large multinational companies to shift their profits to the so-called ‘tax havens’ – Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Singapore, Switzerland, and, of course, Ireland.

 

These countries all have one thing in common – they are small. And because they are so small, these countries have to use competitive tax rates to survive in the globalised economy, because they are too tiny for competitive, large-scale production of goods. On top of this, they do not have many natural resources.

 

The natural course of action, in this case, is to prioritise attracting investment over collecting tax. So, while on the face of it, it seems unfair that huge multinationals can declare their profits offshore to avoid paying taxes, for Ireland and the other tax havens, this strategy is a means of survival in a globalised system not designed in their favour.

 

In fact, the term ‘tax haven’ may not be an entirely accurate description.

 

According to popular Irish economist and broadcaster, David McWilliams, at least, this label is misleading. It implies “a place where companies have a fictitious presence with little or no real impact in the greater society,” he writes.

 

That is certainly not the case here in Ireland, where last year alone, €15.1 billion in wages was generated by the multinational sector, and 20,000 new jobs were created, thanks to a low corporate tax of 12.5 per cent.

 

As a result, Ireland has refused to join the G7 and G20 in backing proposals for a restructuring of corporate taxation, warning that it may cost the exchequer over €2 billion a year.

 

“Whatever the effect of global tax reform on Ireland, it pales in comparison to the possible implications for the developing world.”

However, it may not all be bad news, as some commentators highlight the possible opportunities of increased taxes in Ireland – the ability to invest in housing, health and education.  

 

Whatever the effect of global tax reform on Ireland, it pales in comparison to the possible implications for the developing world. Even if the implications for Ireland are as bad as we expect, the country has the support of the EU and a highly educated workforce to cushion the blow.

 

In contrast, the plan offers little for countries with few corporate headquarters and lesser purchasing power.

 

The ongoing pandemic is deepening global inequalities, as the health systems and economies of developing countries struggle to keep their citizens safe, while rich countries keep vaccine production secrets to themselves. While we in the West begin our recovery, pandemic-related poverty is on the rise in the rest of the world.

 

In response to the proposed reform, Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director of Oxfam International said in a statement:

 

“Rich countries are forcing developing countries to choose between a raw deal or no deal. It is just another form of economic colonialism. This is not an ‘historic’ deal ―it is history repeating itself. Those who shamelessly rigged the global tax system to their benefit over a century ago have again ring-fenced the game for themselves.”

 

Only a redistributive global tax could attempt to tackle the public health emergency, climate crisis and widespread poverty of today.

 

A tax reform that would actually benefit the world’s poor would recover billions in underpaid corporate tax for all countries – but the rate of 15 per cent does little to end tax competition. Only 3 per cent of taxes recovered will go to the world’s poorest countries, while over two-thirds will go to the G7 and EU.

 

Instead, the proposed reform targets small rich countries (like Ireland) for the benefit of big rich countries (like the US).

 

As Bucher concluded: “It is bad news for tax havens, but will fail to levy funds developing countries desperately need to save lives and propel sustainable economic recovery from COVID-19.”

 

 

 

Featured photo by Gayatri Malhotra

This article was supported by: STAND Opinion Editor Olivia + Programme Assistant Alex

 

We need to do better if we are to protect girls

We need to do better if we are to protect girls

We need to do better if we are to protect girls

two girls with arms around each others waists
alex mulhare

22nd July 2021

 

There’s no simple way to put this: I fear for the current generation of girls, teenagers, and young women who are growing up in an always-online world.  

 

As I scroll through social media, advertisements for cosmetic surgery pop up on my feed, and a heavily-edited selfie is posted with a casual caption; at first glance, I don’t even recognise it as someone whom I have known for years. When did this become normal?  

 

The era of uploading unflattering albums to our Facebook accounts feels very distant these days, even though it was only ten years ago. Backcombed hair and questionable fashion choices ruled the roost – the idea of lip fillers and contouring your face would likely be laughed at. There was no pressure to be picture-perfect – because let’s be honest, digital cameras in the hands of teenagers take terrible pictures. 

 

The real conversation lies in asking ourselves why altering our appearance has become so normalised and readily-available as a cosmetic service.”

I think that, in most cases, it’s counterproductive to shame anyone who has decided to undergo cosmetic treatments or who enjoys using Facetune. It’s their body, and their choice to do what they like with it. The real conversation lies in asking ourselves why altering our appearance has become so normalised and readily-available as a cosmetic service. When and why did our natural faces with textured skin and varied features become undesirable and “ugly”? Our Patriarchal society is probably the fastest and most simple answer (even though it isn’t simple at all, really). Essentially, a patriarchy is a system in which men are the dominant figures in all areas of power within society.  

 

Already, within the short period of time from 2008 to 2021, our online landscape has changed rapidly. Social media used to mean booting up your family’s personal computer and checking your Facebook notifications – a far cry from tapping an application on your phone and receiving instant validation from friends and strangers alike at any and all stages throughout the day. The Myspace and early Facebook era of the internet may not have been an inherently better place, but it was certainly more innocent.  

 

As many researchers have pointed out, the “always-on” mentality is where the current danger of being online lies, and this is especially true for young people. Let’s say you have Instagram notifications turned on and each time you open the app, there’s a good chance that you’ll have a quick look through your timeline. There’s another good chance that altered photos will appear on your newsfeed, either from friends or as suggested posts. It is inevitable that regular consumption of edited photographs will result in a detachment from what real people look like, eventually taking a toll upon how you view yourself and others. This process is so subtle though, that teenagers in particular may not even notice their own perception of beauty standards shifting.  

 

The reality-television series, Love Island, provided food (or rather, a large meal) for thought in this vein during an episode of the seventh season which aired last week. The show’s contestants were challenged to answer sensitive questions about each other, and one particular question asked the men to guess which types of cosmetic surgery that all of the women on the show had undergone. This immediately provoked an online discussion about how commonplace surgically altering your appearance has become, if it can just be assumed that each female contestant has opted for at least one cosmetic treatment. Nonetheless, almost all of the men guessed correctly, with each one writing down some variation of “lips, boobs, botox.” All except one woman on the show could admit to having gone under the knife for some reason or another. Interestingly though, in another round of the same challenge, the contestants were asked to list their turn-offs. Most of the male contestants listed personality traits but one said that “hairy arms” were his biggest turn-off. Unlike bad manners or being too loud, hairy arms are a completely natural trait that many girls and women have no control over. Not to mention the fact that women are naturally hairy; we’re just told that hair is dirty or unhygienic because it’s a convenient excuse for the patriarchy to get the hairless women that it desires (let’s not forget that a core aim of a patriarchal society is to exert control over women as much as is possible).  

 

As the show cut to an ad break, it was difficult to think about anything other than how a girl or teenager might have consumed this content. Would she feel pressured to look in the mirror and re-evaluate her own appearance? Would she question the fullness of her natural lips, or the natural movement of a forehead wrinkle when she raises her eyebrows? Would she feel self-conscious about the hair on her arms, and find a new insecurity to wax away on a regular basis? I left the television that night with a sense of dread and frankly, fear, about how a person younger than myself might fall victim to the ever-expanding trap of surgeries to fix each “‘insecurity”’ that the beauty industry and patriarchy both profit from.  

 

TikTok trends have begun to evoke the same anxiety from me in recent months – why do they so often focus upon creating imagined flaws in the predominantly young female audience who partake in these challenges? The trend which struck me the most was a filter that mirrors each side of your face to create two new faces. The idea was that one side of your face would be “ugly” and the other one “pretty” – unless of course, you were so symmetrical that both faces looked very similar. Showing off your symmetrical face or laughing at the expense of others who looked “ugly” with this filter was the primary goal of this challenge. Immature as it was, I can’t help but wonder how many girls tried the challenge for themselves and were too afraid to even upload the end result because they felt that they looked “ugly.” Many of us can attest to the fact that if our teenage peers perceive us as bad looking in any way, shape, or form, it has a long-lasting effect upon our self-esteem and overall confidence. 

 

There are many places to point an accusatory finger as the source of these problems: the make-up and beauty industries, social media apps, a general disregard for the safety of children online or the content that they consume – the list could truly be endless. The internet and its culture as a whole is a good place to begin looking for answers. Gone are the days of pre-teen girls watching actors their own age dressed like the kids that they are on Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. Now, this same age group has instant access to social media where they are encouraged to wear make-up and dress with sex appeal, despite the fact that they are literal children. If this is hard to believe, then why has Millie Bobby Brown, the star of Stranger Things, been rolled out onto red carpet events dressed like a fully-grown woman for years? Why was Billie Eilish harassed for refusing to wear revealing clothing as a teenager – why was she expected to show off her body, and why did it become offensive to grown men online when she didn’t play into this expectation?  

 

“They were guinea pigs. They are the first group of young people to grow up with the world at their fingertips, and the first to go through our school systems under the shadow of social media.”

The deeper you delve into this subject, the more it feels as though we have let the upcoming generation of girls down. To be frank, they were guinea pigs. They are the first group of young people to grow up with the world at their fingertips, and the first to go through our school systems under the shadow of social media. As someone who went to secondary school during the more innocent, pre-influencer age of social media, I still feel like having access to a smart phone at the age of sixteen fundamentally altered the school experience for me. It’s difficult to even imagine the vastly different adolescent landscape that would be created by handing a child a smartphone while they are still in primary school – their lives have never existed offline, or without Snapchat stories, or without YouTube celebrities.  

 

The internet itself is not to blame, however; the problem lies in the unrestricted access to online content that young people with malleable minds and opinions have been given. We, as adults, and especially Millennial adults with a deep understanding of social media and the darker facets of the internet, could have prevented the mentally-damaging rise of beauty filters and influencers who aggressively peddle dangerous, “weight-loss” teas. While society in the 1990s was actively telling girls who weren’t malnourished that they were ‘fat’, post-Noughties society revels in forcing girls to believe that their natural faces can be ‘fixed’ with plastic surgery, Botox, or filler injections. While Norway’s new law which will forbid influencers from posting photos without labelling the edits, filters, or alterations contained within is not a solution to this vast problem, it would appear to be a good start at tackling it.  

 

As a general takeaway from this surface-level discussion, it would appear that there exists a pattern that needs to be broken. Consistently, each generation of girls and young women have been led to believe that some aspect of their physical appearance is inherently flawed. Why are we, as a society, so obsessed with convincing girls that they are broken and that they must drastically alter their body in order to be considered beautiful, or even just pretty? Why do they even need to be objectified and considered good-looking in the first place? The short answer, of course, is patriarchy – there’s a reason why those with the most privilege in society (men) don’t feel the need to view themselves as objects and alter their personhood accordingly. There are always exceptions to rules though, such as men who endanger their health to achieve the perfect, toned body, but this doesn’t discount the fact that it is other men who make them feel pressured to physically appear a certain way. They are victims of the same system.  

 

From the onset of pre-teen years, we are teaching girls to objectify themselves, and social media appears to have intensified this process by flooding each app with ads and beauty filters. There is nothing wrong with filters as a concept but they quickly evolved from giving users cute dog ears into a more sinister feature that completely changes the shape of your face, usually granting the appearance of an altered jaw, blue eyes, and a smaller nose. For obvious reasons, this has sparked conversations about beauty filters and race. What if a girl of colour was playing with these filters on Snapchat or Instagram and in each one, saw her skin and eyes lightened, along with a new, Eurocentric nose. Research has already shown that when used consistently, beauty filters alter our perception of our own appearance over time.  

 

The question that I consistently walk away from this train of thought with is, why are some features seen as undesirable? Our features carry family history, ethnic history, and the beauty of individuality all in one package, but then society turns around and tells us that unless we all look uniform, we are flawed. Perhaps most sickeningly is that what is deemed to be “desirable” changes at the flick of a switch – think of beauty standards shifting from Marilyn Monroe, to Kate Moss, to Kim Kardashian. All of these women possess vastly different physical appearances but at one point or another, everyday women were told that these body types were the most desirable: “you should look like this too.”

 

Perhaps older women find these societal pressures easier to deal with, as they have watched uncontrollable body ‘trends’ come and go with the decades. Needless to say, the pressure for women to look perfect is not confined to any age group, although the youngest girls and women among us are inevitably the most fragile and at risk of being mentally-impacted by society’s harmful messaging. Rather than the fixation upon weight and being “fat” that was prevalent in the 1990s, the current generation are made to feel as though they must always be social media ready. What if you’re out with a friend who wants to post a story on Instagram or Snapchat, but you don’t look your best because your face is bare (see: “natural”) and filters are too obvious? This situation is a nightmare scenario for anyone who feels pressured into curating a perfect image of themselves online. The solution to this, apparently, is to ensure that your appearance is always ready to be posted online, usually by means of seeking cosmetic procedures or semi-permanent treatments.  

 

It may sound like there’s no real escape from the pressure to look a specific way and to have a “trendy” body feature or type. The truth is that women’s bodies are individual and unique, and for most of us, it’s entirely impossible to achieve the coveted “snatched waist.” Oh, and girls aren’t women, they are children. Children who are being institutionalised into viewing themselves as women so that adult beauty standards can be imposed upon them and enforced throughout their lifetime. In the words of Kate Winslet, referring to her own acclaimed role in Mare of Easttown, “There are clearly no filters. She’s a fully functioning, flawed woman with a body and a face that moves in a way that is synonymous with her age and her life and where she comes from. I think we’re starved of that a bit.”

 

 

Featured photo by Priscilla Du Preez

This article was supported by: STAND Opinion Editor Olivia + Programme Assistant Alex

 

Death at a funeral: grief and burial rituals during a pandemic

Death at a funeral: grief and burial rituals during a pandemic

Death at a funeral: grief and burial rituals during a pandemic

man wearing black hood with head down
lydia howard Chevalier

13th July 2021

 

Throughout human history, the rituals and ceremonies surrounding death have always formed a crucial part of the grieving process. Anthropological studies have revealed a wide range of traditional funeral practices around the world that encompass an array of religions and cultures. These practices usually relate to the treatment of the body after death and how it is displayed before burial, as well as the ceremonies involved at each stage. The COVID-19 pandemic has put an abrupt, albeit temporary, stop to the processes that we are familiar with surrounding the deaths of loved ones; the grieving process and adapting to the ‘new normal’ in the absence of a loved one. The 2013-16 Ebola epidemic provided a good example of how a deadly contagious disease can wreak havoc on our very basic human rituals and traditions. However, the widespread, global (and airborne) nature of COVID-19 has meant that far larger numbers of lives have been lost in a short space of time, leaving many millions suddenly and unexpectedly bereaved. These individuals may struggle long-term with the impact of lockdown restrictions on the grieving process; many will be left to cope with ‘prolonged grief disorder’ which often impacts the bereaved person’s ability to function in everyday life. Coupled with a completely overwhelmed mental health service (in some places, this service is absent altogether), this could prove to be a very delicate and serious problem for the post-pandemic world.

 

Grief can be a very isolating experience and the pandemic has only served to magnify this. Due to the risk of viral transmission, funerals and burials around the world are subject to severe restrictions. The numbers permitted to attend are very small and the relatives of COVID victims may not even be able to view the body of their loved one, or  be at their bedside when they pass away. This can lead to feelings of guilt as well as a sense of unreality– that the person isn’t truly gone and may still be alive somewhere. Healthcare workers often share these feelings of distress; they are forced to watch victims die alone, struggling for breath in a situation where the usual palliative care resources are unavailable or forbidden due to the risk of transmission. The funeral and burial may have to take place virtually, forcing people to become more creative in finding ways to connect and offer support to each other. This can be very difficult for some as they may crave the comforting touch and physical presence of family and friends in their hour of need.The shifting of bereavement to the virtual realm may actually put the grieving process on-hold for many.

 

The inability to physically return to the workplace, travel or socialise in-person may relieve the bereaved person of the burden of putting on a brave face and pretending to be happy. Lockdown can provide space for people to come to terms with their loss at a pace that feels right for them.”

This effect may be even stronger for the immigrant community who are coping with a double loss – they have already lost their own culture and support system back home, which only amplifies the feelings of isolation, separation and grief. Their vulnerable status within their adopted country may make it difficult for them to access or afford grief counselling and other supports. They also face the added pressures of food, financial and housing insecurity which only serves to add to their emotional burden. The constant exposure to statistics regarding deaths via radio, television and newspapers can also serve to re-traumatise the bereaved person and lead to a disorder called ‘prolonged grief.’ This interferes with a person’s ability to adapt to their loss, integrate it into their life and return to normal daily activities and work. Others may feel differently about the restrictions, seeing them as a way to allow for the grieving process to take place without any external pressure or artificially imposed deadlines. For example, the inability to physically return to the workplace, travel or socialise in-person may relieve the bereaved person of the burden of putting on a brave face and pretending to be happy. Lockdown can provide space for people to come to terms with their loss at a pace that feels right for them. The global nature of this pandemic complicates things too; as with 9/11, when a death occurs against the backdrop of a historical event, this can shape the grief response. The bereaved may feel that their loss has been overshadowed, especially for those whose loved ones died from non-COVID causes, who risk being erased from the collective memory altogether.

 

Many different cultures and religions are being impacted by the pandemic restrictions, each in their own unique way ( it must be acknowledged that they share many similar ideas and rituals, even though the practices may look different). No matter how mundane or significant our rituals are, routines help to define our sense of self in the world, according to Terry Daniel, an interfaith chaplain and trauma counsellor. COVID has, for many, shattered our sense of security and the belief that we will all wake up the next morning and our loved ones will be alive and well. Our trust in our systems, let it be religious bodies, government leaders and agencies, healthcare and economic systems has suffered every time one or all of them has failed to meet our expectations, leaving us with feelings of betrayal and insecurity. Therefore, understandably, people tend to cling on to the familiar rituals which make them feel ‘safe’ and fulfill their religious and cultural obligations in a satisfactory way. We witnessed this strong need in West Africa during the Ebola crisis when violence broke out over burial restrictions for victims of the disease. Healthcare workers became targets and treatment centres were destroyed as anger grew over locals’ belief that safety measures preventing loved ones from touching the body were disrespectful towards the dead.

 

The small number of attendees at the funeral were forbidden from passing around a shovel to heap dirt on the body, but some insisted on keeping the ritual and used their hands instead in order to prevent handling the same contaminated shovel.”

Many countries have faced backlash from their populations as a result of restrictions on funeral and burial rites; however, many are now providing creative alternatives to allow for  continuity in the practising of important religious rites. For example, in Israel, Sheba Medical Center built a glass booth in which to place the body of the deceased so that family members can have one last glimpse of their loved ones before they are wrapped in two plastic body bags and lowered into the grave wrapped in shrouds (coffins are not common in Jewish burials in Israel). The small number of attendees at the funeral were forbidden from passing around a shovel to heap dirt on the body, but some insisted on keeping the ritual and used their hands instead in order to prevent handling the same contaminated shovel. No visitors were permitted to attend Shiva, the traditional week-long mourning period in which close family and friends offer condolences to the bereaved. Orthodox Jews often gave up on reciting the Kaddish as this requires the physical presence of a quorum of ten, while more liberal Rabbis permitted a virtual quorum. Following Jewish custom, some victims in Europe choose to be buried in the Holy Land; however, this does not currently apply to American-based Jews as United Airlines (the only airline providing the service in the USA) has suspended international funeral shipments. As a temporary solution, a leading Orthodox Rabbi in New York has allowed for the temporary burial of victims in the USA until such shipments resume and bodies can be exhumed and reburied in the Holy Land.

 

In Wuhan, China (the epicenter of the pandemic), families were initially unable to collect the cremated remains of their loved ones during the strict lockdown that followed the first outbreak. However, as the Chinese Tomb Sweeping holiday approached in April 2020, authorities permitted families to make appointments to collect the ashes at a specific time and to bury them accompanied by a neighbourhood official– an effective solution to avoid crowds and angry locals. In Pakistan and Turkey, both predominantly Muslim countries, restrictions applied to the traditional practice of washing the body before burial; those washing the body (usually family but now restricted only to those directly involved in the burial) must wear PPE and remain socially distanced during prayers. Mourners are forbidden from approaching the coffin. In the case of India (largely Hindu), gone are the days of the large, public funeral processions which form a key part of mourning for many faiths across South Asia. In the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges River, a lone Hindu priest now recites a daily prayer as a symbolic gesture to the Hindu goddess Ganga. This marks a significant departure from previous practice where thousands would gather for sunrise and sunset to honour Ganga and riverbanks would be lined with many funeral pyres. Many Hindus believe that being cremated next to the Ganges River or having one’s ashes submerged in its waters ensures salvation. At the peak of India’s COVID crisis, there were reports of ashes piling up in crematoriums because families were unable to collect them due to travel restrictions and limited public transport. Indian central authorities also banned the bathing or embalming of COVID victims; however, while no specific religion was mentioned in the guidelines issued, it is clear they are referring to the minority Muslim population, who have faced discrimination in the past and for whom this is an important pre-burial tradition. The initial order to cremate all COVID victims was withdrawn within hours after a Muslim politician intervened (cremation is prohibited in Islam).

 

In Iraq, families frequently encountered delays in retrieving the bodies of loved ones from the morgue. This can cause significant distress as, in the Muslim faith, the deceased must be buried within 24 hours, wherever possible. Abdul-Hadi Majeed, an Iraqi soldier, described how it took eight days to retrieve his father’s body and the family encountered many challenges when arranging the burial. The government intended to bury his father in a field outside Baghdad, which tribal leaders objected to as it was mistakenly feared that this could spread the disease. Consequently, paramilitary forces dressed in hazmat suits took over proceedings and carried out the burial according to Islamic rites in a large cemetery in the holy city of Najaf, with a special section reserved for COVID victims. In predominantly Christian countries, the pandemic is also disrupting proceedings. In the Philippines, the speedy burial of victims is a significant departure from the usual practice of ‘lamay’ or wake, which tends to last from three to seven days. Irish funeral practices have been similarly affected, although many rituals still continue in a slightly adapted form. The tradition of walking behind the hearse and following it to the cemetery has been replaced with the new practice of friends and family gathering (2 metres apart) and lining the road to the cemetery instead.

 

COVID has robbed us of many things including our everyday rituals and habits, which help us to feel secure, as well as our ability to seek and provide comfort during times of distress and bereavement. Although humans are a very adaptable species and we have found many new and creative ways of connecting and honouring our dead, the pandemic is very likely to result in many millions of survivors left behind, unable to process or cope with their grief in the usual ways. We must be prepared to deal with the tidal wave of grief and overwhelming sense of loss when this all comes to an end. It may be the end of restrictions, but it won’t be the end of suffering.

 

 

 

Featured photo by AH NP

This article was supported by: STAND Opinion Editor Olivia + Programme Assistant Alex