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by Louise Wilson
18 November 2022
Awaab Ishak: Decades of failure on housing

Awaab Ishak died days after his second birthday | Family handout

Awaab Ishak: Decades of failure on housing

“How in the UK in 2020 does a two-year-old child die as a result of exposure to mould?” That question, put by coroner Joanne Kearsley at the conclusion of the inquest into Awaab Ishak’s death, should send shockwaves across the UK.

The details of Awaab’s death are harrowing. During the inquest, we learned Awaab had turned two mere days before going into respiratory arrest caused by the black mould left to grow in his home. We learned that despite Awaab’s parents urging the housing association to act repeatedly over a period of three years, nothing was done. We learned at one point, Awaab’s father was told to simply “paint over it”. We learned Awaab’s airwaves had become swollen, and fungus was found in his blood and lungs. We learned that in the days leading up to his death, he was given “sub-optimal ventilation” based on medical advice. And we learned that language barriers had once again played a huge role in the family not receiving the attention they deserved.

The coroner said Awaab’s death “should be a defining moment for the housing sector”. But for any of this to happen in the first place is shameful. It is an indictment of the fractured nature of the system. It is also an indictment of the barriers facing migrant families as they try to access services to which they are entitled.

This family came to the UK in search of a better life, only to be provided with a home of such poor quality that an innocent toddler has died. The one place any family, any child, should feel totally and completely safe – at home – ended up killing Awaab.

What does that say about us as a society?

Awaab’s death is devastating but this is not the only story of poor-quality housing causing severe health issues, nor of voices from the most vulnerable groups being ignored. Be under no illusion that substandard housing across the UK – down in England, but here in Scotland too – is having terrible consequences. And has done for decades.

The latest figures indicate nearly one in ten homes in Scotland suffer from a damp or condensation problem. More than half are considered in a state of disrepair – a figure that rockets to two-thirds among local authority and privately rented homes.

And with rising energy bills, how many more will be facing problems with mould this winter as weather gets colder and families are unable to turn on the heating?

Plenty of us will recognise the photographs taken of Awaab’s home, black mould spreading up the walls and behind radiators. You need only look to Living Rent for story after story of tenants battling with landlords for long-term solutions, not quick fixes like a lick of paint.

Sadly, Awaab’s death is the inevitable conclusion to years and years of those in power refusing to listen to the voices of the most vulnerable. The fire at Grenfell Tower is another such tragedy. Both were avoidable, had decision-makers bothered to listen. And yet as a country we seem no further forward in addressing the huge problem of sub-standard housing.

These are issues that have plagued the country for decades. Yet here we are in 2022, continuing to house some of the most vulnerable in squalid, detestable conditions.

It is welcome that the (now sacked) chief executive of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing confirmed the organisation would “learn hard lessons” from Awaab’s death so “this can never happen again”.

But ultimately, the only way that can really happen is if we, as Awaab’s parents says,“stop housing people in homes you know are unfit for human habitation.”

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