The Death of Awaab Ishak

Awaab Ishak was a toddler who died in December 2020 as a direct result of exposure to black mould in his flat in Rochdale.

Awaab’s untimely death is a consequence of poverty in the U.K. and government policy which allows landlords to get away with putting profit (or money saving) before people’s health.

The death of Awaab Ishak

Awaab Ishak developed a respiratory condition due to exposure to black mould in his house which caused his death, just eight days after his second birthday, according to the Coroner’s report.

Awab’s family lived in social housing, renting from Rochdale Bouroughwide Council (RBH) and Awaab’s father, Abdullah, had repeatedly raised concerns with RBH about mould, first reporting the problem in 2017 shortly after he moved into the flat. At that time he was told to paint over it.

According to the inquest into Awaab’s death the toddler had frequently been plagued by respiratory problems and a health visitor had written twice to RBH in 2020, expressing concern about the mould and the negative health effects it could have.

Also, in 2020, Abdullah had instructed solicitors via a claims company to try and get RBH to conduct repairs, as it was the social landlord’s policy to not do repairs until a formal claims procedure had been initiated.

At the inquest into Awaab’s death RBH accepted they could have been more proactive in dealing with the mould issue (which to my mind sounds like something of an understatement!)

The Social-Structural Causes of Awaab’s death

The initial cause of Awaab’s death was the staggering inactivity of the social housing provider in Rochdale, but a wider enabling causal factor was the fact that government regulations over standards for social housing provision allowed them to get away with such inaction for so long.

The national level policy which allows a housing association to not deal with sub-standard housing conditions which are life threatening, such as the existence of mould, until tenants file a formal process via a solicitor means delays in addressing such conditions.

The very fact that a formal process, via a solicitor, is required means that some tenants simply won’t initiate such a process because of maybe language barriers, or negative experiences with such institutional authorities in the past, or just plain lack of time or organisational skills.

Tenants also require sufficient knowledge of the system to be able lodge such complaints, knowledge they may not have, especially when English is their first language, as was the case with Abdullah who first came to the U.K. in 2016 from Sudan, and this was probably a causal factor in his reporting the mould first in 2017 but then not going through a solicitor until much later in 2020 – it took him a while to learn the formal processes.

Some people have even accused RBH of blatant Racism, claiming an English speaking family would not have had so much of a problem getting the mould issue addressed promptly.

Awaab’s Law

At least there has been a policy reaction to this horrific event….

Following an online petition at change.org the government recently announced (3) that it will be amending Social Housing Policy to specify time limits for social housing landlords to address problems which are potentially threatening to human health.

Sociological Perspectives on the death of Awaab Ishak

This unfortunate case study is a reminder of the extent of poverty and relative deprivation in the United Kingdom today, the death of this toddler just being a very tragic and extreme indicator of this.

About 450,000 homes in England have problems with condensation and mould (2) so this is far from one isolated case, that’s about 2% of the housing stock, and most of that is going to be in the social and private rented sectors, those houses owned by landlords that are taking advantage of the lax laws to keep more profit rather than re-investing their passive income back into providing better quality housing.

Probably another underlying factor to the mould not being sorted promptly is underfunding for social housing from the State, which is caused by more than a decade of austerity policies by the Tory government.

If we move away from the social rented sector and consider those houses with mould in the wider private rented sector, this demonstrates the downside of the profit-motive within the capitalist system. This would literally be a case of those with capital keeping their profits for themselves rather than re-investing in improving society. It is literally a case of profit before people, and the fact that law currently still allows this to happen demonstrates that the state is aligned with Capitalism rather than the people.

Most people don’t die from poor housing conditions such as mould, but poor quality housing is still resulting in poor physical and mental health for millions of the poorest adults and children, and such conditions more generally will lower life expectancy and mean children are less able to do their homework effectively (in damp bedrooms) which explains differential educational achievement by social class.

In short, this is a very stark example of how poverty negatively affects life chances – in the sense that Awaab now has no life and his parents’ lives are probably now ruined as well given the emotional toll on them.

Finally, something else you might want to explore more is the possibility that Racism was a causal factor in Awaab’s death.

Sources

(1) BBC News (November 2022) Awaab Ishak: Mould in Rochdale Flat Caused Boy’s Death, Coroner Rules.

(2) The Guardian (November 2022) Death of Two Year Old from Mould in Flat a Defining Moment, Coroner Says.

(3) Manchester Evening News (January 2023) Government Announces Plans for Awaab’s Law.

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