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Cathy smiles into the camera

Non accidental death of an activist

Cathy McCormack, who died at the end of August 2022, was a Scottish activist, community mobiliser, public health promoter, intervention researcher, popular educator, film-maker, broadcaster, actor, author, blogger, campaigner, public speaker, consciousness-raiser and critical thinker.

Cathy was a fatality of the war without bullets, a term she coined to refer to the many vicious forms of violence being waged on people deemed surplus to the requirements of neoliberal capitalism.

This violence is delivered by development and deployment of policies and practices which manufacture unemployment, inequality, material poverty and socio-economic apartheid. It is underpinned by so-called “social-scientific” practices and associated “knowledges,” which lay blame for whatever goes wrong at the door of those upon whom the class war is being waged.

Like most people in her community, Cathy lived with poverty, unemployment, pathogenic housing, toxic policies and neglect for most of her adult life. It took its toll.

Cathy “questioned the common sense of the ‘experts’ who had built housing schemes that were damaging (their) lives and destroying (their) children’s futures” and constantly strove: “to get people in the mindset that says ‘hang on a wee minute”* in response to so-called experts, who claimed to know best. Mind you, as Cathy pointed out, even the children in Easterhouse, Glasgow, could “see that the people with the knowledge are the cause of their frustrations”.

Cathy lived most of her adult life unemployed in Easterhouse, a township of 60,000 people, thrown up outside Glasgow to accommodate the tenants of demolished tenements in inner city areas of Glasgow. When Cathy moved into Easterhouse it was characterised by astronomical unemployment, dire relative and absolute poverty, catastrophically low levels of health, damp fungal spore infested housing, absent community infrastructure and rudimentary public transport. In a sustained process of victim blaming, the people living in Easterhouse were widely positioned by many journalists, politicians and even public health professionals as responsible for their own misery, morbidity and mortality and Easterhouse was stigmatised as a community characterised by profound intra-community violence.

Cathy, like many in the community, found her home was damp, cold and difficult to heat: impossible to get up to “healthy heat” levels for anyone but especially for the poorest, the unemployed and the elderly. Fuel poverty increased and many tenants – already on subsistence incomes – found their already inadequate benefits were being reduced because between a third and a half of their income was being deducted before they got it, going directly to fuel companies to whom they were in arrears. Families started to sleep and cook in one room to save heating costs for the whole apartment with consequent reduced privacy.  Mould appeared on the walls and furniture. Families were at constant risk of hypothermia, especially older family members. Children were often too unwell to be vaccinated against childhood illness and started to become immune to antibiotics. Cases of asthma increased, as did school absences.   

In her book The Wee Yellow Butterfly Cathy recalled what it was like to be a young mother in those days:

“Although my children were bouncing with health when they were born, as soon as I brought them home to our freezing-cold damp flat my life became a constant battle for survival between my family and the fungus family.”

And elsewhere she has written:

“… dampness started to affect my mental health. I became really depressed because no matter how much I loved my children or tried to take care of them, I could neither keep the doctor at bay nor the fungus that was destroying everything it came into contact with. While most people might be familiar with throwing out mouldy bread and mouldy cheese, like my friends all around me, I was continually having to throw out mouldy furniture, clothes and toys and found myself having to choose between feeding my hungry children or hungry fuel meters which kept demanding more money.” 

Whenever Cathy contacted the Housing Department, which owned the damp houses and was responsible for their upkeep, to ask for something to be done about the damp, she was told the dampness in her home, and that of her neighbours, was their own fault. It was alleged they were boiling too many kettles, not opening enough windows, not heating the flats enough. Indeed, people in the deprived communities of Scotland were blamed more generally for their poor health by health professionals who ignored poverty, inequality, unemployment, psychologically pathogenic employment, bad housing etc. as causes of ill health and instead told community members their high rates of cancer and heart disease could be prevented if they ate brown bread, started jogging, ate less pies and more fruit, and so on – classic victim blaming.

At her wits’ end, Cathy went to her family doctor, who took stock of her physical and mental condition and offered her … wait for it … anti-depressants. Cathy realised she was suffering mental health problems directly caused by toxic material living conditions which were also wrecking the health of her children, husband, and neighbours, but was being offered a pharmacological fix for her mood. Cathy asked the GP for a prescription for a warm dry home instead and when she was told that was beyond his remit, she left the surgery determined to work for decent housing for her community through activism.

Cathy brought her Easterhouse community onboard a project which brought together tenants and researchers, including environmental health officers who measured humidity, damp and fungal spore presence in houses, and health researchers who measured the health and mental health of children and adults with scales of widely-accepted reliability and validity, in a double-blind design using a random sample of houses in the community. In turn, activist tenants like Cathy committed to maximising participation by residents.

The project demonstrated that children living in damp homes had significantly more respiratory problems, sore throats, vomiting, diarrhoea, headaches, pain, and other symptoms than children living in dry homes. Both adults and children in damp homes had more emotional problems than those in dry homes. Children and adults in damp houses with fungal mould had significantly poorer health than those in damp houses without mould. Crucially, whether or not a tenant’s house was damp depended on which street it was in and where it was located relative to the prevailing weather i.e., the tenants’ behaviour was not the cause of the damp housing or associated health problems. The project team estimated that between a quarter and a third of all council housing in Scotland was actually subject to dampness at the time of this research. 

This was not the end of the story though. The tenant activists had agreed to maximise participation in the study in return for the researchers agreeing to remain committed to promoting the interests of the tenants beyond simply publishing their findings. Accordingly, the research was reported in local newspapers, on local radio and on local television. It was used to stimulate concern in Glasgow housing department, Glasgow environmental health department, the Regional Council, the community health council, legal centres and Shelter. The research was cited in court cases by tenants; by the Scottish Grand Committee in Westminster and by the Minister of State for Housing in Scotland; by the Housing Department when applying to the Scottish Office for extra funding; by local forums of GPs, local councillors and tenants to bring about action.

Cathy and her fellow activists organised a weekend competition in which teams of interdisciplinary technical experts, chaired by tenants, were tasked with designing affordable interventions to prevent dampness and fungal spore infestation in a sample of Easterhouse houses. The competition winner was titled Retrofit Solar Improvement of Thermally Inefficient or Substandard Housing. Cathy and her colleagues applied for and obtained a promise of funding from the European Commission, if a substantial local government contribution were made. Despite sustained opposition from local (Labour) politicians, Cathy obtained the required commitments, and a demonstration project, which did not include Cathy’s house, was implemented. A later evaluation demonstrated that the demonstration project simultaneously eliminated dampness and fungal spore infestation; reduced poverty by huge fuel savings; improved mental and physical health; and massively reduced carbon dioxide emissions.

From Easterhouse Cathy took her message to Glasgow Council, then to the Scottish government, then to the UK government, then to the European Commission and finally worldwide. She spent time in Nicaragua building alliances with people and groups and was the subject of a much-lauded feature-length documentary film made in South Africa insightfully comparing South African race-based apartheid with British class-based apartheid. She was invited to address the United Nations in New York [across], and undertook countless international speaking engagements at conferences and workshops.

In her biography, Cathy recalled that, because her family needed her wages to survive, she “was dragged out of school kicking and screaming” at the age of 15. Cathy had been employed in a dairy before leaving school and afterwards worked for a jeweller, in a cigar factory and cleaning hotels. How, you might ask, was Cathy equipped with the skills and knowledge to steer this massive, extended community project to success? There is not room for a full answer in this short piece, but there is, fundamentally, one main answer:

Cathy’s activism was enabled and supported by peer and popular education and myriad networks of people and progressive social structures inside and outside her community.

Although Cathy wrote that she “wasn’t allowed to carry on (her) education” as a schoolgirl, she received a radically enabling education as an adult. Cathy did Open University courses run by a local pre-school centre; learned about liberation theology from a local minister; undertook intensive training in Ireland and England on how to help learners examine structures of power and inequality within the status quo; and learned about the work of Ignacio Martin-Baro and Paolo Freire from middle-class allies working in Easterhouse. Cathy wrote that she received “an education no university could have given (her)” during her study tour of Nicaragua, and her high degree of practical know-how, combined with critical literacy, may well have been because – rather than in spite – of her leaving school at 15.

Cathy’s activism was enabled by pre-existing resources. She worked with the local Residents’ Association, community and community development workers, workers, Technical Services Agency, College of Technology, Benefits group, Workers Education Association, the Legal Services Agency and Edinburgh University. Cathy’s effectiveness lay, in part, in her capacity to catalyse integrated action by a huge variety of diverse individual organisations and individuals.

In The Wee Yellow Butterfly Cathy referred to a 2008 World Health Organisation Report, Closing the Gap in a Generation: Health Equity through Action on the Social Determinants of Health, which reported a 28-year gap in life expectancy between the working and middle-class communities living in different parts of Glasgow. The author of the report, Professor Sir Michael Marmot, said: “avoidable inequalities in health . . . are killing people on a grand scale.” He continued: “the lower you are in the hierarchy the poorer your health, the higher you are the better your health . . . the circumstances in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age are the fundamental drivers of health, and health inequity.” 

Or, as Cathy put it, this gap was the consequence of the war without bullets which was waged upon her and others in her community.

Cathy McCormack who was born on the 5th of July 1952 and died on the 29th of August 2022, aged only 70 when she died, herself a fatality of that war, waged through policies and practices manufacturing unemployment, inequality, material poverty, socio-economic apartheid, oppression in abandoned ghetto-townships on people deemed surplus to the requirements of neoliberal capitalism.  

Cathy with the author at Notre Dame University, Perth, Australia during a joint presentation

~ David Fryer 

All quotations from Cathy in this piece are from:
Cathy McCormack (2009)
The Wee Yellow Butterfly
Glendaruel: Argyll Publishing
ISBN 978 1 906134 29 7

This article first appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Freedom anarchist journal.

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