THE death of a child, any child, is a heart-stopping moment of immense emotional force. Death, of course, is an inescapable part of what it means to be human.
But when a young life is cut short, we experience the loss in a very different way to the death of an adult, however sudden and tragic the circumstances. There is a visceral reaction to the death of child that is involuntary, a product of instinct rather than intellect. Regardless of whatever gulf that lies between ourselves and the life that child lived – whether distance, class, race, ideology or religion – a bond of common humanity asserts itself. For a moment that loss is our loss, shared and shouldered together. When it is suspected that a criminal act may be responsible for that death, the power of that young person’s passing is all the greater. That young life is not so much lost, as stolen. And that is what many of us will be feeling this weekend, in a world that no longer contains a smiling three-year-old Edinburgh boy called Mikaeel Kular.
The most overwhelming feeling this weekend is one of grief. That is only right. But there are already questions about whether, and how, Mikaeel’s death could have been prevented. It remains to be seen what contact, if any, Mikaeel and his family had with social workers before last week. If there was contact, what form did it take, and were there deficiencies in how it was handled? If there had been no such contact, should there have been? Did this family come to the attention of the authorities – whether police, NHS, social work or nursery school – in a way that should have rung alarm bells? And if this was not the case, were there friends, relatives or neighbours who harboured concerns about the children in this family, but chose not to act on them?
This last question is perhaps the most haunting of all. After any death, those left behind often review their relationship with the deceased and do a kind of emotional post-mortem. Do I have any regrets about how I treated them? Was I a good son, a good wife, a good colleague, a good friend? Was I a good neighbour? In deaths such as the one that we report today, this self-scrutiny can be difficult and painful. But it is necessary. And it is not just the duty of those who knew this little boy personally. Those who are failed by society are as much failed by the individuals who make up that society as by its institutions. Writing in our news pages today, Anne Houston, chief executive of the charity Children 1ST, makes a powerful point. “It is people, not procedures, which keep children safe,” she says, “and all of us have a responsibility to protect Scotland’s children.” We should not hesitate to demand answers and, if appropriate and borne out by the facts, there may yet be searching questions for people in positions of power. But we should each and individually accept we have a personal responsibility to keep our children – all children – safe.
Scotland is in mourning today, along with millions across the United Kingdom and further afield who, through news and social media have been briefly touched by the blurred photographs of this little boy’s smile. We will never know what kind of life Mikaeel Kular would have had. We will never know how he could have enriched the lives of those around him. We will never know what contribution he could have made to the life of the country of his birth. We should grieve for him. If his death was indeed a crime, we should demand justice. But we should also make ourselves a promise that any lessons from his death will be fully learned, institutionally and individually.
Drive by ideology
WHEN the SNP came to power in 2007, one of the first acts of the then cabinet secretary for health, Nicola Sturgeon, was to instruct officials to extricate the NHS in Scotland from certain contracts it had with private hospitals or private health providers. The previous administration, headed by Labour first minister Jack McConnell, had presided over a modest engagement with the private sector that included, for example, the use of a specialist South African medical firm with an impressive record on successful knee replacement surgery. This had reduced waiting lists, easing the pain and anxiety of thousands of patients, and taking the strain off an already overstretched NHS. Sturgeon’s actions put political ideology over the interests and welfare of patients.
Now the same accusation is being levelled – justifiably in our view – at the current health minister, Alex Neil. He has demanded health boards reduce the tiny percentage of their work now done by the private healthcare sector, and ruled that any further contracts are authorised by him. Nowhere in his comments is any qualification to the effect of “when this can be shown to have no effect on the amount of time Scottish patients wait for treatment”, or “where this can be demonstrated to produce as good or better clinical outcomes”. Such thinking, it seems, plays second fiddle to ideology.