Matt’s post the other week about New Zealand’s worsening road safety record was troubling. After years in which the number of people dying in road crashes has fallen, the number’s been rising steadily since 2014 and it’s recently spiked upwards.
That our road toll is increasing is appalling and it’s even more disappointing to see that pedestrians are bearing some of the brunt of it. That increasing toll has seen in the 12 months to the end of July, 365 people die on our roads, an average of one person every single day. At its lowest in February 2014, the toll was sitting at just 249. Even comparing the outcome to other metrics, such as comparing to the population or vehicle kilometres travelled shows the same basic trend.
But it’s not just road deaths.
The week the rising road death numbers were released, the NZ Herald also published a disturbing article on New Zealand’s rising suicide deaths.
Almost 10 years after he committed suicide, his widow still wakes screaming in the middle of the night.
Her sister Julz Lee says he was “the very, very last person you would have thought to have done it”.
He had a steady job, a good marriage and two daughters aged 12 and 13.
“The hardest thing to come to terms with was the fact that nobody could understand it, there was no explanation as to why, even to this day,” she says.
“She [his widow] kept all of his stuff for a very long time because she simply couldn’t understand why.
“She has severe panic attacks and she has night terrors. She has remarried and her new husband is used to her screaming in the night terrors but I don’t think it will ever leave her.”
Lee, who will tell her family’s story on Thursday at a West Auckland event displaying 579 shoes to remember 579 Kiwis who died by suicide last year, spoke out as the latest statistics showed that suicides reached a new record of 606 in the year to June 30.
She wants other bereaved families to be offered help – which her sister has never received.
Like road deaths, suicides are rising to a new high:
The latest suicide figures are the highest since coroner’s records began nine years ago. The suicide rate of 12.64 for every 100,000 people is now as bad as the last peak of 12.65 six years ago.
Also the same week, the NZ Herald published a story about rising death and illness from diseases of poverty and poor housing quality. Again, it makes for distressing reading:
More New Zealand children are killed by diseases linked to cold, damp, and overcrowded housing than in car crashes or drownings.
Disease casts a shadow over Parrs Park in West Auckland. It’s there in the data: the children are getting sick. And when the women open their doors, they’ll tell you.
“My granddaughter got bronchitis,” says Talia*, on Selak Place. “She was just 5. We don’t use the heater, it’s broken. We use the oven to warm the house.”
Aroha*, who lives in a state house next door, has four children. The two boys have asthma. The baby was also hospitalised with a respiratory disease.
“The doctor said it was because the house was too cold. We were only home three days and she got sick,” Aroha says. “They gave her medicine. But there was nothing they could do about the house.”
Across the road Azaryah, 1, has pneumonia. Her family took her to the doctor three times in three days. Eventually, they went to the emergency department and her illness showed up in an x-ray.
“Since then we’ve been running a dehumidifier and a heater all day. She just hasn’t gotten any better,” her mum says. “We have a good landlord but we’re looking to move. It’s pretty cold without the heater, it’s freezing.”
Upstairs, mould grows on the windowsills. Despite being a new house, it has no ventilation system.
The statistics are shocking:
Health data shows that each year 20 children are killed by diseases linked to unhealthy housing – more than 350 since the millennium. Half of those were from pneumonia. Asthma and wheeze took 33. Bronchiolitis claimed 15.
The deaths peak in winter, hospitals flooded as soon as it gets cold. Maori and Pacific children die at twice the rate of Europeans. The very poor die at 14 times the rate of the very rich, with a recent report from the Asthma and Respiratory Foundation describing the effect of deprivation as “near exponential”.
“Across all respiratory health indicators, by far the most relentless and disturbing pattern was the high degree of inequality,” the report said.
Hospitalisations caused by poverty-related conditions have increased since 2000 – up to 43,000 last year. Respiratory diseases, in particular, are growing at much more severe rates.
We could view these stories in isolation. Rising road death are the product of increasing traffic and decades of feckless engineering. Rising suicides are the product of a culture that has always told suffering people to ‘harden up’ – and our obscene neglect of mental health services. Increasing deaths and hospitalisations from respiratory illnesses are the product of a severe housing crisis that has crowded people into unsafe housing, plus too much hardscrabble poverty for too many.
But there’s a common thread running through them, which is that we have sat by complacently while too many people die.
We lament individual deaths, especially when they touch us personally. But when it comes to looking at the systemic problems that cause too many needless deaths, we often shrug our shoulders and say: It’s too hard. It can’t be helped.
But it’s not too hard and it can be helped. New Zealand isn’t typical on these measures: We have some of the worst suicide rates in the developed world, some of the highest rates of respiratory illnesses, and significantly higher road deaths than leading northern European countries. This is clear evidence that these problems can be fixed – if we care to fix them.
We have an election on 23 September. A good question to ask, when you’re choosing how to vote, would be: Who has a plan to address New Zealand’s problem with death? And who is saying: We’d like to do more, but it’s too hard / too expensive / not a priority?