I’d like to first start by declaring that I don’t hate wealth. I don’t have a hatred of rich people or their possessions. In fact, in many cases, I encourage it. Wealth is undoubtedly one of the by-products of success and hard work and it is unfortunately (depending on your viewpoint) the symbol of achievement in our modern day world. And plus, let’s face it, who doesn't enjoy the odd shopping spree a few times a week on Rolex’s and Prada suits.
However, there are aspects of wealth that cause it to be, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most damaging elements to any community. It causes division not only financially and socially but it can cause arguably one of the most dangerous of all divisions- physical separation.
Many people before me have spoken in great length about the philosophical ideas behind private schooling and healthcare. It is an issue that seems to constantly be in the news and in the public eye. From old Etonians living the rockstar lifestyle in the exclusive Bullingdon Club in Oxford, to terrible mistreating of patients in private hospitals.
I read these stories about financially bought services from a completely abstract perspective. I look at them like I look at quadratic equations in a GCSE Maths exam. I understand what they mean on paper, but never with any context in the real world. So I guess you could anticipate my fascination and (rather guiltily) my excitement when our local NHS hospital felt the strain of the Tory’s treatment of it and were forced to admit my mum to a rather swanky private hospital for a short ‘no-hassle’ operation…and I use the term ‘no hassle’ lightly.
I’ve never been to a private hospital before and I genuinely didn’t know what to expect. Part of me was looking forward to prestige service and immaculate facilities superior to ones of the NHS, and another part of me was afraid of being judged as out of place and negatively different with an added seasoning of guilt. These were the the two sides of me that were at war with each other from the first moment my mum was admitted. Like many wars, both sides were wrong in their own specific way.
But as time progressed and the operation date drew nearer I noticed a few odd things happening with my little sisters. Every time there was a mention of the hospital we were going to, it was followed by what they were wearing to the hospital that day. Now my sisters don’t really know much of anything, let alone social and financial variations between the NHS and private healthcare! But it was almost like an unconscious act to want to dress differently. I enquired them on it and the response was simple; they feared being singled out, assuming that everyone was going to be wearing ultra-expensive clothes and that they had to do that too. I found it really sad that my younger sisters felt like they had to even slightly alter themselves when going to a place like this primarily because they felt what they were already wasn’t good enough. Luckily, my sisters tend to have some of the nicest clothes and don’t lack the quantity as well.
What was even more interesting was that I was rather apprehensive too. Yes, you heard right! I knew that there would always the very slight chance that we just genuinely didn’t belong there and it wasn’t because we didn’t have nice clothes, because trust me, I have top notch attire, but down to something less superficial and more ingrained within the mindset of people. All of these fears were nothing more than simple assumptions until the day of my mother’s operation.
We stepped into a beautiful reception area to sign into the hospital and wait for a nurse to escort us to my mum’s room. From that moment on my worst assumptions became the harshest of realities.
Every single family who were waiting in the waiting room stopped reading their celebrity magazines and their phone messages to literally stare at me and my family. Now if, for whatever reason, I wanted to stare at someone, I would at least be subtle about it, right? Well not these people! They were eyeing us down like we had just spat on the floor. At first I really wanted it not to be true, so I decided to look back and smile. Just in case it was them trying to be friendly in their own peculiar way. But what was returned was a cold, faceless response of disregard. It was truly painful. And if that wasn’t bad enough, they began to whisper to each other while doing it! Subtle indeed.
For the first time in all my years living in this great country, I felt deeply foreign. It was an empty feeling of not belonging in my own country.
The upside was that the hospital itself was truly spectacular. Private room with Sky TV and an ensuite toilet with fully equipped showers. It had hotel quality room service with two nurses waiting on demand with a push of a button to clean the room and provide any medical assistance. You had unlimited conference time with your surgeon to discuss your procedure in as much detail as you wished. A full variety of dishes were available on request from the kitchen menu. including a specialist Halal and Kosher selection that was served to you via a waiter per room (which was delicious I might add) and free, unlimited Wi-Fi. In short, luxury healthcare at its finest.
The staff themselves treated us with the utmost respect and manners. We were no different from anyone else there, but then again, many of the nurses present were clearly of foreign decent themselves and most likely had NHS jobs primarily with this on the side. Coincidence…I think not.
And rather profoundly, amidst all of that, I felt deeply uncomfortable. Every time I left the safe boundaries of my mother’s room, that same heavy feeling of trespassing returned because I knew one thing- that the people in that hospital that stared and whispered did not do it out of spite or hatred but rather out of fascination and interest. It was ingrained into their mindset. I drew one powerful conclusion from my time exploring the unknown realms of private healthcare, that money divides.
It’s what it does. It has the unequivocal power to unite us and to better our world and yet it does the exact opposite. It separates us not only financially, it separates us physically. Last Monday’s Guardian featured a piece on Kensington Palace Gardens, which happens to be the most expensive road to live on in Britain. With police and private security at each end of the street and 24 hour CCTV and security vans everywhere, it is the literal exaggeration of the physical division between the financial classes, but it happens everywhere, every day.
What I fear most however is not the separation of just the wealthy and the not. But considering that the large majority of the wealth is concentrated within white families, I fear children of those families growing up completely secluded from the beauty and the richness of ethnic diversity. With private education being overrun by predominantly white pupils and regular private healthcare still only available to the socially elite, are we creating a healthy environment for our future generations?
We must allow our society to intertwine in order to prevent ignorance and remove the lack of opportunities that those from low income backgrounds have. Reduce the reliance on private education; invest more in improving state education; allow teachers to teach without the unneeded stress of league tables and over strenuous exam pressure. Adopt ‘Keynesian Economics’ to create a NHS that is reliable and has the necessary resources to treat people from all walks of life efficiently and quickly.
With changes like these, society would finally see no need for the harmful separations that we experience today. But many ask, is there that much of need for change?
The answer to that question for me comes not from words or books, but from the short and eye-opening experience that I had with a private hospital. The chilling stares and the cold feeling of being out of place should not happen to anyone, especially if it’s based only on the size of their bank account.
Thankfully, my mother is making great progress and is on her way to a speedy recovery. She didn’t share many of my opinions about the hospital. But that’s primarily because she was unconscious for most of it!
I dedicate this article to her and wish her one of the few things that money can’t buy; a long and happy life.
By Yousif Alawoad