Thursday 21 October 2021

This is what poverty looks like

This column first appeared in Malta Today

If I had my way I would make the mini-series Maid compulsory viewing for everyone, but especially young women. 

It is based on a true story by Stephanie Land, 43, who in 2019 wrote her memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will To Survive. She spent six years cleaning for affluent families in an upper class area where most of her clients never bothered to learn her name.  The book provides a no holds barred window into what poverty looks like.  It is set in the US, but really, it could be set in any country in the world. 

The Netflix series changed a few details, making the central character, Alex, a woman who flees an abusive boyfriend (the father of her child) thus weaving the perils of domestic abuse into the storyline. However, the central theme remains the same: how someone who is educated and comes from a middle class family ends up becoming homeless, with the only job available to her being that of a cleaner on minimum wage.

It is a gritty look at a world most of us have never experienced; my recurring thought as I watched each episode is how privileged we are without even realising it.  We take our homes, clothes, cars and food in the fridge blissfully for granted.  Alex tries valiantly to claw her away out of the cycle of homelessness and poverty, but is met by a brick wall of bureaucracy, social ostracism and a constant fight to retain her dignity despite being treated with disdain and contempt by those who look at her simply as another “parasite” on social benefits.  She has to juggle finding affordable subsidised daycare for her daughter with her cleaning job, as she lugs around a Dyson vacuum cleaner and her cleaning products.  A graphic in the corner of the screen showing her money steadily dwindling as it is eaten up by daily expenses to the sound of a cash register is probably one of the most effective, audio-visual storytelling tools I have ever seen on TV.  

Poverty makes you invisible, it turns you into a statistic, and reduces you to having to grovel for hand-outs. It crushes your spirit and strips you of everything which makes you feel worthy. When you are this poor it is like you are always on the outside looking in and you are left feeling like you are not even a member of the same society around you.  It is only due to Alex’s indomitable spirit (mirrored on Stephanie’s real-life story) that she manages to get herself a grant to go back to college to finish her BA in English, and become a writer.  But her success story does not take away from this unflinching look at the two extremes in the Western world (which we also find in Malta).  One of her wealthy clients instructs her to throw all the (still edible) food in the fridge away, and Alex fantasises about gorging herself on it, while at the back of her mind as she gazes at all the wasted food, she thinks of her little girl who has to be fed.  

It is also a salutary lesson about the importance of education and financial independence, especially for women, who might find themselves thrown out of (or having to flee) their living situation with just the clothes on their back.  The additional theme of domestic violence in the form of psychological abuse and control is also a significant one…women have to remember that a man does not have to hit you to make it qualify as abuse.  If you are completely reliant on someone else, with no money, no form of communication, no car, and no way of breaking free – it is basically a form of imprisonment.  Add a child or children to that mix, and the impossibility of the situation becomes a million times worse.  One of the most heart-wrenching scenes is after Alex goes back to her boyfriend after he showed her some kindness, only for him to revert back to his old ways. She Is shown lying almost comatose on the sofa, and then slowly being swallowed up by it, until she is at the bottom of a deep well, curled up in a foetal position, unable to move.  It encapsulates, without a word, what happens when someone has been emotionally brow-beaten, has completely given up and simply cannot fight back any more.  

Girls and women, I implore you to watch this series…it might just save you from making some terrible choices. 

Cosmetic surgery – at any cost?

It might jar to speak about cosmetic surgery after writing about poverty: there are probably few topics which are on such completely opposite sides of the spectrum.  The former might seem frivolous and self-indulgent when compared to having a roof over one’s head and enough food on the table.   

However, for those who are deeply unhappy about how they look, for whatever reason, cosmetic surgery can often be a lifeline which restores their self-confidence and mental well-being.

This topic was in the news this week following an interview which cosmetic surgeon Raymond Debono gave to TVM. He said that many people are having surgery abroad, sometimes in places which are not controlled, and after someone else would have suggested the place because they would have had the same surgery done successfully themselves. He warned, however, “that just because nothing happened to the other person, it does not mean that your surgery will also go well.”

He said that the number of people going to these places is increasing, but then they return to Malta with certain consequences “and we have to face them and solve the problem ourselves”. He pointed out that even after a simple surgery, one requires weeks of recovery and if they send you back home straight after the surgery, they will not be able to help you if complications arise.

His interview caused quite a sensation, but I doubt it was the reaction he was hoping for.  Mr Debono was (rather obliquely) referring to those going to Turkey for their surgery, but readers immediately realised which country he meant. Most of the comments under the article were in the same vein: “do you blame people for going abroad?  What do you expect when the prices in Malta have become so exorbitantly high?”

Now if it were just a couple of people saying this I would have taken it with a pinch of salt, but it was like the floodgates had opened and a flurry of personal accounts landed in one fell swoop on the comments board.  Is everyone lying? Are all these stories of operations being quoted at €12k in Malta in private clinics (twice or three times as much as in Turkey) sheer exaggerations or the truth? There was a time when local cosmetic surgery was somewhat affordable, but now the prices being quoted are astronomical. It is true that there has been an increase in demand for all types of surgeries because people’s body image has become very important to them, and it is also true that the number of professionals qualified in this field is limited. But should that justify these over-inflated prices? To me it smacks too much of exploiting patients who are desperate for a solution. 

There were those who tried to cast aspersions on Turkey’s “inferior” health service to explain why the rates are cheaper, but many were quick to dispel this notion.  One woman had this to say: “From experience I can say that the care in Turkish hospitals is second to none. There are of course clinics which try to attract the health tourist which aren’t up to scratch. If you do your research on the hospital beforehand and go by recommendations like I did, you will find top notch care, extensive pre-op tests, and amazing surgeons. All this at a third of the price, and this is also because so called health tourism to Turkey is subsidised by the government there.”

When potential customers (of any type of service) start flocking to your competitor it is useless pointing your finger accusingly at them.  You have to examine what you are doing wrong and what you can do to fix it.  From everything I’ve read, the Maltese are not averse to spending money on these surgeries, but what has changed is that they are now no longer willing to pay such steep prices, especially when they have found alternative hospitals (with excellent health care professionals) which can do the same surgery for much less.  Put simply, whatever the product or service, many will no longer tolerate being ripped off.  

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