The Isle of Wight in Solent Bay is located just a few kilometers from Southampton and Portsmouth, but lives a very different life. A favorite vacation spot for tourists and elderly Englishmen, the island is connected to the mainland only by ferry service. The cost of a ferry ticket varies depending on the season and during school holidays can go up to £ 200 (for car transportation).
Against the backdrop of prosperous South-East England, the island stands out for its child poverty indicator: while in England it averages 30%, on the Isle of Wight it is 32.2%. The highest rate in England in 2019-2020 was recorded in Middlesboro, where poverty affects 41.1% of children. At the same time, in the case of the Isle of Wight, the stereotypical mention of a large number of ethnic minorities (and a supposedly proportional level of poverty) breaks down on reality: the population of the island is about 150 thousand people, and 92.2% of them are white British.
We spoke with an Isle of Wight resident Melinda Henry who moved to England from Latvia – she is worried about the situation on the Isle of Wight.
“According to you, the islanders, especially the children, are in distress. How is this possible in a developed western country?
– I want to clarify: I do not want to denigrate my place of residence, but seek to attract the attention of foundations that can help our local organizations. The biggest problem is that there is not enough work on the island for everyone. Because of this, we have a huge proportion of houses owned by the municipality, and some are relocated from the mainland here because it is easier to get municipal housing here. Even before the pandemic, there were many unemployed here, and during it it got even worse, because 45% of our economy – this is tourism. In the summer the situation was a little better, because the whole of England went to rest with us, but now everything has become more complicated again.
We do not have work for everyone, the state does not want to build a bridge, and if a bridge did appear, our roads are in such a state that they would not withstand a large flow of cars.
As a result, we have a very high level of child poverty – although at the local level everyone helps as much as they can. For example, I recently spoke with a school employee, asked how the situation with the coronavirus and the transition to distance learning affected children – and she said that specifically their school gave children 50 Chromebooks, and many received them free of charge.
Some received prepaid mobile modems from the school, because many families do not even have a stable Internet connection, and without this, the children would not be able to study. Twice the same school raised money through the GoFundMe platform to provide hot meals to children from the most disadvantaged families – I don’t know how the municipality was involved, but the school raised money nonetheless.
In addition, the Aspire Church provided hot meals to children in my city. All this is necessary, because many children have the opportunity to get a good hot lunch only at school – it’s true, I myself know such families. The school also helps children get in shape. The clothes from which the children grew up can be exchanged at the church – during the pandemic, the demand for such a service has grown.
And of course, we have a lot of second-hand charity shops – buying in them is considered much less shameful than on the mainland. And we were prepared for the situation of a pandemic. For many years, the municipality has been running special courses where they teach how to cook food with a minimum amount of waste.
The Toy Appeal program was launched ten years ago. People who migrated from the mainland realized that there are a lot of children here who are left without a present for Christmas – their parents simply do not have the opportunity to buy it. And then, ten years ago, they organized the installation of special containers, where anyone could put a gift. In the early years, this initiative caused a stir – now, of course, enthusiasm has shifted towards other problems, but the initiative exists.
– How did the inhabitants of the island as a whole experience the pandemic at the household level?
– Before Christmas, our coronavirus restrictions were Tier 1, Stay Aware. But we have only one hospital on the island, and if the virus clears up, it will not be able to accommodate everyone. Therefore, the locals ask people from the mainland – those who work on the island, who come to rest, who have country houses here – not to come. I even know that now, in many pubs, restaurants, beauty salons, the security does not allow inside those who do not have confirmation of their permanent address on the island.…
– On your Facebook page, you tell about the project of creating a Russian library on the island. What is this project?
– I started it during the second quarantine – I decided to open a private library on the island to support the Russian-speaking community. At first I bought books at my own expense, then I published on Facebook a request to donate books in Russian – I myself paid for their shipping. I received a huge response and many kind words. Yes, there is a Russian-speaking diaspora on the island, in which there are many people with higher education, and they are interested in this undertaking. I will open a library at home, and if there is demand, by April I will try to contact the municipality with a request to allocate a room. The main thing is to start doing something. In quarantine, people want to somehow be distracted, and the opportunity to read books in their native language is a pleasant entertainment.
– In your opinion, what does the island need most from the state now?
– It would be nice if the state paid attention to our transport, state support and regulation would be very helpful. For example, our island bus company is a monopolist, and it charges tickets higher than on the mainland. Ferry schedules – owned by three private companies – do not correspond to bus and train schedules, so after disembarking from a ferry in Southampton or Portsmouth, you have to sit for a long time at the station waiting for the train.
Interviewed by Vera Shcherbina