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Humanity must unite lest we can’t breathe…

George Floyd’s last words, ‘I can’t breathe’ as he was dying, have in some strange way touched humanity’s moral chord. Handcuffed and pinned to the floor, the killing of a 46-year old black man by a white police officer kneeling on his neck has reenergised the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, rallying a cry for equality and justice and propelling global protests against racism hitherto unseen. It has also led to a period of reflection by majority populations, about how minorities are viewed, understood and treated. As a social work department we need to be engaged with these debates, while also giving a commitment to looking at the change we can and must make alongside expecting change of others.

The deaths of Sheku Bayoh, Jimmy Mubenga and Stephen Lawrence amongst others in the UK is emblematic of a deep malaise that inflicts our society – racism and social inequalities that mar the lives of minorities, and is reflected internationally, for example, in aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia, the decades of missing indigenous women in Canada or the lynching of minorities in India. Such deaths raise a profound question – what value do we place on the life of a human being?

These deaths painfully demonstrate the lack of institutional willingness to address wider issues and implement reforms. In these cases, and many more, we have witnessed people losing their lives through strong arm tactics, driven by racial prejudices and bias, causing untold pain to the families, friends and communities of victims. The systemic violence against black and other minorities cannot be viewed only through the lens of the civil rights movement in the US, or that of the West alone – the othering of minorities is a deeply entrenched lived experience of many across the world, though manifested differently due to context. For example, the caste system in India which continues to cause enormous divisions is a bane on India’s conscience, while in Scotland the treatment of travellers and the Roma population reinforce the need for change. It is not helped when politicians and leaders, in the UK and elsewhere, use belittling or inflammatory language which gives comfort to those who seek to marginalise, oppress and scapegoat.

We need to see violence as one of the many outworkings of systemic racism. The history of minorities is one of struggle – the US civil rights movement, India’s freedom struggle, Mandela’s fight against apartheid and the treatment of the Windrush generation are replete with memories of people peacefully protesting against oppression and tyranny. Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent movement—a powerful, passive resistance to brutal colonial powers, leading to the collapse of the British Raj in India is a perfect embodiment of people power standing against the strangleholds of the mighty. As Michelle Obama said: “when they go low, we go high”.

As the Black Lives Matter demonstrations show, reimagining a brighter future for us and for the generations to come, requires courage and kindness, and humanity must unite to defeat racism and prejudice in our society. We cannot forget the history of colonialism and slavery – we need to learn from these, if we are truly committed to promoting equality, fairness and justice. We need to ask ourselves how history and social issues are taught in our contemporary educational curricula from kindergarten through to our universities: Do colonial lootings and trading of Africans as slaves to work in the plantations of the New World feature in our history books, and accounts of the history of our own institution? Is the systematic mistreatment of first nations people in Australia, New Zealand and north America discussed? What about the current hostile climate and policy towards migrants, evident in the harsh treatment of asylum seekers, including the abuse of people in immigration centres? How might we decolonise the curriculum and view events through a subaltern lens? The oppressive practices of the powerful continue to cause climate change, destroying the natural world and impacting the poorest most, disenfranchising the indigenous people – the clash of haves and have nots. Envisioning an egalitarian society requires us to sow the seeds of inclusive learning from early on so that we have a fuller understanding of our own history.

The need of the hour is a genuine commitment to address the structural issues that engender and perpetuate the inequalities that divide our society today, and ultimately lead to situations where individuals feel they have the right and the justification to oppress others. It is also about what we do that upholds and reinforces discriminatory and oppressive attitudes and practices. Be it in academia, our criminal justice system or in the corridors of power, we need to appreciate the true meaning of equality. While social work has played an important part in challenging racism and oppression over many decades, we cannot shy away from the part that social work has played in supporting racialised and oppressive practices at both an individual and institutional level. If change is to be lasting, it has to come from within – one way to move forward is a critical evaluation of the workforce in an organisation, including the University of Edinburgh, and to see how diversity is represented in the structures of decision-making; as Mahatma Gandhi said: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”.

Lives lost are a reflection of our collective failure to stand up for others in their time of need. It has never been a greater truism that evil thrives when good people do nothing. There is therefore a moral imperative to support peaceful protests and to create awareness and a genuine global conscientization. The cost of moral injury when we do not stand up for the disenfranchised, the voiceless and the millions of invisible men, women, children and non-binary people in many parts of the world who struggle on a daily basis against naked oppression and tyranny will continue to lead to many lives lost to oppressive strangleholds.

As a department of social work our commitment is to look again, with a critical eye at what we teach and how. We have asked our student body to join us in doing this over the summer, and we are grateful for the many offers of assistance received to reconceive and co-produce our curriculum around race and ethnicity. We are also hopeful that initiatives such as Race.ED, a cross-university hub for research and teaching on race, ethnicity and decolonial thought, can help us as an institution to make meaningful change. It is about committing to promote diversity, inclusiveness and non-violence, while recognising that we need to do more than provide equality of opportunity to redress more significant structural inequalities.

Finally, it is positive to see the wider social work community in Scotland, other parts of the UK and internationally engage in this process of reflection, discussion and action. We look forward to collaborating with colleagues on these issues as we must all play an active part in making and sustaining the change which is required.

Humanity must unite so that we all can breathe – breathing the healing air of ‘shared humanity’ – where Martin Luther King Jr’s dreams can be realised for all; where Rabindranath Tagore’s vision of a world “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high … into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake” engenders a real reflection of who we are and how we value and treat others as equal human beings.

Dr George Palattiyil, Prof John Devaney and the social work staff group at the University of Edinburgh

(Thanks to James Eades @jmeeades for sharing his image on Unsplash)

Justice in the time of coronavirus


The coronavirus pandemic is a public health issue, but it is also a justice issue. It is causing a great deal of harm, suffering and death; the harm is not falling equally, and to some extent it is preventable. In the UK, the risk of dying from COVID-19 is higher for those who are older, male, live in deprived communities, or are from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic backgrounds (Public Health England, 2020). People are also at increased risk of contracting the virus if they work in occupations that put them on the ‘front line’, including medical professionals, supermarket workers, teachers, refuse collectors, and a range of other jobs. Many people working in these occupations are on low wages. The inequity of the harm creates a need to consider this from a justice perspective.

The coronavirus and related lockdown have also effectively suspended some aspects of the criminal justice system. Court business in Scotland effectively stopped during the lockdown, although it is now beginning to restart. We’ve also seen a significant drop in crime, most notably in relation to crimes such as serious assault and house-breaking. However, some other types of crime may be increasing, such as fraud, domestic violence (Brooks-Hay, Burman, & Bradley, 2020), harms against children, and some forms of criminal activity committed online.

COVID-19 presents a particular risk for people in prisons (Jardine, 2020). Due to the suspension of court business, more people are not being sent to prison, yet people are still being released from prison, so the prison population is decreasing. There are also some emergency measures which allow the early release of some categories of prisoners. The number of people in Scottish prisoners has dropped by approximately 15%, from 8,094 in mid-March 2020 to 6,869 near the end of May; the number of women in prison decreased by about a third during this period, from 395 to 264. Given that the spread of the virus within prisons is particularly dangerous, there is good reason to try to reduce the prison population further (Nowotny, Bailey, Omori, & Brinkley-Rubinstein, 2020).

Community sentences are also significantly affected (McNeill, 2020). For example, unpaid work is effectively suspended during the lockdown, and the time periods for completing these sentences has been extended. Physical distancing has also changed the nature of the supervision of people on community sentences. For instance, some of the therapeutic interventions are more difficult to provide without face-to-face contact, meaning that support has shifted more towards supervision than targeted interventions for addressing offending behaviour, although some face-to-face meetings are still going ahead where the risks of offending are particularly high. The pandemic also appears to be leading towards a global recession. In the context of mass job losses, one of the main sanctions for criminal behaviour – the monetary fine – is a less desirable or socially just response.

So, with many aspects of the criminal justice process changed or halted, with a need to reduce the prison population, a pause on court business, challenges in delivering community sentences, and the undesirability of monetary fines, where does this leave us? Many argue that ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’ With court cases severely delayed, this creates significant problems for meeting people’s justice needs. One potential approach is restorative justice. One way of defining restorative justice is as a justice mechanism (Daly, 2016) that facilitates safe communication between someone who has committed an offence and the person harmed by that offence, for the purposes of asking and answering questions, discussing and deciding how to make amends, supporting people to address the harm, and making plans for avoiding the occurrence of similar harm in the future (Kirkwood, 2018). While these processes normally take place face-to-face, it may be possible to facilitate such processes using online methods if physical distancing measure remain in place. This may be attractive to at least some people, especially if the alternative is either no formal response or one that is severely delayed.

Restorative justice experts across Europe recently discussed the potential of restorative justice in response to and in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. The potential included the use of restorative justice facilitated online, the use of restorative approaches to breaches of lockdown restrictions, and the possibility of restorative practices being used more widely. For example, people who have lost loved ones may find processing grief is very difficult, or at least changed, by the current situation, and restorative processes may be of value to them. This includes practices such as Circles, whereby people are given an opportunity to speak within a group, one at a time and uninterrupted, to shared their views and feelings.

Given that a number of deaths appear to be preventable, it raises questions around responsibility, and such discussions with relevant professionals and official representatives may be particularly valuable to family members of those who have died. Medical professionals and other key workers are also putting themselves at great risk, and having to make difficult decisions, therefore they may have needs that could benefit from restorative practices, helping to process difficult feelings and decisions. The use of restorative practices in relation to medical intervention can be challenging, but can also bring a lot of value to professionals and members of the public (Wailling, Marshall, & Wilkinson, 2019). There could even be a need for a national or even international conversation about the coronavirus, about issues of justice, and seeking to address these needs. The quality of such processes online might not be as high as when they are delivered face-to-face; however, some of the safety concerns may be easier to manage if people don’t actually need to meet.

Crime can be thought of as a public health issue (Middleton, 1998). For instance, violence and drug misuse can be seen as issues that harm populations, and therefore the responses should be holistic, taking a preventative approach, rather than only focusing on blame and punishment. However, public health can also be seen as a justice issue. The harm that is caused by the pandemic creates a range of justice needs that ought to be addressed, and restorative justice offers a perspective for understanding and responding to some of these needs.

Dr Steve Kirkwood

Senior Lecturer in Social Work (The University of Edinburgh)


Brooks-Hay, O., Burman, M., & Bradley, L. (2020). Gender Based Violence in a Pandemic. Retrieved June 3, 2020, from

Daly, K. (2016). What is Restorative Justice? Fresh Answers to a Vexed Question. Victims and Offenders, 11(1), 9–29.

Jardine, C. (2020). Behind the Curve: Prison and Covid-19. Retrieved June 3, 2020, from a-prisons-crisis/

Kirkwood, S. (2018). Iriss insight: Restorative Justice. Glasgow.

McNeill, F. (2020). Penal supervision in a pandemic. Retrieved June 3, 2020, from

Middleton, J. (1998). Crime is a public health problem. Medicine, Conflict, and Survival, 14(1), 24–28.

Nowotny, K., Bailey, Z., Omori, M., & Brinkley-Rubinstein, L. (2020). COVID-19 Exposes Need for Progressive Criminal Justice Reform. American Journal of Public Health, 110(7), e1–e2.

Public Health England. (2020). Disparities in the risk and outcomes of About Public Health England.

Wailling, J., Marshall, C., & Wilkinson, J. (2019). Hearing and Responding to the Stories of Survivors of Surgical Mesh Ngā kōrero a ngā mōrehu-he urupare Report for the Ministry of Health.




Who Cares Scotland? / University of Edinburgh

post it notes


A blog written by Dr Christina McMellon

It started with an idea. How can we support social workers to think more about the links between care experience and mental health?

And so, in order to answer the question, we successfully applied for a small grant from University of Edinburgh’s Knowledge Exchange Fund to bring a small group of people who know something about the topic together to explore that question.

On 30th January, three young people from 439 (West Lothian’s Champion’s Board) three members of staff from Who Cares Scotland and three academics came together to start thinking through the links between care experience and mental health. All of the people in the group have important knowledge and experiences and expertise that we can use to help us answer our question. By working together over the next few months we think we can create something pretty special.

We started with some amazing discussions about 2 main questions:

  • What are the main things that impact on care-experienced young people’s mental health?
  • What could adults do to help?

We also ate quite a lot of pizza and looked at some videos and leaflets that other groups of young people have made to share their experiences and opinions of the care system.

This was the group’s overall favourite:

Over 6 meetings we will continue these discussions to develop and facilitate a training session for several groups of trainees and professionals working with care-experienced young people. We’ll also be looking at the existing academic evidence about this topic (what we already know from the research that people have already done) and we’ll be thinking about how we can create some sort of resource to share what we are learning.

In order to give you a wee taster of the discussion we asked a few group participants to tell us what they thought was the most important thing that we discussed tonight:

“The most important this was when we discussed what adults can do to help us, cos I think we discussed multiple times what affects care-experienced young people and stuff so it was nice to think about what adults can do for us and what we actually want…like just being there for us and just listening.”

“I think the most important thing we talked about was connections, like having a connection with an adult and keeping that connection going and not losing it. Keeping that connection and keeping the trust.”

“I think it was really good to talk about what the issues are but then immediately to move into the what can we do takes us into a wee bit of a different space which is nice.”

For more information get in touch with

Dr Pearse McCusker

or Dr Autumn Roesch-Marsh at





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