Russian TEDx discusses social problems

The homeless, children with disabilities and medicine – the most pressing social problems to be discussed at the TEDx conference

The TEDx conference was held on Thursday 21st in St Petersburg at the Alexandrinsky Theatre.  People who spend every day of their lives making this world a better and more interesting place shared their inspirational ideas with the audience.

In total there were 16 speakers who each spoke for 15 minutes.  They discussed a range of topics including the personal motivations for their calling, hybrid intelligence, cybersport and the problems facing orphans.  Representatives of the Agency for Strategic Initiatives spoke about the three key topics of the conference – homelessness, children with disabilities and medicine.

Homeless – a person or a condition?

Grigory Sverdlin is Director of Halfway House, a charity that helps hundreds of people to leave the streets and return to normal living.  Sverdlin spoke about his experience of working with homeless people for the past 14 years:

“When I was a volunteer at Halfway House I was struck by the fact that the homeless people that we see on the streets (that are smelly and badly dressed) are if not the tip of the iceberg then at least part of an enormous iceberg.  A significant number of them look just like you or me and have only recently ended up on the streets.  They go to the banya when the price is reduced and they are trying to get off the streets.  They honestly believe that it is possible.  When they lose this impulse or their faith in the possibility of changing their situation, many of them, unfortunately, turn to drink.  After a year or six months of trying to get off the streets many just give up.  It is very important to catch these people before they lose the inner resources they need to change their situation.

There are three main reasons for homelessness in Russia:

  1. Migration for work. When people lose their job in a town that is foreign to them they lose their money and their accommodation.  In the first few days on the street they are often beaten up, they have their phones stolen and they lose whatever money they have left.  They cannot even get in touch with their relatives.
  2. Family problems. Parents throw out their children when the arguments begin and they want their own living space.

Fraud/extortion.  Every fifth person on the streets in Russia has been the victim of fraud involving property.  However, the majority are people who have been in care, people with mental health problems and the elderly.

In fact, there is no one common denominator for homeless people other than the fact they do not have a home.  There is no such thing as an archetypal homeless person.  Homeless people are no different from the general population in terms of their higher education.  Sverdlin believes homelessness is not about the kind of person, it is simply a condition.  It is an adjective rather than a noun.  One day you have a home, the next day you don’t.

In Russia today a strange situation is emerging.  If people pay their taxes, raise their children, serve in the army, go to work, then they are considered a member of society, they fit in.  If, however, God forbid, they suffer some kind of misfortune and they end up on the streets, then we turn our backs on them, tell them they are to blame, they cannot be helped and they are probably alcoholics.  Personally, I cannot tolerate this kind of attitude.  I think it is inhumane.  I believe that eventually Russia will develop a proper system of care to intervene in cases where we or our relatives or friends end up on the streets.  There will be a kind of social insurance network which will help people to come off the streets if something goes wrong in their lives.”

Close down the children’s homes

Maria Ermell is President of Children at Home, an Association for people who care for, foster or adopt children.  Speaking as the mother of nine children, seven of them fostered, five of them with disabilities, she said: “Often I hear people saying that children need to be in a children’s home, where they can be taken care of properly.  Disabled children in particular need to be in children’s homes that are specially designed for them, so they can be looked after properly and have all their treatments provided.  I can tell you, as the mother of seven foster children, children are simply not well cared for in these children’s homes.  Here is a particularly disturbing statistic about children who grow up in them: only 20% of the children end up leading lives that could be considered more or less normal.  Out of 10 children only two of them will be socialised.  Within five years of leaving care, 80% of children commit suicide, end up in prison or turn to drugs or alcohol.  I would call this a system of mass murder.  What’s more, the government authorities know it – the statistic is well known – but nobody does anything to try to change it.

People who have no future are not recorded in official statistics.  That includes children with disabilities.  Healthy children may be able to beat the 20% odds of being socialised, disabled children cannot.  The prognosis they are given in children’s homes is too grim.  They are incapacitated.  They progress from a home for children with disabilities to a home for adults with disabilities where they tend to die fairly quickly.  In St Petersburg and Moscow the situation is not quite as bad as it is in the less developed parts of the country.

At the age of six my son could only pronounce seven sounds but a speech therapist reassured me that we could develop his speech to a normal level and by the time he was nine he was speaking very well.  Why was he given such a life-limiting diagnosis?  Provided he continues to receive the kind of support he is receiving now into the future, he will be perfectly fine.  In children’s homes children are given diagnoses that are based on the assumption that they will continue to stay in the home and nothing will change for them.  Within a few years they may well develop and defy the prognosis they are given, but currently they are denied a future.  In children’s homes for the disabled they are buried alive.

Maria Ermell’s message is simple – give children in children’s homes a better chance of happiness in life.  At the moment they are being stifled and buried under official statistics.  It should not be like this.  We have the power to close down these children’s homes.

We have good surgeons not because of the training they receive but in spite of it.

Andrei Pavlenko is Head of the N I Pirogov Cancer Centre for Combined Hi-Tech Treatments and a cancer patient himself.  He spoke about his own professional development and described the difficulties that his medical staff encounter every day.

Good surgeons emerge not because of the training they receive but in spite of it.  He identified the following problems:

  1. Poor communication between administrative staff and medics. A lack of effective action by the Ministry of Health.
  2. Barriers between patients and doctors. Negative public perceptions of medics in the media.
  3. The invention of the term iatrogenic crime. Medics being held criminally responsible for the side-effects of any medical intervention, breaching international best practice and common sense.
  4. The fact that doctors are totally incapable of living off their salary. Complete professional burnout and a lack of genuine collegiate or corporate spirit.
  5. The lack of an objective system for evaluating the quality of professional training, including for surgeons.
  6. The lack of a system of palliative care and psychological support for people who are gravely ill.
  7. The catastrophic lack of appreciation for the work of medics and, as a result, the devaluing of a doctor’s basic skillset, including altruism, self-sacrifice, selflessness, the desire to help others, kindness and intelligence.

We – society as a whole and the Ministry of Health – are deeply endebted to the medical profession.  It is a matter of conscience.  I personally do everything I can to meet the high expectations of my vocation.  I am not sure that our society or the Ministry of Health do their part in enabling our surgeons to do their jobs under normal working conditions.



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