Alfie Evans, a British toddler with an incurably terminal, undiagnosed, brain condition died in Liverpool Alder Hey hospital last week. The circumstances of his death, and his family’s very public and costly legal fight to take him to a foreign hospital, were tragic.
Over the last days of his life there were public demonstrations outside the hospital, ostensibly of support for the child and his family, demonstrations which descended into ‘mob’ behaviour of intimidation and violence against staff at the hospital. The desperate parents accused the doctors of “murder”. All this made for great media interest (and no doubt circulation boost).
Over recent years there has been a growth of broadly similar pack behaviours, no doubt aided by access to social media. One could speculate if they are manifestations of genuine sympathy or of something else. We have seen the effects of this most dramatically in another sphere where, so-called, football supporters have demonstrated and pressurised club owners into sacking managers. Any tragic death involving a child, whether by criminal action or accident, is now commonly accompanied by pop-up ‘shrines’ of flags, balloons, soft toys, candles, flowers and even football scarves. Yesterday (28th April 2018) ‘supporters’ of the toddler Alfie Evans, and his family, released hundreds of helium filled balloons “in his memory” outside the hospital.
A helium-filled balloon is thought to be able soar up to five miles into the sky before shattering into small pieces. However, around 10% of them don’t make it that high and make it back down largely intact. They can travel for tens of miles, and will often land in the countryside where they are a hazard to wildlife and farm animals. In the context of heightened concern over plastics in the environment generally we now know that, if they fall in the sea, they become a risk to marine life. Turtles are attracted to balloons, which can get trapped in their gut and cause starvation. The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) says even the fragments could be harmful to hatchling turtles; dolphins, seabirds and other marine animals have been killed by balloons, or the plastic strings that are usually attached to them.
The MCS, which has long campaigned against balloon releases, says the amount of balloon debris on beaches in the UK has tripled since 1996, and some local authorities have banned the practice. Alder Hey hospital is not far from the sea. Whether or not metalised polyester helium filled balloons (such as were released) are a physical hazard to aircraft, or a problem for radar, Alder Hey hospital is not far from John Lennon (Liverpool) airport, and has its own emergency helipad.
I doubt the participants considered the environmental impact of symbolically releasing hundreds of balloons, or were concerned about the use of Helium (a finite resource), or the safety of aviators. I doubt they thought about the risk of these balloons to helicopters bringing critically ill or injured people to Alder Hey, perhaps carrying children like Alfie Evans. I doubt they thought about much at all, except their own mawkish involvement in the event.
I feel for Alfie Evans, and his parents, I do. But mobs and pack mentality have no place in my sympathies, if for no other reason than they are ultimately selfish and so easily open to manipulation. R.I.P Alfie.