For Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, lockdown’s clearer skies felt painfully poignant. In many ways, the drastic reduction in air pollution in London – up to 55 per cent in some areas - was exactly what she’s been dreaming of ever since the death of her darling daughter Ella.
The nine-year-old passed away in 2013 after an asthma attack and has been described by her mother as “vibrant and healthy” before getting ill. She played almost a dozen musical instruments and had a reading age five years her senior by the time she died.
Her death is now suspected to have been triggered by toxic levels of air pollution, so spring’s unique lapse in traffic levels felt like a sigh of relief: the air was cleaner, Ella’s teenage twin siblings were finally able to cycle into central London without fear of fumes, and most hopefully of all, not a single child died of asthma over the whole lockdown period.
What Kissi-Debrah didn’t dream about was that her clean-air utopia would come at such a cost. More than 59,000 people in the UK have died with Covid-19 this year and Kissi-Debrah has experienced that loss first-hand: over the first lockdown period, the former teacher lost 18 family and friends to the virus.
It feels somewhat fitting, then, that a fresh inquest into Ella’s death should follow a time of such fresh focus on respiratory illness, says Kissi-Debrah after the first day of proceedings at Tooley Street Town Hall near London Bridge. When we speak on WhatsApp, her profile picture shows a smiling baby Ella sticking her tongue out. The mother of one of Ella’s best friends, Victoria, has accompanied her in court for the day (she promised her daughter she’d stay in touch with her four closest school friends).
Kissi-Debrah is already emotionally exhausted – she “choked up” earlier hearing a witness offered their condolences at the inquest - but she is determined to keep the promise she made to her daughter to use these 10 days to get answers. This week feels like the climax of a long battle. After years spent campaigning for an inquiry into the role of air pollution in Ella’s death, seeing so many lives claimed by a respiratory virus this year has brought the subject of her fight into even sharper focus: the right to breathe.
Ella, who lived 30 metres from the South Circular Road in Lewisham, died in February 2013 after a severe asthma attack. She had suffered numerous seizures like the one that killed her and made 27 visits to hospital with breathing problems in the three years before her death.
An inquest in 2014 ruled that she died of acute respiratory failure which had perhaps been triggered by “something in the air”. Until then, no one had talked about air pollution as a cause of Ella’s illness, but in 2018 a report by leading asthma expert Professor Stephen Holgate found that pollutant levels at the Catford monitoring station, one mile from Ella’s home, “consistently” exceeded lawful EU limits.
Lawyers for the family successfully argued last year that the original inquest did not investigate the effect of pollution and a fresh two-week inquest began on Monday. The nature of the case is already ground-breaking and the repercussions could be “seismic”. The government estimates the number of people killed by long-term exposure to air pollution in the UK to be as high as 30,000 a year. If air pollution is found to be a cause of death in Ella’s case, it would be a legal first in the UK - and possibly the world.
Kissi-Debrah cannot comment on the live proceedings but says her main emotion is “sadness – for [Ella] and many others”. More than 25,000 children in London are currently diagnosed with asthma and up to ten die every year from the condition. That “asthma cough” Kissi-Debrah got to know so well with Ella still makes her stop in her tracks and she is nervous about the rising pollution levels around her home since the first lockdown.
She understands traffic must return to London for the sake of the economy, but if something isn’t done about the toxic emissions, she and her two remaining children will be forced to move from the house where they grew up.
“It feels like we’ve become refugees of the climate crisis,” says Kissi-Debrah, stressing that a move would be a last resort, not a choice. “Of course I’m going to worry [about the same thing happening to my other children]. I’m not going to wait around to find out.”
But Ella’s twin siblings, who she doesn’t want to name, would be heartbroken to move. They have “lovely friends” in the area, the school is nearby and it’s the house where they grew up with their sister. They visit her grave in the local cemetery every Sunday after church and her bedroom still has planes stuck on the sky-coloured walls in a nod to her dream of becoming a pilot.
Thankfully, the twins still remember Ella as their talented big sister: singing songs, reading, playing chess and Connect 4. Her siblings took a long time to accept she wasn’t coming back because they were used to her being in hospital, but “the actual horror I still feel isn’t what they feel, which I’m very glad about,” says their mother.
Do they talk about her much at home or is it too painful? “I can count on one hand the number of days since her death that her name hasn’t been mentioned,” Kissi-Debrah continues, explaining how they still celebrate her birthday at their favourite Italian restaurant, Lorenzo, in Crystal Palace. “She’s just part of the conversation – the children still wear her clothes so it’s things like: ‘Where’s Ella’s jumper?’. We don’t talk about her being ill, that’s far too depressing.”
This week, however, she will have to relive those painful details of Ella’s final years. Among them: the countless occasions she had to resuscitate her daughter’s lifeless body while waiting for an ambulance, the hurried blue-lit journeys to hospital, the days spent with Ella in induced comas spent in intensive care. Ella’s final evening was Valentine’s day and Kissi-Debrah remembers reading Beethoven’s Love Letters to her daughter. A few hours later she stopped breathing and died in hospital after a seizure.
“Ella always used to ask why she had become so chronically ill, but I couldn’t give her answers,” her mother says, listing the questions she wants resolved: how did her daughter, so vibrant and healthy, become unwell so suddenly? What caused the asthma attacks and seizures? What will be done about it if air pollution is indeed concluded as the cause of death as she hopes it will?
The personal quickly becomes political. Since Ella’s death, Kissi-Debrah has stood for the Green Party in her local by-election and left her job in teaching to become a full-time campaigner. “People don’t realise how quickly a child can become ill,” she says, having dedicated the last seven years to raising awareness. Now, if the so-called “invisible killer” becomes legally visible, it will become easier for her and others to hold the authorities to account and demand action.
What actions is she calling for? Kissi-Debrah doesn’t want to be drawn into the debate on Low Traffic Neighbourhoods – this is about justice for Ella – but she would like to see “cleaner” trains, greater use of trams and she is looking forward to the rules changing on electric scooters so they can legally ride on the roads (she currently rides a manual one).
Kissi-Debrah and her children know there won’t be a happy ending to Ella’s story – “we will never get her back,” she says – but at least this fortnight should bring some answers. She always knew Ella was exceptional. To have her case be the first of its kind in the world would at least prove that.