. Covid-19 is hitting Britain's BAME communities hardest | Ceasefire Magazine

Covid-19 is hitting Britain’s BAME communities hardest Analysis

Whether as doctors, minimum-wage workers, or patients, the UK's BAME communities have been at the sharp end of the Covid-19 pandemic. Roxy Legane examines the racialised dimensions of a public health crisis.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, April 9, 2020 9:22 - 0 Comments


From left: Adil El Tayar, Alfa Sa’adu, Habib Zaidi and Amged el-Hawrani, the first named UK doctors to die while fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. [Photo credit: doctors’ families/Al-Jazeera]

In its promotion of the ‘herd immunity’ strategy; delays to the introduction of an official lockdown; and failures to provide sufficient testing, the British government has made it abundantly clear that it deemed some people’s lives to be dispensable.

Many believe the government is doing the best it can, but after ten years of cuts to the NHS and the knowledge that in the face of a pandemic, we would fail to keep much of society safe: some reflections on our leadership’s (in)action have been far too charitable.

The last decade’s austerity measures have been fatal for many in our communities and will continue to influence the impact of Covid-19 going forward. However, these measures, combined with the racist society that pre-dates them, make positive outcomes for people of colour and racialised groups less likely. Alongside the elderly and the immunocompromised, are healthy people of colour, in fact, a vulnerable group?

Differential Treatment

When reports revealed that 36-year-old Kayla Williams died in her flat in Peckham after paramedics informed her husband that she was not a priority, it is likely the same thought crossed the minds of many people of colour: Was her pain and healthcare taken as seriously as a white person’s would have been?

It is not an unreasonable question for us to consider, when reflecting on the NHS’ treatment of black women in Britain. Currently, black women are 5 times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, with the disparity increasing year on year. These kinds of statistics reflect the longstanding stereotypes that attribute superhuman strength and pain thresholds to black women. From the unwanted sterilisations and terminations received by women of colour in the 60s, to the ongoing ‘bias, poor communication and dignity issues’ that leave people of colour who are cancer patients with a poorer experience than white British people, to question whether the best intentions are at the core of healthcare for people of colour is not without reason. Following the removal of Williams’s body, her husband, a refuse collector, reportedly stated, “I have heard nothing since”. For people of colour mistreated by the state, this is a commonly heard phrase.

More recently, other tragically young deaths emerged: 19-year-old Luca Di Nicola from Italy was shortly followed by a 13-year-old, Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab from Brixton. Di Nicola was reportedly told during a home visit from a doctor that he was ‘young and strong’, and thus did not need to worry about Covid-19. He was given paracetamol and later died in hospital. What Williams’s and Di Nicola’s deaths represent to people of colour is the lack of agency we so often feel when dealing with our own healthcare needs — the decisions that are taken away from us, the misjudgement of our symptoms, and the absence of people who will be taken seriously if they advocate on our behalf.

On the frontline

On our healthcare frontline, eight doctors had sadly died in the UK because of Covid-19. All eight were immigrants: Dr. Adil el-Tayar;  Dr. Amged el-Hawrani; Dr. Habib Zaidi; Dr. Alfa Sa’adu; Dr. Jitendra Rathod; Dr. Anton Sebastianpillai; Dr. Mohamed Sami Shousha; and Dr. Syed Haider. This should not come as a too much of a surprise: 1 in 5 of NHS staff are ‘BAME’, and are therefore over-represented in proportion to the population. In the early post-war years, when the country was facing economic hardship, people of colour built our NHS. Today, they continue to hold it up in this emerging crisis, despite the abhorrent racism faced whilst doing so (reported racist incidents tripled in 2019) and the failure to build people of colour as NHS users into its considerations. 

Nevertheless, while there is representation across the NHS’ workforce, ‘the more senior the pay grade, the less likely it will be filled by BME staff’. People of colour are thus less likely to have personal protective equipment despite being at great risk. If even doctors have minimal equipment  with fatal consequences for some, it is unlikely that low-paid NHS workers cleaning the wards and changing the linens — an area of employment that people of colour are more likely to occupy — will be of high priority. This was the case of 57-year-old healthcare assistant, Thomas Harvey, who died alone at home in self-isolation, or the cleaners, porters and catering staff of Lewisham Hospital forced to strike in demand safer working conditions.

People of colour (particularly of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage) are more likely to fill low-paid occupations, and those in low-paid jobs tend to depend on their employment more than most. The BBC may be able to romanticise their circumstances by calling them ‘minimum wage heroes’; but in reality, racialised communities are being forced to risk their lives to survive.

On the Peripheries

Away from the headlines, we cannot forget that we live in a country that remains increasingly threatening for people of colour, silencing communities as a result. We know that the “hostile environment” deters those living in fear of the Home Office from accessing the healthcare they so desperately need in times of crisis; and no doubt this will continue through the lock down period. After all, many are still waiting for the government to allay the fears and anxieties it was responsible for inflicting on them in the first place. The ‘Windrush Lessons Learned Review’, a report that could have ensured (some) ‘migrant’ communities living in fear of deportation felt safe, was released amidst the 24/7 Covid-19 news frenzy. The UK is a far cry from Portugal, where all migrants and asylum seekers have been granted (albeit temporarily) citizenship rights ensuring everyone has access to social security and healthcare as coronavirus continues to spread.

It is also important to remember the risk to those living under restrictions within our communities, including those incarcerated, who face increased risks. In both the UK’s immigration detention centres and its prisons, institutionally racist systems see people of colour disproportionately represented across both populations. As reports emerge of individuals being confined to their cells for 23 (in some cases 24) hours a day, and that the virus has started infecting those in prison and those in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, society’s inability to see these individuals as human (their race being fundamental to that) is effectively subjecting them to a death sentence.

Anti-Racist Organising

Some may believe, as often is the case, that a crisis like this should not be ‘politicised’. Of course, every life that Covid-19 takes, and every family it affects, is important, but removing politics is impossible. As people of colour are more likely to live in overcrowded housing, and the Gypsy Traveller community have been completely neglected from government advice, people of colour and racialised communities are a vulnerable demographic. BAME lives are at risk as a result of racism both in the short and long terms. As the Runnymede Trust have outlined, coronavirus will increase race inequality. BAME groups in the UK are among the poorest, and therefore amongst the least likely to be able to get through the economic hardships that Covid-19 has brought upon the nation. A disproportionate number of people of colour will be unable to ‘qualify or be sufficiently covered by the government’s wage-support scheme, mortgage-holiday package, Statutory Sick Pay or means-tested Universal Credit programmes’. The future brings further challenges.

It is essential, therefore, that anti-racist organising steps up a gear as the lives of people of colour and racialised communities continue to receive second-class treatment. We must scrutinise the fatal impacts of Covid-19 as they develop, and we must also prepare robust community support for life in the aftermath of this pandemic. Amongst other things, we will remain in a state that has given an institutionally racist police force ‘special’, oppressive powers potentially for years to come, and the racist rhetoric that has underpinned the discourse around the pandemic (and which has already translated in violence against Chinese migrants and communities) could become a useful tool for those mobilising the far-right.

As we celebrate the people who are trying to save our relatives and keep the country running, who are disproportionately working-class people of colour, we must ensure that once we are through the worst of this, we continue to work harder than ever to challenge racial inequality in the UK.

Roxy Legane

Roxy Legane is the founder of Kids of Colour, a Manchester-based project for young people of colour to challenge everyday and institutionalised racism. She is a steering group member of Northern Police Monitoring Project and recently completed a masters in Criminology at Manchester Metropolitan University. You can follow her work on Twitter at @RoxyLegane @KidsOfColourHQ

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