Covid-19 lays bare Britain's entrenched racial inequalities

Covid-19 lays bare Britain's entrenched racial inequalities
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed stark racial inequalities in British society.
6 min read
10 June, 2020
Covid-19 has disproportionately affected people of Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. [Getty]
Going to work on the London underground during lockdown presented a chillingly dystopian insight into British society as it grappled with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Scattered in largely empty carriages, the commuters, mostly key workers from ethnic minority backgrounds, failed to reflect the British capital's much-touted multiculturalism, instead revealing stark segregation in the workforce.

Dataset after dataset published since the pandemic began has shown that Covid-19 has disproportionately affected people of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, laying bare entrenched inequalities in Britain. 

The latest was a report by Public Health England (PHE) published last week, whose findings confirmed previous research showing that migrants and minorities are at higher risk of death - as are those living in deprived areas, men, and those suffering from diabetes or obesity.

While the report was criticised for failing to go beyond a mere description of the findings, rights organisations have been flagging the structural inequalities giving rise to these outcomes since the pandemic began.

The PHE report was followed by an announcement last Friday that the UK's Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) would launch an inquiry.

Dataset after dataset published since the pandemic began shows that Covid-19 has disproportionately affected people of Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds

The race equality watchdog intends to meet civil society leaders across the country to discuss its remit and develop recommendations for urgent action, addressing "the loss of lives and livelihoods of people from different ethnic minorities," said EHRC chair David Isaac. The government's equalities office announced its own review looking into the Covid-19 response and policies.

Black Lives Matter

Parallel to the stark racial disparities in Covid-19 deaths, US protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May spread to the United Kingdom over the weekend, where mostly young demonstrators took to the streets in their thousands on Saturday and Sunday, chanting "no justice no peace" and "the UK is not innocent."

A protester makes a Black Lives Matter fist at a demonstration in Trafalgar Square in central London. [Getty]

Despite the demonstrations being largely peaceful, some disturbances were reported in London, where fourteen police officers were reported to have been injured. Meanwhile, the statue of a prominent slave trader, Edward Colston, was pulled down and thrown into the harbour in Bristol, a city in the south-west of England.

The removal of the statue sparked a debate across Britain - with one prominent commentator comparing it to the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Iraq, seen as an act of liberation - about the removal of other monuments in memory of British colonial figures.

Protesters also rallied in Oxford to demand the removal of a statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes, who supported apartheid-like measures in southern Africa. 

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed stark racial inequalities in British society

It also prompted far-right groups to announce counter-demonstrations planned for the coming weekend alongside more Black Lives Matter protests, ostensibly aimed at protecting war memorials. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has acknowledged the protesters' deep-seated motivations for taking to the streets, while condemning any violence and vandalism, and the flouting of social distancing rules.

"You are right, we are all right, to say Black Lives Matter; and to all those who have chosen to protest peacefully and who have insisted on social distancing - I say, yes of course I hear you, and I understand," Johnson said in a video message.

"But I must also say that we are in a time of national trial, when for months this whole country has come together to fight a deadly plague. After such sacrifice, we cannot now let it get out of control."   

Ethnic minorities hit harder by Covid-19

The PHE review found that "the relationship between ethnicity and health is complex and likely to be the result of a combination of factors" that include occupation, urban areas being at higher risk, comorbidities, living in overcrowded accommodation and being born abroad.

Read more: It's Tory austerity and racism that's killing us, not Covid-19

Among confirmed Covid-19 cases, people of Bangladeshi ethnicity were found to be two times more likely to die than people of white British ethnicity, while an analysis of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that once age was accounted for, black men are 4.2 times more likely to die from Covid-19- than their white counterparts.

The report also found that people who were not born in the UK are more likely to die during the pandemic. Comparing the total number of deaths from all causes registered in the period 21 March to 8 May 2020 with the average for the same period in 2014-18, it found the death rate was 1.7 times higher among the general population. 

This was similar for people born in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and just slightly higher (1.8) for those born in the European Union. However, the death rate was 4.5 times higher in 2020 for people from Central and Western Africa, 3.5 times higher for those born in the Caribbean, 3.4 times higher for South East Asia, and 3.2 higher for those originally from the Middle East.

I think we really need to talk about two things that really reflect why we're at these numbers: austerity and the hostile environment

"I think we really need to talk about two things that really reflect why we're at these numbers: austerity and the hostile environment," Laura Loyola-Hernández, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Leeds and member of the Racial Justice Network, told The New Arab.

Her group, like many others across the UK, has called for an end to anti-migrant policies which, it is argued, are hindering efforts to combat Covid-19. Most migrants are barred from accessing public funds, which means they have had no access to welfare during lockdown.

"If you can't access universal credit you are more likely to work even if you have symptoms because you don't want to become destitute," Loyola-Hernandez said.

Read more: Coronavirus is killing NHS workers. Their
deaths were preventable

"The other thing is, there is no firewall between the NHS and the Home Office," she added, pointing out that some people may be afraid to seek medical attention for fear of being reported if undocumented or charged under the 'hostile environment' policy of compulsory ID checks. "Some may simply not know that they are entitled to free treatment for Covid-19," Hernandez added.

In addition, ethnic minority communities are overrepresented among 'key workers', including nurses and drivers, and in the gig economy, making them more likely to fall through the cracks and be ineligible for any of the government's rescue packages.

This increased vulnerability has compounded long-standing grievances. UK protesters point out that just like the US, Britain is no stranger to police brutality. According to the charity Inquest, which monitors state-related deaths, those with a BAME background are two times more likely to die in police custody as a result of the use of force and restraint. 

The EHRC published a "roadmap to race equality" in 2017, where it made recommendations to address persisting gaps in employment, education, housing, health and criminal justice, having previously called on the government to put in place a comprehensive race equality strategy.

"Inequalities have worsened when it comes to BAME communities," Dr. Rhetta Moran, chair of trustees at the Refugee and Asylum Participatory Action Research (RAPAR), told The New Arab.

Moran, who was commissioned to conduct a research paper by the EHRC in 2009 looking into the impact of the immigration system on refugee children's education, believes there is sufficient evidence to start taking action.

"We don't need another inquiry, what we need is action," Moran said. "What they should be doing is acting on the recommendations that have already been made. Do what they said they were going to do, and inquire on whether it's working, and how."

Ylenia Gostoli is a London-based journalist who previously reported from the West Bank and Rome.

Follow her on Twitter @YleniaGostoli