We don't need a dubious Covid-19 inquiry to know BAME communities need the most help

We don't need a dubious Covid-19 inquiry to know BAME communities need the most help
Comment: Trevor Phillips' role in the coronavirus BAME inquiry undermines trust from a community most in need of support, writes Malia Bouattia.
5 min read
30 Apr, 2020
'People of colour are disproportionately impacted by four decades of neoliberal policies' writes Bouattia [Getty]
As the Covid-19 crisis deepens, the British government continues to fail its people. The disproportionate rate of Covid-19 related infections and deaths among people of colour has finally raised enough alarm that the government - under much popular pressure - has announced a public inquiry into the matter. 

You could be forgiven for thinking this is a good thing; that it shows a high level of concern from our leaders. But alas, the details that emerged were worrying, not least among them that Trevor Phillips would be involved.

In the weeks leading up to the nationwide quarantine, Phillips was already making headlines after being suspended by the Labour Party pending an investigation into Islamophobia. Phillips has been heavily criticised in recent years for his publicly stated views on Muslims, including saying that they are "a nation within a nation", playing on an old racist trope of mixed loyalty and the enemy within. 

Understandably, the Muslim Council of Britain responded to Phillips' appointment by expressing their concerns about this being "inappropriate" due to the continued investigation, and said that the decision was "particularly insensitive given that British Muslims overwhelmingly come from BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) communities and so many Muslim doctors have died at the frontline of this pandemic". 

In addition, a collective of 100 Black British Women, InfluencHers, published an open letter to Public Health England in which they also stressed that Phillips should be replaced: "[M]any of his recently publicised opinions on race are out of step with the majority of people from minority ethnic communities in this country", they explained. 

Each question reinforces the same conclusion that progressive movements have relentlessly highlighted: We live in a deeply unequal and unjust society

This discontent was also reflected in general uproar across social media, including from MPs. Yet, Phillips remains appointed to work on what should be unbiased research into why people of colour are suffering so considerably. 

Now, activists, BAME NHS staff, anti-racist collectives, families and loved ones of those impacted, are having to spend time fighting for a fair inquiry before anything of significance has even come of this. The problem is, however, that we are expecting the government to take charge of the very research that - if conducted seriously - will have to implicate them directly.

The levels of poverty, the overcrowded living conditions, mental health issues brought on by a structurally racist society, poor working conditions, long hours with little pay, poorer quality healthcare, are all just some of the factors that people of colour are disproportionately impacted by, and which four decades of neoliberal policies have only exacerbated.

Not forgetting that high numbers of frontline workers are BAME, therefore much more exposed and likely to contract Covid-19, as well as subsequently spread it to those around them. In the NHS alone, The Guardian
reported two weeks ago that 68 percent of the 53 NHS staff who died, were people of colour. 

Read more: UK coronavirus response forces most vulnerable to shoulder the burden

The decision that needs to be taken, then, is whether energy is best spent fighting a government that was elected on racist, xenophobic and anti-working class policies, that shamelessly plotted the selling off of our welfare services and stood for the destruction of workers' rights, to "do the right thing". Can justice ever come from them, or will it need to be imposed by popular pressure? 

To be effective, an inquiry of this nature must be guided by the very communities that it is reviewing, it should include trusted experts from across society, and of course a mechanism of ensuring transparency and accountability. 

The Tories' recent history of "looking into things" when it comes to people of colour, doesn't exactly provide a sense of comfort. There were David Cameron's "concerns" over the lack of black students being admitted into the UK's top universities while he intensified the privatisation of higher education and cuts to schools, and then Theresa May's inquiry into undercover policing following the discovery that murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence's family were being spied on, which until now has amounted to nothing. These are but two high profile examples of why we should - at best - manage our expectations.

Each question posed by leaders past and present, reinforces the same conclusion that progressive movements have relentlessly highlighted: We live in a deeply unequal and unjust society in which people of colour, who are among the poorest, suffer the most. 

At this point in the Covid-19 crisis, it should be stressed that the government should not need an inquiry, which may take a very long time, to direct funds and efforts towards the NHS, families, and frontline workers.

Many people of colour have already tragically lost their lives

Many people of colour have already tragically lost their lives. We should not allow things to continue on this trajectory, while the government asks questions to which anyone with minimum observational skills already has the answers. 

A radical redistribution of resources from those at the very top can alleviate parts of this crisis. It would be a good start. It will not however remove the long-term responsibilities from the government's shoulders. They got us to this point by ruthlessly pursuing profit over people's well-being.

Real solutions must call on a total transformation of society as we know it: redistribution of wealth, investment in welfare, transformation of housing and labour markets. Anything else is a fig leaf that enables the continued murder by neglect taking place from the top.


Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.