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

It's Tory austerity and racism that's killing us, not Covid-19
Comment: The government's BAME Covid-19 review is wrong. It's not the ethnicity of a person that puts them at risk, rather the structural oppression they face, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
05 Jun, 2020
Brits of African and Asian descent are 10-50 percent more likely to die from coronavirus[Getty]

Findings from the inquiry into the impacts of Covid-19 on black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities are finally being shared with the public. But unsurprisingly, the work commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) seems to mention nothing that we didn't already know about the links between poverty, the rate of infections, and fatalities. 

Since the announcement by Johnson's government that there would be an investigation into the disproportionate impacts of the virus on people of colour in the UK, a host of concerns have been raised. The involvement of Trevor Phillips, who is often accused of dismissing - and even fuelling - Islamophobia, as well as undermining the structural violence meted out against Global South communities, is but one example of the reservations expressed over the seriousness of the inquiry. 

The usefulness of the project has also been questioned, because many of the reasons that people of colour are so affected by the pandemic have already been clearly established by experts, activists, MPs and healthcare professionals:

A considerable number of frontline staff are from PoC communities, and their jobs put them in direct danger of infection. PoC communities face more issues with overcrowded homes, and their overall quality of life is poorer, which means there is a higher likelihood of people being vulnerable due to existing health issues such as diabetes.

In heavily populated cities like London, which also have the highest levels of ethnic diversity in the UK, Covid-19 related deaths were considerably higher - further evidence of this reality.

Sure enough, the report found that there were 26,024 diagnosed cases in the capital compared to its surrounding area (South West) where there were 7,155 recorded cases. The research further identified that the Bangladeshi community has around double the risk of dying of the disease than their white counterparts, and those of African and Asian descent are also found to be between 10-50 percent more likely to die from the virus. As expected, the risk of death among the working age population within communities of colour is shockingly high. Among workers, those of Bangladeshi descent are 80 percent more at risk, and black and Pakistani communities are 50 percent more at risk than white people. 

This report should instead have been entirely dedicated to pinpointing the absolute failures of the British government to respond and protect its population

This reaffirms the point about the vulnerable position of frontline workers not just in health and social care, but also - as the findings point out - among transport staff, cleaners, security guards and retail staff. People of colour and migrants are more likely to be in precarious work, to be underpaid, overworked and at times be forced to continue to work through the pandemic because of fears that they may lose their jobs. 

Stating basic and already well published facts is of limited interest.

This report should instead have been entirely dedicated to pinpointing the absolute failures of the British government to respond and protect its population.

The huge number of deaths of people of colour could have been avoided. Adequate PPE, tracking and testing, nationalising empty and luxury housing in order to relieve overcrowded homes, providing separate accommodation for those working on the frontlines so that they can avoid infecting families when they leave their workplaces, are but a few measures Boris should have introduced. Instead, he put his hands up and asked us to prepare ourselves to see our loved ones die.

Alas, we should not look to this report to provide accountability - let alone the much-needed justice - for those who have lost their lives during this crisis. The fact that the report was delayed, with Sky News suggesting that it was over the government's fears of repercussions following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in the US, tells us the levels of trust that we should place in our leaders. Despite statements denying this, we are all too aware that this government, and Boris in particular, will deny, derail and make excuses for their failures. 

In power, the Tories (and New Labour before them) have provided the perfect breeding ground for the virus to spread and kill - by increasing poverty and inadequate housing, by defunding and privatising welfare services, by forcing people to choose between unemployment and dwindling state support on the one hand, and poorly paid, irregular and unsafe jobs on the other. It is state-led austerity and institutional racism that is killing us. 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock stated, in response to the report, that "This work underlines that being black or from a minority ethnic background is a major risk factor". He's wrong. It is not the ethnicity of a person that puts them in a vulnerable position, but rather the structural oppression, which the Tories are complicit in sustaining across every corner of our society. They champion the very politics that reinforce class and racial divisions, arguing that people's lack of success and wealth in life has more to do with their inability to pull up their bootstraps, than the social status that they are born into. Now they want to tell us that our ethnic backgrounds, rather than their structural racism, are killing us.  

Our leaders are not only to blame for increasing the vulnerability of working-class people, and working-class people of colour in particular during this pandemic, they are preparing to make things so much worse in the aftermath.

We must interrogate the long-standing history of racism and poverty in Britain

More austerity, more repression, more shifting the price of the crisis onto our shoulders is what is coming our way. The responsibility of the Tories in relation to this crisis will be felt for generations to come if we allow them to continue, without sustained, mass resistance. 

If we are to do justice to all those who have died unnecessarily, then we must interrogate the long-standing history of racism and poverty in Britain.

Hancock should only dare to utter the words "Black Lives Matter" once he has committed himself to undoing every policy introduced by his party which undermines the freedoms, as well as quality and length of black lives.

Our justice will be won, by defeating them in the streets and in our workplaces. That struggle has already begun. It is international. And it is coming for them. 

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.