At the time of writing this, the death toll in the UK for covid-19 has reached over 10,000. In just under two months, thousands of lives have gone, and the country has been plunged into a lockdown and a state of growing alarm and pessimism.
The NHS has been pushed to its bare bones, years of financial deprivation exposing just how under-prepared it was for a crisis like this. The compassion, heroism and selfless bravery of the NHS staff has been a fuel of motivation in these dark times.
It’s a reminder that the everyday essential worker who keeps society ticking are those on the ground floor interacting with people daily, and in this case, risking their lives to make sure our lives stay healthy.
Covid-19 was initially described as a leveller in that it didn’t discriminate in who it killed. Given the virus isn’t capable of sentience, that much is quite abundantly clear, and it would be quite the conspiracy theory if someone suggested that the virus had a conscience of its own and was deliberately killing certain groups.
Yet it does not alter this: there is a stark inequality in access to resources that is determining who has a likelier chance of surviving the pandemic. It is also highlighting how the housing situation is impacting social distancing. For those who lived in crowded spaces, the usage of their local parks is a necessity for their physical and mental health.
Yet recently, we’ve witnessed the police forces overstepping their mark across the country and punishing people for sunbathing. Although the initial impulse might be to criticise these people for supposedly not prioritising the collective good, more empathy needs to be allocated in understanding how strangulating the social distancing has been for some.
One key aspect of the inequality affecting how people fare with Covid-19 has been glimpsed already in how many BAME employees in the NHS have died. The first ten doctors to have died from the virus have been BAME, three out of six named nurses who have died have been BAME; meanwhile, a third of the critically ill Covid-19 patients are of BAME backgrounds.
This is despite minorities constituting 44% of the NHS staff and 14% of the population across England and Wales. It led to the head of the British Medical Association, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, calling on the government to investigate why BAME people seem more vulnerable to Covid-19. Dr Nagpaul remarked that “a disproportionate number of BAME people were getting ill.”
So, if the virus is a leveller, why then are some groups faring considerably worse? According to Zubaida Haque, deputy director of the race equality think-tank Runnymede Trust, “existing structural inequalities will mean that some groups will bear the brunt of Covid-19 more than others.” A glance at the socioeconomic conditions of many BAME groups will confirm this hypothesis.
A report in 2017 by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust on race and poverty discovered that the rates of poverty in the UK were double for BAME groups compared to white groups. Demographics such as Bangladeshis and Pakistanis are found more often in low-paid insecure sectors of the economy, facing high levels of poverty and unemployment.
A census report carried out between 2001 and 2011 found that almost half of British Muslims resided in the bottom 10% of local authority districts for deprivation. These tend to be areas such as Newham and Tower Hamlets. As a general rule, many BAME groups tend to be inner-city dwellers and thus the difficulty of successful social distancing is harder in somewhere such as London.
There are also concerns that fear of bullying and harassment is preventing BAME doctors from reporting their concerns over lack of PPE for example. BAME doctors are twice as likely to not report incidents for fear of reprisals, and it remains to be seen yet whether this too is a variable behind why a high percentage of deaths among the NHS staff relating to the virus has been BAME people.
The country, through its various solidarity schemes with the NHS, increased fraternity amongst neighbours and local mutual aid groups, has discovered a communitarian spirit and the importance of social relations and attachments to each other during this bleak time.
This is something to be welcomed but for a lot of BAME people, solidarity should also manifest in tackling these structural inequalities, and making sure solutions for them are embedded in the government’s response to the Covid-19.
Going forward, how the UK discusses the worth of minorities must be more humanised. The country has adopted a somewhat compassionate, albeit starkly parochial, spirit during this crisis. When this eventually ends, the economy will need more than a reboot. It will require a redesign.
Integral to this is understanding the social, cultural and economic importance of migrants. This crisis is showing how desperately the NHS needs them, and it is also showing us how it has extracted a heavy toll from one of the most vulnerable and underrepresented groups in the country.