'Coming home to roost'

Gov’t must fight systemic racism as BAEM people face greater death risk from Covid-19

Reading time: 9 min

The coronavirus itself may not discriminate along race or class lines, but because we live in a deeply unequal society, the end result is the same – Black and Asian ethnic minority (BAEM) communities have borne the brunt of the pandemic, just as they bear the brunt of police brutality, of austerity and of so many of the other injustices that plague the UK and the globe.

Previous studies have already shown that BAEM people are at greater risk of death from coronavirus — a new report out from Public Health England (PHE) this week again confirms this.

The report stops short of explaining why exactly, groups of BAEM communities are twice as likely to die from coronavirus as their white counterparts. And it has been rightly criticised for failing to put forward any recommendations.

In an Urgent Question this morning (June 4) raised by Labour MP Gill Furniss, the equalities minister Kemi Badenoch confirmed that the report failed to put forward any plan to tackle the race inequalities driving higher mortality rates in BAEM people

Now it has emerged that some organisations’ submissions, such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), were axed from the report before publication – and many of these highlighted the role of structural racism that’s driving the higher death rates.

Commenting on the news, Unite national officer for equalities Harish Patel said, “Let’s be clear – BAEM people are dying in greater numbers amid this pandemic and while this report rightly highlights the data, data alone isn’t going to change anything and it isn’t going to save lives.

“We are disappointed that the government reportedly axed submissions from BAEM groups who stood up to call out the structural racism that plagues our institutions and which could very well be the driving force behind the racially disparate heightened mortality risk of Covid-19.

“Most urgently, we need to look at ethnically sensitive risk assessments to protect our BAEM communities, many of whom work in frontline, public-facing roles which put them in the line of danger,” he added.

“In the long-term, when the post-pandemic public inquiry takes place, there must be a reckoning with how systemic racism leads to the health inequalities that our BAEM communities face.”

While the government continues to face criticism over its handling of the pandemic especially in relation to BAEM communities this week, UniteLIVE also caught up with other leaders in the union who are from BAEM communities to hear what they had to say.

‘We can no longer ignore racism’

Unite executive council member James Mitchell, who is also a Unite workplace rep and London bus driver, says he believes that part of what’s driving the higher rates of mortality among ethnic minority communities is the simple fact that they are much more likely to be on the frontline amid the pandemic.

“Those who are on the frontline of the crisis – whether it’s bus drivers, nurses, care workers and others in lower-paid, typically public service roles – are much more likely to be from ethnic minority or migrant backgrounds. If you look at the rates of those working in the London transport sector alone, it’s something like 40 per cent are BAEM or from a migrant background.

“But then you look at the management structure of those organisations and they are all predominantly white. We talk about glass ceilings for women but we also must talk about glass ceilings for BAEM people. BAEM people have been failed in not being given the opportunity to break out of these lower-paid and – especially amid this pandemic – much more dangerous roles.”

Unite BAEM executive council member rep Susan Matthews, who is also the union’s branch secretary at Lambeth council, also highlighted structural racism and the poorer life chances BAEM people face because of discrimination.

“The PHE report didn’t tell us something new; rather it tells us what we already know – that BAEM people and communities are the hardest hit by Covid-19,” she said. “It confirms that ‘the impact of COVID-19 has replicated existing health inequalities and, in some cases, has increased them’. To that end, it is clear that socio-economic disadvantage ‘charted’ by systemic racism is a factor in the disproportionate impact of Covid19 on BAEM people and communities.”

“We can no longer ignore the barriers of discrimination and structural racism that exist in our society as it has finally come home to roost.”

Class and race issue

Both James and Susan felt strongly that the intersection of class and race was a major issue.

“As the report confirmed, the mortality rates from COVID-19 in the most deprived areas were more than double the least deprived areas, for both males and females,” Susan pointed out. “Most BAEM people live in deprived areas and so this highlights another area of inequality driving higher Covid-19 death rates among BAEM people.”

While Susan highlighted data in the report showing people of Bangladeshi communities were twice as likely to die from Covid-19 compared to white British people, and that other specific BAEM groups  all faced a heightened risk of between 10 to 50 per cent, Susan also noted what the report failed to capture.

“The data is very worrying considering these analyses did not account for the effect of occupation, comorbidities or obesity,” she said.

James added, “If you look at the people who are working in those working-class, frontline roles, many of them are from BAEM communities, so there is definitely a class element to this.”

Susan called on the government to take action.

“This latest finding is consistent with other studies regarding the disparities in the risk and outcomes from COVID-19 and BAEM groups when compared to White ethnic groups so I believe it’s time for the government to take a bold step in addressing socio-economic inequalities,” she said.

James noted that the government must ensure that once the pandemic subsides, substantive action is taken on promotional regimes to ensure that more BAEM people are given the opportunity to upskill and break out of low-paid jobs. He said the union had a role to play in helping its members access education.

But he also added that any strides we’ve made in health and safety in these frontline roles must be maintained post-pandemic, and that people in these jobs must be valued, with better pay and terms and conditions.

“We as a union have got to make sure that the people who are keeping this country moving are not going to be the first people who are going to lose their jobs. One minute we’re key workers who are clapped for, but once this is all over, if we work say in the NHS, are we going to get a proper pay rise? Are bus drivers going to get their rest breaks, their toilet facilities? Or are we going to simply say – well the pandemic is over so it’s back to normal?”

Susan also believes Unite has a big role to play in supporting BAEM communities at a time when they are at greater risk of death.

“It’s vital that Unite maintains the role it is currently playing during this pandemic by continuing to ‘signpost’ the government and relevant authorities to best practices and to campaign robustly against socio-economic inequality especially in health care provision where some groups receive better and more professional care compared to others,” she said.

No going back

Both Susan and James agreed that the protests now blanketing the US over the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police can serve as a turning point to transform societies riven by systemic racism – in the same way that the global Covid-19 pandemic can be the impetus for social change.

“We have a chance here to change our environment, to better our health and safety and to change our unjust laws and policing. Let’s take this opportunity. We’ve got to look at both justice and equality for all – we can’t have one without the other.”

Susan agreed.

“It’s very hard to move on as a human being after seeing what happened to George Floyd – an unarmed man killed solely because of the colour of his skin,” she said.

“We have often seen cases of police brutality against blacks in the USA but to kneel on someone’s neck and be indifferent to that person’s call that they can’t breathe shined more light on the institutionalised racism in the USA.

“When you add this incident to the data that confirmed that the majority of the Covid-19 deaths in the USA are blacks, then the fact is crystal clear – the Covid-19 pandemic and the brutal killing of George Floyd are linked – they are both results of systemic racism.

“But I am hopeful that something meaningful would come out of this as I have no doubt that we cannot go back from where we are today to what it was yesterday. People have chosen to stand up and be counted.”

By Hajera Blagg

Related Articles