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How COVID-19 tore through my BAME London neighbourhood

by Halima Begum | Runnymede Trust
Thursday, 22 October 2020 17:15 GMT

Commuters are seen wearing masks at Canning Town station during the morning rush hour amid the COVID-19 outbreak in London, Britain, October 15, 2020. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Britain must do more to support ethnic minorities through second wave

By Dr Halima Begum, director of the Runnymede Trust, the UK's leading independent race equality think-tank

Even by mid-April in my small corner of London, it was clear that Covid-19 was having a disproportionate effect on ethnic minority communities. It was terrifying to watch as a team from the East London Mosque, my local place of worship, carefully converted the space underneath the nearby railway arches into a temporary morgue to cope with the surge in Covid deaths in our majority-Bangladeshi community. 

As Muslims, we bury our dead at the earliest opportunity. As the backlog of bodies awaiting burial started to grow, the community began its long wait for the government to take the steps that would help end, or at least help cope with their suffering. That wait goes on, despite today’s announcement by the UK government of a small raft of measures aimed at supporting ethnic minority communities through the pandemic.

These include mandatory ethnicity reporting on death certificates, a genuinely constructive albeit minimal modification that will help our analysis of mortality rates across communities. Another element of the government initiative will see so-called “community influencers” paid to offer “tailored” communications and Covid advice to vulnerable elements of the community.

The reality is that Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities do not need “community influencers” to tell them how to isolate and protect themselves. That information percolated into the collective conscience months ago. Well before the pictures of brave ethnic minority health workers dying on the NHS frontline, we already knew that our elderly and chronically ill were dying in greater numbers than our White friends and neighbours.

Ethnic minorities were afraid and remain afraid. The government’s proposals do not go far enough. Indeed, they are paltry in terms of the health crisis faced by many of those who constitute the 14 percent of the population that identifies as BAME. 

While the £25 million the government has designated to the “Community Influencers” scheme pales into insignificance when compared to the billions spent on a track and trace system that is not fit for purpose, or the £500 million spent on the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme – which offered little more than a short-term shot in the arm to the restaurant industry – the reality is that public funding could have been better spent across the board. 

But how to explain this to a government that appears more focused on helping small businesses than supporting the most vulnerable in society, and whose own scientific adviser on Covid and ethnicity, Dr Raghib Ali, said yesterday that  "structural racism is not a reasonable explanation" for Black and south Asian people's greater risk of death?

One finding that might help concentrate the government’s collective mind came from a report published this week by the Runnymede Trust and our partners at IPPR. Our research found that 58,000 more White British people would have died in England and Wales if this group faced the same underlying risks as the Black British population.

The same report offers concrete proposals to help BAME communities survive the second wave that is already upon us. These include using ethnicity as an independent risk factor alongside occupation and underlying health conditions when deciding priority for limited Covid-19 testing; and offering isolation pay support as well as temporary accommodation to anyone who needs to isolate but cannot do so due to overcrowded living conditions

The boundaries of Tower Hamlets, where my Mosque is located, embrace the skyscrapers of London's Canary Wharf financial district and some of the poorest housing estates in the country. Here, the Gini coefficient, a measure of wealth inequality, is the widest in London

Supporting BAME communities that live in relative poverty across the country will require the government to act with compassion and, ultimately, considerable generosity. Contrary to Dr Ali’s argument, health inequalities cannot be explained away solely by socio-economic factors. Public Health England, the National Statistics Office and the British Medical Association all agree that race is a key factor in the risk around Covid-19. 

I would urge the government to listen to the advice that has been offered from parties like IPPR and the Runnymede Trust. As we stand on the cusp of what promises to be a long, harsh winter, time is running out. Now is the moment for our government to Spend Out to Help Out, if it is at all serious about saving BAME lives.