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COVID-19: No clear plan on BAME vulnerabilities

Written by
Raoul Walawalker, Immigration Advice Service
Date of Publication:
11 June 2020

Before 25 May, the COVID-19 pandemic might have made the idea of global mass protests seem unimaginable. But then came the video of the killing of 46-year-old African American George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Even more graphic than the choking of Eric Garner in New York in 2014, the video of Floyd's death depicted one of the most barbaric displays yet of the seemingly endless recurrence of killings of black men by mostly white US authorities.

With mass protests across the US, Black Lives Matter solidarity protests have also been out on the streets in multiple cities worldwide; prominently across the UK too, where COVID-19 has also shined a spotlight on racial issues, principally the pandemic's disproportionate impact on people of BAME background.

Faced with accusations of racism, the government can tend to opt for flat-out denial, or in this case, downplaying it with a 'not-as-bad-as' fallacy. This was evident in a speech by Boris Johnson on the day of George Floyd's funeral (9 June), appropriately acknowledging the horror of his death, but then distancing it as a US-specific event before reflecting on his own party's diversity, and how much change he feels there's been in the UK since the 1970s.

Nonetheless, problems of systemic racism continue to lurk in areas of UK life and institutions. Take criminal justice as an example. It's true to say that there have been less deaths of black people under UK police custody than in the US. But, rather than numbers of deaths, anger at UK justice focuses more on the both the number and likelihood of BAME people being failed by the criminal justice system.

A few weeks ago, a remit for public review was announced into the 2015 death of Sheku Bayoh in Edinburgh in circumstances similar to those of Floyd. Despite the case having significant inconsistencies, two of the main police officers involved have already been allowed to take early retirement before a conclusion has been reached over whether they should face disciplinary charges.

Brutal cases like Bayoh's, and BAME families unsuccessfully seeking justice, are not a rarity: Christopher Adler, Sean Rigg, Rashan Charles, Darren Cumberbatch are to name but some of a disproportionately long list of BAME deaths in police custody all ending without prosecutions.

In his speech, Johnson was also disappointing in opting to define the toppling of a statue of the 17th century slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol as principally 'anti-democratic,' rather than what it actually was: a non-violent symbol of support for black lives in the US and recognition of the cruelty of their history and present.

Discussion of protestor activity and statues did manage to briefly distract attention from the subject of the government's sparse response to key questions raised over the last two months about why such disproportionately high numbers of COVID-19 deaths are of BAME background and what to do about it.

Answers were expected to be given within a wider review by Public Health England at the end of May. But the outcome of this review has been criticised, not only for being released two days late, but for providing little information other than what has already been known, and being a 'cover-up' according to Labour, given that parts of the report seem to have been cut.

The delay in the 'Disparities in the risk and outcomes of COVID-19' review was initially rumoured to be caused by concerns over the heavy news coverage of the BLM protests in the US. It then emerged that the review hasn't actually been led by the black health expert that was meant to be in charge – Prof Kevin Fenton.

Notable too, is that the report has also been redacted to the extent of being void of anything particularly specific relating to the causality of its highlighted observations. For example, it observes that people of BAME background are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as white people, offering a breakdown of risk linked to different ethnicities, yet with no evidence suggesting any biological causes for these differentiations.

Loosely, it notes that the likelihood of death linked to combinations of differing factors such as ethnicity, age, gender, influence of comorbidities, occupation, housing factors such as overcrowding, and level of deprivation.

But of particular concern to BAME campaigners and Labour has been the gaping absence of next-step forward recommendations, and the large 'community engagement' section of the report (meant to include BAME community contributions) that has been left out.

Omitted conclusions would presumably reflect the links between comorbidities and a poverty-linked diet; how this is more likely to impact those of more deprived backgrounds encompassing many people of BAME background who are also much more likely to live in conditions of overcrowding.

Significant of course too is the high numbers of the above BAME people in jobs currently facing the highest health risks; key workers in medical and care roles, and also across public transport, and in unsteady, but critical jobs such as courier and delivery roles.

Combined, these factors would present a picture of underlying inequalities and 'systemic injustice,' although this accusation has been rejected by Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch. Absent too from the report is any assessment of impacts linked to factors such as racial discrimination and the harassment BAME are more likely to face at work.

And the omission of significant contributions to the report from community groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain, which commented on 'structural racism,' has caused upset too.

With a separate study out in early June revealing that BAME workers have been the worst affected financially by the pandemic, as well as most at risk physically, continued obfuscation from the government will become increasingly inexcusable.