Public Health England’s latest report makes for grim reading. If you are black, Asian or minority ethnic, you are more likely to die from coronavirus. It is the most tragic proof of the deeply entrenched inequality and discrimination in our society.
Michael Gove told us, “the fact that both the prime minister and the health secretary have contracted the virus is a reminder that the virus does not discriminate.” But the numbers do not lie – class and race matter to our understanding of the impact of Covid-19, and should be at the heart of our response.
Far from a great equaliser, coronavirus thrives on inequality. And Britain’s unequal system gives the virus an environment in which is can thrive and wreak havoc. Derrick Johnson, the President of the NAACP in America, wrote “Black deaths are not a flaw in the system. They are the system.”
This holds true in the UK as well as the US. The underlying condition is racism and inequality – BAME people are disproportionately more likely to live in our most deprived neighbourhoods, disproportionately represented in frontline jobs that put them at risk, disproportionately excluded from the corridors of power. And while we watch aghast at the police brutality towards Black people in America, we must remember that here too there is structural racism in our law and order: the police here are 54% more likely to issue fines to BAME people under coronavirus rules than white people and there have been reports of police heavy handedness at anti-racism protests this week.
Those who face the greatest deprivation experience a far higher risk of exposure to Covid-19. Deaths in the most deprived areas of England have been more than double those in the least deprived. Plotting Covid-19 mortality rates against levels of housing overcrowding shows a stark correlation. You cannot socially distance in cramped accommodation.
These are communities in which BAME people are overrepresented – BAME families are more likely to live in low-income households and overcrowded conditions. Levels of in-work poverty are disproportionately higher in BAME communities because of the racial discrimination in the world of work which traps BAME workers in lower paid roles and occupations. These same workers are the people we rely on to take the greatest risks during this pandemic – they are the heroes we clapped on Thursday evenings for keeping supermarkets open, caring for our elderly relatives, nursing our sick in hospitals.
These workers are most exposed to the virus – and are most likely to be living in areas of higher deprivation. Low pay, structural racism and entrenched socio-economic and health inequalities is forcing key workers to take the virus back into the communities least well equipped to withstand it.
I represent a very diverse community in Vauxhall, and we have experienced more than our fair share of tragedy here over the last weeks and months. The most painful thing that I have had to do to date as a relatively new MP is speak to the family of 13-year-old Ismail Mohammed Abdulwahab, who died from Covid-19 on 30 March.
I’m proud that the local council, Lambeth, have recognised the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities and launched their own investigation, making sure this crisis is not hidden by monitoring and tracking all equalities data of deaths registered as well as in all the services that the council offers to support communities and businesses through lockdown – for example, making sure that our BAME business community is able to access the support for business that the council has put in place.
This is right, and I am grateful for community and local government action to recognise and tackle inequality. However, we need wider structural change if we are to tackle the root causes of structural inequality. Many people have taken to social media to offer their support and solidarity with the BAME community and the Black Lives Matter movement, but we need increased awareness of people’s real life lived experiences to help bring about the long term changes we seek in our society.
As a co-operative MP, I believe that our economic system perpetuates inequality – while my communities wrestle with low pay, poor quality housing, limited access to the jobs market and discrimination, power and wealth are concentrated in the hands of a small number of shareholders and executives. Until we create a system which promotes policy changes where we all own a stake and have a say, this cycle of inequality will continue.