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Coronavirus - why structural racism is putting BME lives at risk

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We need to reflect on why the poorest and most exploited in our society have been hit so hard by Covid-19.

Over the last few weeks, my social media feeds and inboxes have been inundated with updates from friends losing loved ones to Covid-19.

Like me, all of those who died were Black, Asian or of another ethnic minority.

At first, I just put this down to the fact that I have a large network of family and friends from the BME community.

But then I started seeing more and more stories in the media about BME people dying from the virus, especially frontline health workers.

According to the latest evidence, about 35 per cent of critically ill patients with Covid-19 are BME – almost three times the 13 per cent UK population.

How could a virus that doesn’t discriminate hit one ethnic group so hard?

We don’t yet have a scientific explanation as to why Covid-19 affects some people more than others, but we do know that BME people in the UK have experienced years of systematic discrimination from government and in the workplace.

We know, for example, that they are more likely to be living in overcrowded accommodation, less likely to have access to good healthcare, and more likely to be trapped in low-paid, high-risk jobs.

We also know that BME people have been disproportionately affected by a decade of austerity and cuts to public services.

Now, as coronavirus continues to spread among BME communities, it’s their lives that are being cut short.

Structural racism and Covid-19

Last week, the government announced a review into why the coronavirus was disproportionately affecting BME people in the UK.

We welcome any effort to understand why this is happening, but what’s most important is for the government to look at the full range of structural inequality impacting BME people.

Antiracism organisations, trade unions and grassroots groups have spent decades campaigning to eradicate racial inequalities in the UK.

There have been many reports on this issue produced over the years - some commissioned by the government itself - which recommended action to tackle discrimination and entrenched disadvantage.

If these recommendations had been acted on, BME people might be facing a different situation today.

The friends and families of those taken by Covid-19 now need to know if the government’s failure to act cost lives.

Housing, health, jobs

As a society we need to ask why the poorest and most exploited in our communities seem to have been worst hit by Covid-19.

Decades of structural racism in housing, health care and the labour market have devalued life for particular groups of people.

Over a third of some ethnic minorities live in overcrowded conditions, compared to just one in ten white families.

This often means living in blocks of flats, where the lack of space makes it difficult to practice effective social distancing.

BME people are also more likely to be living in larger towns and cities, making them more vulnerable to air pollution.

That makes them more likely to suffer from respiratory illnesses such as asthma that we know are high risk factors for patients with coronavirus.

Then there are the health inequalities connected to race and poverty.

A lack of access to healthy food sources and exercise spaces contributes to higher levels of diabetes and hypertension in BME groups.

And anyone with one of these underlying health conditions is also at greater risk.

BME workers on the front line

The TUC has published many reports, polls and analysis highlighting the postition of BME people in the labour market.

BME people are more likely to be in lower paid jobs, to be stuck in zero-hours, insecure or temporary work and to encounter racism in the workplace on a daily basis.

The majority of the BME workers on the front line of the fight against Covid-19 also have no other choice but to work.

They are often in low-paid, service jobs that require them to come into contact with other people every day. That increases their risk of catching the virus and bringing it home.

I’m talking about social care workers, hospital workers, cleaners, cab drivers, delivery drivers, hospitality workers, transport workers, warehouse workers and many more.

While we sit at home, they’re keeping the country moving, keeping us fed and keeping us safe.

Unions stand up for the workers in times of trouble Join a union

It’s great to see the public showing support for our frontline workers, especially the weekly Clap for Key Workers tribute every Thursday night.

But we should remember who our key workers really are.

Our health service was built by migrants and relies on them to this day.

Press and politicians have vilified communities and falsely labelled them as a drain on resources.

But many of the people we depend on - those who work in fields and fatories to put food on our tables,  grocery shop workers and bus drivers, nurses and care workers - are Black or brown, migrants and Muslims.

Government must protect every worker

The government needs to act now to ensure every frontline worker is protected and safe at work.

It can start by inviting the EHRC and BME organisations to take part in the review into the impact of coronavirus on BME people so that it takes account of the full range of factors which might influence outcomes.

The government must also tackle the inequality that is leading to the disproportionate impact on BME people.

We’ve had enough reports, recommendations and policy papers. 

What we need now is joined-up action across government to address inequalities and rid our workplaces of the structural discrimination that blights people’s life chances.

Ministers also need to look carefully at the impact that the decisions they are taking to tackle this crisis have on BME people.

Because decisions taken now will shape people’s lives for years to come.

The government has a legal duty to do this. The body responsible for enforcement, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, must use every means at its disposal to ensure the government takes this seriously.

This isn’t just an optional extra to be fitted in after the crisis has passed.

For too many already, this is a matter of life or death.

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