When the revelation emerged that Black and minority ethnic (BME) workers were dying in disproportionate numbers as a result of the coronavirus crisis, I was surprised. Surprised, by the fact that anybody would think that this was not going to an inevitable consequence of the crisis. That the institutional racism and structural inequalities that exist, were not going to impact on health outcomes in the context of this pandemic. Any casual observer of the way that our current economic system has exploited and impoverished BME communities nationally and internationally over the past five hundred years needs to understand that racism is a matter of life and death. Tragically, it took the pictures of those that had died to bring this truth into the spotlight. Strategies for dealing with the pandemic did not take account of the economic position of people in BME communities, the structural and racial inequalities that shape the lived experience of people from BME backgrounds and the role that they play in the world of work.
Unfortunately, the response to these revelations are problematic. The thesis that is being promoted is that a range of genetic and cultural factors are likely to be driving higher rates of death among Britain’s Black and Minority Ethnic communities. It is as if race has become real rather than a human construction. Once again Black and brown bodies are being talked about as somehow flawed, a classic narrative in the history of racism. In other times these narratives have focussed on intelligence, character, work ethnic or a myriad or one other failing that are used to blame the iniquities experienced by BME people in their working and community lives. It’s as if somehow, if they were white the number of deaths would not be so high. This of course ignores the large number of white elderly people who are dying in care homes, where the ability to isolate and socially distance is problematic and where the failure to provide PPE equipment and testing in a timely manner has resulted in countless tragedies.
Social, economic and politic context cannot be ignored if an accurate assessment of any situation is to be reached and must not be ignored when it comes to the causes of the high rates of death among Black and Ethnic minority people. When these contexts are taken in to account it becomes clear that:
In response to the situation Public Health England have announced an Inquiry into why increasing numbers of victims of the coronavirus pandemic are from BAME backgrounds. NHS England has written to all hospital trust chief executives, GP practices, and providers of community health services, saying that they should treat staff from black, Asian, and ethnic minority backgrounds as being at a higher risk and have asked health care trust to "make appropriate arrangements accordingly".
This is all very well, but we have had countless inquiries with many recommendations that if implemented would have improved the situation. That is not to say that, the situation should not be assessed, or action taken, it is desperately needed. But whatever is done needs to address the wider social, economic and political factors that have left BME communities so vulnerable during this pandemic. If these factors are not addressed, then what becomes common currency is the idea BME people are at higher risk of coronavirus because they are BME. The institutional and structural racism that has placed BME workers in this vulnerable position will be ignored, racial discrimination will increase and BME workers will continue to die, because of a continued refusal to accept the consequences of racism in our society and a refusal to act to eradicate it.
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