All any of us can think about at the moment is the coronavirus pandemic and how it will affect us, our families, wider communities and society as we know it. Here, our Deputy Director Dr Zubaida Haque looks at existing societal inequalities and how the impact of COVID-19 will affect black and minority ethnic communities given this context.
From China to Italy, governments across the world are scrambling to meet political and social pressures to stem the coronavirus pandemic and minimise its economic fallout. Less than four months ago only a few international health organisations were even aware of COVID-19, an illness which affects your lungs and airways.
The ramifications of the pandemic are are still unfolding, but it is very likely that its health, social and economic impact will affect ethnic and gender groups differently.
Black and ethnic minority (BME) groups in the UK are among the poorest socio-economic groups. There are structural inequalities that place BME groups at much higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, as well as experiencing harsher economic impacts from government measures to slow the spread the virus.
There is substantial evidence to show that BME communities experience high rates of child poverty and ill-health. They are also more likely be employed in precarious work and live in poor housing conditions compared to their white British peers.
Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, for instance, have much higher rates of heart disease compared to their white British counterparts. Meanwhile, black African and African Caribbean people have higher rates of hypertension compared to other ethnic groups. Further, BME groups overall are six times more likely to develop diabetes compared to white British people.
Ethnic minorities are also more likely to live in ‘overcrowded’ housing as well as multigenerational households; 30% of Bangladeshi households and 15% of black African households are overcrowded (where there are more people than bedrooms), compared to 2% of white British households.
Bangladeshi, Indian and Chinese households are particularly likely to have older people over 65 living with children under the age of 16.
Overall, BME groups are less likely to own their own home (only around a quarter of black African people are owner-occupiers), and more likely to be renting from private landlords than white British groups.
Why is it important to note these disadvantaging health and housing conditions? Because they mean that some ethnic minority groups, including elderly BME people, will be more vulnerable to severe illness from COVID-19.
The 2017 McGregor-Smith Review highlighted significant inequalities and disadvantage experienced by ethnic minority groups at every stage of their careers in the UK labour market. In 2015, the government-commissioned report found that one in eight of the working age population were people from BME backgrounds, yet BME people made up only 10% of the workforce and held only 6% of top management positions.
A year later the government’s Race Disparity Audit showed that while employment rates have been improving overall, BME groups were, on average, twice as likely to be unemployed than their white British counterparts, and much more likely (particularly Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups) to be in low skilled and low paying occupations. And a TUC report in 2019 showed that black and ethnic minority groups were twice as likely to be in precarious employment, including zero hour contracts and agency contracts.
These labour market inequalities between ethnic groups explain the substantial poverty rates among BME households, with, for example, 60% of Bangladeshi children living in poverty after housing costs. They also tell us that BME groups in Britain will be less likely to weather the economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis.
Economic rescue package
In the March 2020 Budget the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, announced a “package of measures” worth hundreds of billions to support the economy, British people and businesses through the coronavirus pandemic and national economic crisis. And on 20 March 2020, Rishi Sunak went further with an unprecedented “wage-support scheme” in which the state would pay up to 80% of the salary of the worker up to a maximum of £2500 per person, if companies kept them on their payroll rather than laying them off because of closures across the retail, hotel, catering and leisure industries.
But the problem for many people, including a disproportionate number of ethnic minority people, is they will not qualify or be sufficiently covered by the government’s wage-support scheme, mortgage-holiday package, Statutory Sick Pay or means-tested Universal Credit programmes. Many will earn too little to be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay (which currently exempts some 2 million British employees) and others will not meet the means-tested Universal Credit benefits criteria, which also has a two-child limit and 5 week wait before receipt of benefits.
There are also many concerns that self-employed people (e.g. 29% of Pakistani men and 36% of Gypsy, Irish and Traveller groups) are not adequately compensated for the loss of work in the Chancellor’s economic “rescue plan.”
Not enough, particularly for BME people
We are living in extraordinary times, where we have been caught off-guard by a global health crisis, which puts into sharp relief the existing inequalities in our societies. The British Government has the overwhelming challenge of plugging the rapid rise in unemployment, strengthening the safety net for those who are unable to earn, and protecting the vulnerable.
The Chancellor’s and Prime Minister’s social and economic measures so far have been welcome, but it’s clear that the government needs to go further with its economic response to protect low income groups, self-employed people and those in precarious work. While, Public Health England needs to give more guidance on how to protect vulnerable and elderly people within multigenerational households.
Very few people will be immune from the health or economic consequences of COVID-19, but major differences will occur in how people from different ethnic and socio-economic groups will be able to recover from the impact.
Now more than ever, the government must protect all our communities from the desperate times which still lay ahead.
Dr Zubaida Haque tweets at @zubhaque
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