Race Matters

The case for a public inquiry into Covid-19 deaths

No one is in any doubt that black and Asian people are at a greater risk of dying from Covid-19 than white people. As pressure mounts on the government to provide not just evidence of the problem - but a plan for solutions, criminology doctoral student Carson Cole Arthur of Birkbeck University makes the case for a public inquiry into Covid-19.

Soon after receiving criticism for announcing there would be a delay, the government published its review into the disparities of people with or who have died from Covid-19. The report, which has come under criticism as potential solutions were buried, does not 'conform' to the primal spectacle of black suffering that we have watched unfold in the US. Instead, the UK Government’s confirmation of the disproportionate deaths of black people due to Covid-19 remains within a 'race relations' paradigm, rather than recognising and challenging racist structures. Thus, the government seeks to avoid any examination of the deaths of black working class people. 

In this way, the political significance of the dispossession of black people is consigned as socially misfortunate, rather than politically sanctioned. 

How are #BlackLivesMatter protests connected?

The fallacy that police brutality does not happen in the UK denies the historical and systemic killings of black people in police custody in the UK. Only a few days ago the Independent Office for Police Conduct launched an investigation into the death of Simeon Francis, a 35-year-old black man. Later in July will mark three years since Rashan Charles was killed, like George Floyd in Minneapolis, by a police officer’s excessive and prolonged restraint. Racial profiling and use of force has not subsided with the enforcement of the national lockdown. Measures to contain and prevent Covid-19, coupled with drug laws, have heavily increased the disproportionate issuing of penalties and use of stop and search on people of colour. 

This recognition that state racial violence in the UK is the sharp end of a continuum in a broader structure that produces the subjection, abjection, and dispossession of people of colour.

To support its defence of being a post-racial country, the UK incorporates values and programmes of accountability and transparency to rationalise institutional racism and state racial violence. For example, released in 2017, the Race Disparity Audit sought to maintain its credibility, and the legitimacy of racial governance, through the bureaucratic exercise of presenting data without any analysis. Its doctrine: agencies are not to be racist so long as they can explain (rationalise, in other words) racial disparities. 

What would a Covid-19 public inquiry achieve?

In the attempt to create a legal mechanism to ensure lessons are learned to prevent future deaths, there have been urgent calls for a fully independent and public inquiry into Covid-19 deaths. As political ‘unity’ begins to dissipate and multiple agencies commence their own rapid internal investigations, the question increasingly becomes not ‘if' there will be an inquiry, but ‘when'. If an inquiry is determined to investigate and prevent Covid-19 related deaths, it must not dismiss neither diminish issues of race and governmental methods of racial regulation from its purview. Key to the analysis of the government’s response is understanding how black working class labour has been contingent on the government’s operation to leave a large population of vulnerable and poor people for dead. 

Defensively, the Tory Government has argued now is not the time to conduct an inquiry. Their reasoning is that governmental departments, agencies, and services should be solely devoted to tackling the virus without the obligation to cooperate and participate with an investigation. Campaigners believe this is counter to the principle of accountability of a liberal democratic state. Independent oversight and rigorous evaluation of the government’s decision-making process and strategy, would assist the country moving quickly and efficiently to eliminating the virus. 

As a meaningful inquiry is dependent on reliable evidence the worry is the longer an inquiry is delayed. It may be too late when an inquiry is finally launched for then there may not be enough ‘facts’ available to analyse.  

Even when an inquiry is called, it usually takes a couple of years before it is completed. The Grenfell Inquiry may not be completed for another two years. The most controversial and large-scale investigations, such as inquiries into the Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough massacres, have taken decades.

An ongoing inquiry into Covid-19 while the pandemic remains at the phase of outbreaks, would not produce definitive answers, however it would make transparent the inner workings of Government, allowing any necessary challenge to its decisions as the inquiry progressed towards a final report.

The limitations of an inquest

In the meantime, only inquests can investigate Covid-19 related deaths, at the discretion of the coroner. The purpose of an inquest is to investigate an unnatural or violent death. An inquest is smaller in scope than an inquiry; it examines the death of a single person and considers the cause and circumstances of the death. It is very unlikely a coroner will explore political or organisational policy, as their role is more narrowly defined around improving risk management within institutions.

During this pandemic, there has been much debate surrounding the function of the coroner. Coronavirus has been classified as a ‘notifiable disease’ and does not need to be reported to the coroner. In other words, a coroner does not need to investigate the death of someone who died from Covid-19. A major concern is how this would influence the investigation of deaths in prisons

A coroner may decide to investigate such a death if the deceased caught the virus resulting in failures from public agencies or an employer to adequately protect them. Recently, the Chief Coroner issued guidance stating an inquest is not the legal forum to address political policy, in particular the provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to medical staff.

This has received criticism from lawyers who clarify that while an inquest is limited in its investigatory scope it still functions as part of the state’s statutory duty to investigate whether or not a person’s right to life has been violated. Although there has been demand for a public inquiry this does not mean inquests have been disregarded by campaigners. Civil liberties charities have upheld the function of the inquest for collecting evidence of deaths that could then be further examined by an inquiry.

Along with the high death toll and testing for Covid-19, the limited supply and poor quality of PPE has been a central issue, not least with regard to people of colour. The findings from an inquiry regarding PPE would have implications beyond medical settings into other sectors of work, potentially influencing investigations into the deaths of other key workers.   

Belly Mujinga

The death of Belly Mujinga, a black woman who worked as a railway ticket office clerk,  has been viewed by the mainstream public within the parameters of a criminal act. Mainstream media and Government rhetoric, instead, has not acknowledged that this may have been a anti-black and sexist (misogynoir) assault. Furthermore, it is Mujinga’s family, friends, and colleagues who continue to campaign against Govia Thameslink Railway for forcing her to continue to work after the assault - without a face cover, as had been the policy for all workers. More to the point, an inquiry needs to consider deaths such as Mujinga’s as evidence that black people feel forced into positions where they are placed as the barrier between the virus and mainly white, able-bodied, middle class citizens. 

A narrow focus on the government’s planning for pandemics prior to the outbreak may run the danger of sublating the government’s policy of forcing poor and working-class people of colour into poverty. Before there was Covid-19, there was (and continues be) the ‘hostile environment.’ Another key facet for investigation, therefore,  is how policies that produce racial disparities, such as the hostile environment, produced the conditions for Covid-19 to spread, infect, and kill people of colour at a much higher rate than white people. 

As we are witnessing, the people dying are those who, before the pandemic, were always made disposable and never a ‘priority’. Namely, working class people of colour; poorer or homeless people; those who are immunocompromised with medical needs, mental health issues, and disabilities; older people. 

Science and ‘war’

The government has consistently argued that its decisions have been based on the science. Many have challenged this claim, pointing to the scientific community’s advice on early testing, and others have called for the government to make that scientific reasoning readily available to the public. 

Yet the war-like narratives of sacrifice and heroism are in danger of normalising the deaths of so many on the frontline. An inquiry is  a production of memory and an arena for remembrance. To help families and communities with bereavement it is integral an inquiry provides space for mourning and healing. However, if the story continues to rely on tropes of war - frontline workers, army of volunteers, virus as the enemy - injustices and inequalities can become rationalised.    

Survival

The deaths of poor and working-class people of colour cannot be explained simply in terms of disproportionately and disparity. Any study or investigation into racial injustice during Covid-19 should inspect the political and ethical frameworks of the government’s project, potentially for large populations being left to die. 

Regardless of the final design of an inquiry, we have much to learn from ourselves and each other – family, friends and loved ones - more even than the lessons the government’s ‘failures’ can provide. 

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Carson Cole Arthur tweets here: @carsoncoleart

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