Race Matters

The government must not use pseudo-science to dismiss Covid's impact on BME communities

The government has suggested, on more than one occasion, that different ethnic groups are naturally more susceptible to COVID-19. Runnymede's research analyst Adam Almeida explains why theories about vitamin D deflect from the real issue: structural inequality.


Last Wednesday, Priti Patel appeared on 'Good Morning Britain' to face questions from the media regarding why the United Kingdom currently holds the highest coronavirus death rate in the entire world. After the Home Secretary's initial response that there are "people, patients with comorbidities," which does not seem to be a uniquely British phenomenon, Patel stated "certain ethnicities... are more susceptible to coronavirus."

While there is a plethora of data to indicate that the coronavirus epidemic is indeed unevenly distributed among the British public along the lines of race and ethnicity, her inference is that there is something fundamentally different about "certain ethnicities" that causes them to die at a significantly higher proportion and drive-up Britain's COVID-19 mortality rate. So if there was an innate quality to ethnicity that did correlate to coronavirus-related death, why is the death rate higher in Britain, where they live as a minority, than in their home countries where they live as the majority?

We know well that there is absolutely no biological basis to race, and that there is no substantial evidence behind earlier peddled-out theories of the link between vitamin D deficiencies among black and minority ethnic (BME) people and higher coronavirus rates. The question then stands as to what is fundamentally different about Britain that causes ethnic minorities to die at higher rates here than in their country of ethnic origin? After all, more Filipino healthcare workers have died of coronavirus in the NHS than at home in the Philippines.

According to research published last week by Runnymede, in collaboration with the Centre of Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE), one of the most significant risk factors driving coronavirus inequalities among BME people is "entrenched structural and institutional racism and racial discrimination." This research comes off the back of an insightful opinion piece published in the British Medical Journal which identifies a key area that is contributing massively to the UK's explosion of coronavirus cases: a shockingly low adherence of 18.2% to self-isolation among those who have tested positive or are experiencing symptoms.

While the importance of self-isolation has been explicitly and repeatedly stated by government and healthcare officials alike, the fact of the matter is that Britain has not made it an easy task to undertake. Workers on zero-hour contracts and in precarious industries, like the gig economy, are eligible for a meagre £95.85 per week in statutory sick pay. Additionally, the British government has not invested a single pound towards building up the infrastructure to provide lodging, food and toiletries to people who are self-isolating, relying instead on the emergence of grassroots mutual aid groups and the kindness of their neighbours.

People who work in these conditions, including many staff in our health and care sector, are left with an impossible dilemma: to either accept insufficient wages provided by the government (if they are even eligible to receive them), or to return to work before they have fully recuperated. The inequality in coronavirus incidence and mortality that we are observing becomes clearer when we begin to ask ourselves, "To whom is this impossible decision being presented to?"

Although the Conservative Party has rebranded itself in the past 40 years to be portrayed as the party of the traditional [read: white] working class, we know that working people from Inverness to Plymouth (and Belfast and back) have not been given a fair deal in exchange for their support. All working class people, regardless of race and ethnicity, suffer under policies that leave them without a fully-funded welfare state, including the NHS, and without anywhere else to turn.

It is also clear that structural racism is an integral facet of Britain's class composition and has been that way since the inception of the British Empire. The lived realities of race and class continue to be experienced today in a system where black and brown people are disproportionately overrepresented within the working class and that the working class occupy a space (e.g. in overcrowded housing, a precarious labour market) where the impact of coronavirus is unrelenting.

Structural issues cannot be addressed without structural solutions. Instead of enacting or amending clear policies to improve the lives of the majority of its citizens and residents, the government has chosen to individualise the issue and to cast blame on those who have been deeply marginalised within British society. If Priti Patel is to begin to tackle the issue of racial and ethnic inequality to quell the atmospheric COVID-19 mortality rate, she may need to ask herself how these inequalities are produced in the first place.

Header image via ITV/Good Morning Britain

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