Minister denies racism is cause of Covid death disparities

30th Oct 2020
Minister denies racism is cause of Covid death disparities

Kemi Badenoch MP, Equalities Minister (Credit: Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament)

Hamed Chapman

Equalities Minister, Kemi Badenoch, has denied that systematic racism is a factor contributing to more severe Covid-19 outcomes suffered by Black, Asian and Ethnic Minorities (BAME) in the UK.

Launching the Government’s first Covid-19 Disparities Report, Badenoch claimed that current evidence shows there is a range of factors, “particularly occupational exposure and co-morbidities” that “affect the whole population, regardless of race, and we need to protect the whole population.”

In June, Public Health England found that racism may contribute to the unequal death toll, saying that the most recent research from the UK suggested that “both ethnicity and income inequality are independently associated with Covid-19 mortality.”

“Stakeholders pointed to racism and discrimination experienced by communities and more specifically by BAME key workers as a root cause affecting health, and exposure,” it stated.

But speaking in Parliament, the Equalities Minister spoke of having a “second literature review and stakeholder engagement report where many people talked about their experiences of systemic racism” but that the Government’s Race Disparity Unit found that “systemic racism did not explain that.”

“For example, when we take into account co-morbidities, Bangladeshi women and White women have the same rates of mortality. Systemic racism also does not explain the differences between groups, such as Black Africans and Black Caribbean’s. If it was systemic racism, we would expect the figures to match and they do not.”

However, the Government’s first Covid-19 Disparities Report itself avoided any reference to racism as a cause of the grossly disproportionate impact the deadly pandemic has had on BAME in the UK.

Policies to reduce mortality from Covid-19 among ethnic minorities in the UK should target reducing deprivation rather than biological factors, it suggested, concluding that living in urban areas with high population density and in overcrowded households, as well as high-risk occupations and pre-existing health conditions are likely to be the main factors contributing to more severe Covid-19 outcomes for BAME members.

Several MPs were highly critical of the report, including Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, Marsha de Cordova, who questioned, “where is the Government’s implementation plan, with milestones, for protecting our black, Asian and ethnic minorities during this pandemic.”

Tory MP David Davis reminded the Minister that of the first 26 doctors in the National Health Service to die of covid-19, 25 were from minority ethnic backgrounds, and with them being comparatively well paid, he suggested that “poverty cannot be the full explanation.”

Labour MP Stephen Doughty pointed out that evidence from the UK Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre had shown consistently a higher frequency than expected of patients from BAME backgrounds have required critical care and that the latest figure is over 30% in the past few weeks. He asked Badenoch why she thought this was happening.

His colleague Afzal Khan also spoke of similar evidence meaning that BAME people once again are “bearing the brunt” of the coronavirus and that it appears “no lessons were learned or effective actions taken over the summer.” He asked if the Government admitted this failure.

SNP MP Neale Hanvey said it was upsetting to find that “more than 70% of all NHS and care deaths during the first wave of Covid-19 were among the Black and minority ethnic communities.” He also asked Badenoch what action has been taken, in collaboration with the Department for Health, regarding potential structural issues in the care services to prevent any repeat of this in the second wave.

Labour MP Chi Onwurah said that “six months into this pandemic all we seem to know is that Black and ethnic minority people are two to three times more likely to die from Covid-19, but not why and the Minister seems to be saying “there is no link with ethnicity but it is up to individuals to protect themselves.”

Rather mockingly Badenoch responded that in answer to the cause of why people were catching Covid-19 that it was “a contagious disease” and was “not rocket science.” She claimed that she was “sorry that the report does not give her the answer that she is looking for”, but it was based “on the science, not politics.”

The Minister also insisted during the criticism that she was “not (to) stigmatise ethnic minorities or make it seem as though they are carriers of the disease. Targeting specific things and saying, ‘This is just for black people. This is just for Asian people’ will create division and stigmatise, and it will not necessarily go to the people who need it most.”

Throughout the proceedings, she repeatedly castigated ethnic minority constituents for being under-represented in vaccine trials by not signing up to the register. The only way to check how well a vaccine works is to carry out large-scale clinical trials involving a diverse group of thousands and was why she was leading by example by participating in a trial at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospital.

The quarterly report concluded that living in urban areas with high population density and in overcrowded households, as well as high-risk occupations and pre-existing health conditions are likely to be the main factors contributing to more severe Covid-19 outcomes for Bame members.

In response, the British Medical Association (BMA) describes the report as “Groundhog Day” and called for “tangible action right now to protect BAME people” warning that Black and Asian people had already have been found twice as likely to be infected compared to White people.

“As we sit amid a second wave of infections, we know that about a third of those admitted to intensive care are not White – showing no change since the first peak,” BMA Council Chair, Chaand Nagpaul, said.

The report, which also refutes the idea that genetic differences contribute to higher death rates from the virus, was seen primarily just a stocktake of the actions taken and evidence gathered since previous findings of the gross disparities.

It suggests that living in urban areas with high population density and in overcrowded households, as well as high-risk occupations and pre-existing health conditions are likely to be the main factors contributing to more severe Covid-19 outcomes for ethnic minorities.

Prior to the Equality Minister’s statement, the Government’s rejection that structural racism could be a cause of the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minorities was led by the newly appointed advisor to the Government, Raghib Ali, a senior clinical research associate in epidemiology.

Commenting on the report, Ali went as far as suggesting it was time to stop using ethnicity when deciding who needed help and said that focusing on factors like jobs and housing would help more people, including poorer White groups and those living in crowded housing.

Ali, who was appointed along with Professor Keith Neal, previously with Public Health England, was praised by Badenoch, who intriguingly said that they had been brought in “to provide medical expertise as critical friends, not just people to agree with everything that we say over the coming months.”

Despite her trying to rule out racist factors, one of the consequences of the report is that it will finally become mandatory for ethnicity to be recorded on death certificates stating “this is the only way of establishing a complete picture of the impact of the virus on ethnic minorities.”

 

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