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Government still dithering on Covid-19 inequalities

30th Oct 2020
Government still dithering on Covid-19 inequalities

(Credit: Mungang Kim/Noun Project)

With a huge resurgence in Covid-19 cases across the UK, the Government has again been found tragically wanting; it has not only been inept in dealing with new waves but also in addressing the health inequalities afflicting BAME communities.

Data shows ethnic minority communities are once again being disproportionately affected by the virus. Ministers have, for months, known about the grossly disproportionate effect the pandemic has had on BAME. Urgent action was promised but only words were delivered.

There has been no concerted action to better protect minority ethnic communities from Covid-19. The Government’s delayed First Covid-19 Disparities Report makes no reference to racism as a factor.

However, launching the report, the Equalities Minister, Kemi Badenoch, 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.”

So why was it that the Report itself avoided any reference to racism as a cause of the grossly disproportionate impact the deadly pandemic has had on BAME?

Prior to Badenoch’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.

Policies to reduce mortality from the virus among BAME members should aim to reduce deprivation rather than biological factors, the report suggests. It also refutes that genetic differences contribute to higher death rates from the virus. A range of research indicates that inferior survival rates for BAME groups are due to inequalities in the social determinants of health. Among the most prominent seem to be those more likely to live in densely populated areas, in overcrowded housing and work in high-risk occupations.

Recent data from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre found that as many as a third of coronavirus patients in intensive care are still of BAME backgrounds, representing virtually no change from the figure in April when the alarming levels of disparity surfaced.

The latest ONS figures for Covid-19 deaths, up to the end of July, also show BAME’s have increased risks of death involving the coronavirus compared with their White peers, similar to their previous findings up to May 15. Ethnic differences in mortality involving Covid-19 are most strongly associated with demographic and socio-economic factors, such as place of residence and occupational exposures, and cannot be explained by pre-existing health conditions using hospital data or self-reported health status, it also concluded.

Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, Marsha de Cordova, criticised ministers for failing to take any concrete action to address the disproportionate impact 3 months after recommendations by Public Health England (PHE) and more than six months into the pandemic. She accuses the Government of acting unlawfully and urged the Equality and Human Rights Commission investigate any breach of the Equality Act, which requires public authorities to have due regard to the need to advance equality of opportunity when performing their functions.

“Equal opportunity does not mean treating everybody the same and seeing who sinks and who swims,” de Cordova warned. “Its failure to do so is negligent, discriminatory and unlawful, and ministers must be held to account.”

Professor of diversity in public health at the University of Bedfordshire, Gurch Randhawa, has also called urgent action to tackle the structural inequalities affecting BAME communities. “If we fail, we risk sleepwalking into a nightmare version of Groundhog Day, witnessing another significant and disproportionate rise of Covid-19 related deaths among ethnic minority communities,” she warns. “Nothing appears to have been done to reinforce their protection. There is silence from the Government as to how and when it will implement PHE’s review recommendations.”

Initially not published, the PHE report, which dates back to June, found that racism, social and economic inequalities and increased prevalence of diseases such as obesity and diabetes may be behind the unequal impact of Covid-19.

Its recommendations included, ‘mandatory collection of ethnicity data at death certification’, involving local communities in research to understand the social, cultural, structural, economic, religious, and commercial determinants of Covid-19, improve access, experiences and outcomes of NHS, local government and integrated care systems commissioned services by BAME communities, develop ‘culturally competent’ occupational risk assessment tools to reduce employees’ exposure risk and ensure recovery strategies ‘actively reduce inequalities.’

By avoiding institutional racism and its detrimental impact on the lives of ethnic minorities, the Government has little chance of reducing patterned inequalities in future pandemic waves. The bulk of the first quarterly report on supposed progress to address Covid-19 inequalities include conducting risk assessments, collecting data and translating public health messaging into different languages, none of which tie back to the research findings particularly well.

One of the great mysteries about the Government’s piecemeal approach deployed to tackle the deadly disease is why it is billed to protect the NHS rather than on efforts to stop infections. Whether it is the shortage of PPE supplies for front-line workers to the test and trace debacle, ministers have been found grossly negligent with lethal consequences.

Rather than learning any lessons from the avoidable deaths, the Government continues to dither and confuse. The Race Disparity Unit response remains a far cry from a fully independent substantial inquiry on why ethnic minorities, including many Muslims, are being sacrificed in such great numbers.

The second wave of the pandemic is upon us and the government is not doing much to protect the ethnic minorities including Muslims from Covid-19 infection. The numbers of ethnic patients in hospitals has already surpassed the first pandemic according to the British Medical Association, in the first wave 34% of the patients were from BAME communities compared to 35% in the current one. The government does not seem to be caring about the health and lives of the ethnic communities including Muslims.

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