Covid risk higher for South Asian communities despite government drive to address disparities

Disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minorities is ‘largely a result of higher infection rates’, says Cabinet Office’s Race Disparity Unit

Samuel Lovett
Friday 26 February 2021 08:57
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The risk of death from Covid-19 for South Asian people remains at an alarmingly high level, research has found, despite the government’s ongoing efforts to address health disparities between different communities in the UK.

According to the latest report from the Cabinet Office’s Race Disparity Unit (RDU), the direct outcomes of Covid-19 have improved for most minority ethnic groups between the first and second waves of the pandemic.

However, Bangladeshi and Pakistani people have continued to experience a considerably higher risk of death compared to white people.

The disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minorities is “largely a result of higher infection rates”, the RDU report said.

Factors that can increase infection risk include working in public-facing roles, deprivation, living in larger households and younger and older relatives living together.

The government’s second quarterly report said good progress has been made to address Covid-19 disparities since October but stressed departments must redouble their efforts.

In particular, work is ongoing to promote vaccine uptake, with equalities minister Kemi Badenoch calling for everyone offered a vaccine to take the jab.

The report cites the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) as saying good vaccine uptake in ethnic minority groups is the most important factor in reducing the inequalities in infection rates and outcomes.

The most “notable improvements” in Covid outcomes between the first and second waves were seen in black African ethnic groups, the report said.

In the first wave, mortality rates for people from these communities stood at 402.5 and 174.1 deaths per 100,000 population in men and women respectively.

However, during the second wave, which the report said ran from 1 September to 28 December, these figures dropped to 79.7 and 32.0 deaths per 100,000.

In contrast, the second wave mortality rates have risen by 124 per cent and 97 per cent for men and women from Pakistani backgrounds respectively.

“Ethnicity itself is not a risk factor for infection but people from ethnic minority groups are more likely to experience various risk factors for infection,” the RDU adds.

The interaction between multiple risk factors must be considered as this could heighten risk, it notes.

For example, someone with an increased risk of infection could also have a disability or be obese, heightening their risk of death once infected.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies’ ethnicity subgroup is working to understand why the second wave has had such a disproportionate impact on South Asian groups.

The report sets out work the government has done to reduce disparities, including working with dozens of minority ethnic news outlets, local faith groups and health providers; commissioning research; and setting up a unit to myth-bust disinformation about the vaccine.

It has also introduced community-led testing pilots at places of worship, and included transportation workers in mass testing pilots now being rolled out more widely.

The report said the findings strengthen the argument that minority ethnic people should not be considered a single group that faces similar risk factors.

The RDU also interviewed 12 people from different minority ethnic backgrounds over eight weeks. The report found communications tended to frame them as one homogenous group, which was “stigmatising”.

Most participants also said they had experienced instances where they felt avoided, blamed or berated about their lifestyles and alleged non-adherence to the rules.

The report notes that government communications will reflect these findings and ensure minority ethnic people are not stigmatised by being referred to as a single group in public health messaging.

Ms Badenoch said: “Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, this government has done everything it can to protect everyone in this country.

“The latest data shows that this is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Outcomes have improved for some ethnic minority groups since the first wave, but we know some communities are still particularly vulnerable. Our response will continue to be driven by the latest evidence and data and targeted at those who are most at risk.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel and, as the vaccine rollout continues, I urge everyone who is offered one to take the opportunity, to protect themselves, their family, and their community.”

Additional reporting by PA

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