Covid-19’s disproportionate effect on the Bame community has featured heavily in the media over the past few weeks, yet the latest reviews and investigations have not resulted in any meaningful action, and certainly no concrete answers. While some factors have been identified, such as deprivation and multi-generational, overcrowded homes, there has been scant mention of racism and social inequality.
Is this evidence of its blind spot on Bame issues? Or does our government choose not to look at the weaknesses in our society?
The plain answer seems to be that our government fears the truth: Bame communities are still suffering from racism, and in the pandemic, this racism – in all its various forms – has led directly to deaths that would not have occurred otherwise, as confirmed in Public Health England’s (PHE) report Beyond the Data: Understanding the Impact of Covid-19 on Bame Groups”.
This information has extra significance for the Bame community because it has been compiled through the views of over 4,000 people with whom PHE engaged; people, not scientists, producing conversations, not peer-reviewed papers. PHE believes this approach provides “insights into the factors that may be influencing the relationship and impact of Covid-19 on Bame communities and strategies for addressing inequalities”.
Reports claim there was a delay in publishing the initial review because the government was concerned that it would stoke racial tension (which it has since denied).
Weeks later, instead of engaging with the fundamentals of racism, the government has attempted to subvert the debate into a culture war about statues as well as clumsy (and transparent) attempts to bury the impact of prejudice and inequality on Covid-19 deaths rates.
If Theresa May’s 2017 Race Disparity audit had been acted on, there wouldn’t be a need for Lord Woolley CBE, founder and director of Operation Black Vote, Bame leaders and the advisory chair of the government’s Race Disparity Unit to call for a Covid-19 race equality strategy.
The Windrush scandal, the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter struggle are indisputable evidence that engaging with marginalised communities is fundamental in fighting for social justice. Those who have lost so much will never regain confidence in a political system that is supposed to be inclusive unless we listen to them and undertake what will be, at times, a painful conversation.
Recommendation number seven in the Beyond the Data report states: “Ensure that Covid-19 recovery strategies actively reduce inequalities caused by the wider determinants of health to create long term sustainable change.”
Though opposition parties have welcomed the news of the government’s cross-governmental commission to address inequalities within the Bame community; more recently, news of plans for it to be led by Munira Mirza, head of the No 10 Policy Unit, who has cast doubt on the very existence of institutional racism, have raised concerns. Mirza, in turn, seems to be looking to Trevor Phillips to be part of the commission; Phillips is on record as referring to UK Muslims as being “a nation within a nation”, which led to him being suspended from the Labour Party.
On Monday, No 10 also confirmed that the prime minister’s new commission would look at “wider inequalities” such as why working-class white boys are behind others in school. Does this strengthen the commission? Or does it weaken it? If we can be sure that the commission will properly address its primary goal of examining racial discrimination that the Bame community has suffered, then maybe it is a good thing – the subject definitely needs to be addressed. But I am not convinced the government will get it right.
It should be a given that the commission must have full representation from different Bame communities who are at the heart of the issue if it is to demonstrate meaningful action for race equality. So far, there have been no formal appointments, so few outside the Conservative Party can have any real conviction that this will happen.
I don’t for a minute think that Boris Johnson is racist in the true sense of the word, that he actively discriminates against people based on their ethnic background. But maybe the problem is that his mental image of Britain, namely that it is not a racist country, seems informed by the idea that our institutions are not racist and, therefore, he doesn’t understand why Bame people are angry with society. So any report that says that racism is part of the problem as to why Bame people have been disproportionately affected by coronavirus does not fit the Johnson vision of how society works.
And while it is undoubtedly a fantastic thing that Rishi Sunak is the chancellor and his predecessor was the first Bame minister in that role, he isn’t exactly typical of British Asian society in that he is a wealthy, privately educated hedge fund manager married to the daughter of a billionaire.
The protests last week and the stories that people have shared of their experiences with the police, government and with all manner of prejudice, show how long that journey still is.
On Tuesday, Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United and England striker, persuaded the government to do a U-turn and supply free school meal vouchers for pupils to cover the six-week summer holiday period. Acknowledging what can be achieved through a collaborative effort, Rashford tweeted: “Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020.”
If a young black man from a disadvantaged background has managed to influence the government, then Johnson should be able to learn from others too. He can start by engaging with and involving communities that have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19 and are grieving the loss of friends, family members and work colleagues.
Rabina Khan is a Liberal Democrat councillor for Shadwell in Tower Hamlets Council
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