It’s time for action on racial inequality from the government. We’ve talked long enough

If we are going to effectively address the disproportionate impact of coronavirus we must eradicate systemic inequalities

Coronavirus is worsening health inequalities in UK, Labour warns

With parts of the country re-entering a version of lockdown, it is clear that the coronavirus pandemic is not going away any time soon. Damning evidence released this week lays bare the cost of the crisis on the lives and livelihoods of black, Asian and minority ethnic people.

So far, we’ve seen nothing from the government that suggests they are focused on getting to grips with this and tackling the stark inequalities which this pandemic has highlighted.

The Public Health England report into health inequalities was widely criticised for not going far enough, the new racial commission promised by the government leaves much be to be desired, and recommendations from government reports over a number of years are left untouched. Just last week, Boris Johnson did nothing when divisive, unsubstantiated comments from one Conservative MP about Bame communities being responsible for spreading the virus caused outrage and hurt to many.

Now, mounting evidence shows that Bame communities are at risk of being disproportionately hit by job cuts and the economic impact of coronavirus.

Over the last three months I have been leading Labour’s own review into the issue. It’s clear the impact of this pandemic is far reaching, affecting not just health but livelihoods across the UK. When we see stats about Britain having the worst number of excess deaths in Europe, we can lose sight of the fact that behind each statistic and number is a human story.

During this review, I have spoken to more than 300 people including doctors, nurses, trade unionists, faith leaders, councillors, activists and bereaved families. I have received more than 200 submissions full of expert opinions, recommendations and heart-wrenching stories. When someone confides in you, “I didn’t come to work to die”, or that “every day I’m scared for my life and my unborn child that I’ll catch covid” it’s hard not to feel angry and frustrated at the government’s failures.

The overwhelming evidence shows that coronavirus has thrived on existing structural inequalities and discrimination. The overwhelming strength of feeling is that this is a watershed moment for change. We must act now to drive that change, protect lives and support our communities.

Today’s new analysis from Labour highlights that inner city areas with much higher than average Bame populations are among the highest for take-up of furlough and therefore more vulnerable to redundancy. The government must support Bame communities by introducing a targeted extension of the furlough scheme for the hardest-hit sectors.

We know these problems are not new. One of the lessons of this crisis so far is that coronavirus thrives on existing inequalities and addressing its impact will require systemic solutions to systemic problems. If we are going to effectively address the disproportionate impact of coronavirus we must eradicate systemic inequalities.

It’s not enough for policymakers to know that ethnic inequalities exist – we need to honestly confront how inequalities at all levels of society have come to exist and the intersectional impact it has on each ethnic group. Only then will we be able to respond effectively. We need bold, joined-up policies and an approach that encompasses tackling ethnic disparities from housing to income and health.

These are some of the key themes that I have been hearing and will report on officially in the autumn. But, frankly, nothing in the report will come as a surprise. It is just another reminder of the mountain we have to climb. Activists across the world have been campaigning against racial injustices for years – indeed, Keir Starmer and I met campaigning on these very issues decades ago. This must be a turning point. We have heard enough talk from the government now. It is now time to act.

Our communities have already been let down by the government response to the health crisis. The coming economic challenge is going to be profound and this government should learn the lessons and act quickly.

Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon is a Labour peer and founder of the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust

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