The facts are clear – ethnic minorities have been dying disproportionately from COVID-19. Major studies by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and Public Health England (PHE) have found significantly higher mortality rates among ethnic minority populations.
Whilst this is of grave concern, it is important to remember, as Dame Donna Kinnair recently articulated, this is just one manifestation of the many health inequalities that Britain’s ethnic minority populations disproportionately continue to experience. So it is not that ethnic minorities are uniquely impacted by COVID-19, but rather that COVID-19 has presented itself as the starkest reminder in recent years of the health inequalities and structural racism endemic within British society.
Why are ethnic minorities more impacted by COVID-19?
There are many factors underlying this including:
- Ethnic minority communities are more common in large, urban cities which have been hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Naturally a greater concentration of people living together increases the spread of a virus.
- Ethnic minority communities are more likely to live in areas with toxic air. Researchers have found that air pollution not only weakens the immune system, compromising people’s ability to fight off infection, but also exacerbates COVID-19.
- Ethnic minority households are more likely to be multigenerational and overcrowded (due to high rents and lack of social housing) – circumstances in which COVID-19 can spread quicker.
- People who are from ethnic minority backgrounds are already more likely to have underlying health conditions like diabetes and heart disease, which are exasperated by social, economic and lifestyle determinants like diet, exercise, discrimination and poverty.
- Many minoritised communities have a distrust of official government advice due to years of being overlooked and then securitised. This has meant a reliance on alternative sources of information, including fake news via WhatsApp that could lead to fatalities.
- Many people from ethnic minority backgrounds play starring roles as key workers (in the NHS, in grocery stores and corner shops, in transport roles, as delivery drivers, etc.) and have died from inadequate protection from, and disproportionate exposure to, COVID-19.
However, even when trying to account for the above factors, the ONS, the IFS and the PHE report found that ethnic minority people were still dying disproportionately from COVID-19. This is why the PHE makes an important point about the role of structural racism as a contributing factor:
“Historic racism and poorer experiences of healthcare or at work may mean that individuals in BAME groups are less likely to seek care when needed or as NHS staff are less likely to speak up when they have concerns about Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) or risk”
How does this affect Wen’s work?
Wen proudly works with local communities in Tower Hamlets to take action for a healthier environment and has been doing so for over 20 years.
Tower Hamlets, and particularly the Bangladeshi community within Tower Hamlets, has been devastated by COVID-19. The Public Health England report found that people of Bangladeshi heritage are dying at twice the rate of their white counterparts. Data from local GPs, analysed by Queen Mary University, has shown that the rate of COVID-19 is 1.9 times higher in our South Asian population and 1.6 times higher in our Black population, than in our white population.
We are intimately aware of how poverty, obesity and air pollution combine to produce and further health inequalities, including the disproportionate impact of COVID-19. We have to conceptualise our work as being directly involved in co-producing better outcomes for our communities.
- In recent days, researchers from Queen Mary University have made explicit why the food industry shares the blame for obesity, and the severity of COVID-19 and its consequences. Wen’s work towards a fairer, community-led food system that is healthier for people and the planet could not be more relevant and necessary.
- Tower Hamlets has the fifth worst air quality of any London borough; the illegal levels of pollution continue to fall short of EU regulations; and our children have a 10% reduced lung capacity. Dirty air is quite significantly preventing people of colour in low-income communities from being able to fight COVID-19. Wen’s work on coordinating the Air eQuality network in the borough is invaluable right now – we will continue to fight for the basic right to clean air.
- We know that spending time in nature is good for our physical and mental health, and improving our longevity. The COVID-19 lockdown, and the closure of parks and urban green spaces, has highlighted how access to outdoor spaces is a luxury denied to many ethnic minorities, particularly those living in Tower Hamlets. Tower Hamlets provides its residents with just over a third of the open space recommended by the National Playing Fields Association. In this context, Wen’s Soil Sisters and Live Well programmes are essential in promoting positive mental health and wellbeing through therapeutic gardening, food growing and cooking.
- And of course, periods don’t stop for pandemics! Bloody Good Period in London has stated that COVID-19 has exacerbated period poverty, and demand for period packs have almost tripled as people are more likely to be struggling financially, and many charities, drop-in centres, food banks and schools that usually provide period products have closed. Wen’s Environmenstrual campaign for reusable period products can play a unique role in tackling period poverty.
The Coronavirus pandemic has only highlighted the harsh reality of racial inequalities that we know exist in our community. Wen’s work is intrinsically linked to improving the lives of the residents of Tower Hamlets – we have a duty to continue to meaningfully engage with, and campaign alongside, our community for equality in all aspects of their lives.
HIRRA KHAN ADEOGUN, WEN TRUSTEE
Hirra is a diversity and inclusion researcher at Versiti, extensively explored British Muslim identities and is a Fellow of the Muslim Institute. Previously at Amnesty International UK, Hirra is passionate about sustainable futures, social justice, human rights and community cohesion.