We are only just beginning to understand how the coronavirus pandemic will change the face of this country.
The long-term ramifications of how we, as a nation, respond to this crisis will be wide-ranging, and experts are already worried that ethnic minority communities could be hardest hit when the dust settles.
As the virus spread from its origins in China and first started to take hold in the UK, we saw an unnerving spike in racial hostility towards the Asian community in the UK. Chinese restaurants were empty and Asian people faced physical and verbal abuse in the streets. This likely wasn’t helped by the US president using his platform to call COVID-19 the ‘Chinese virus’ and ‘kung flu’ on multiple occasions.
But the impact on minorities could go far beyond knee-jerk reactionary blame. It is times like this that really show up who we value in society and who is forgotten about. Scholar and social change campaigner Fatima Iftikhar says BAME communities are likely to be deeply affected by this crisis.
‘We need to ensure that responses to the pandemic put racial justice at their heart,’ Fatima said. ‘It is easy in a crisis to revert to familiar ways of working, but in doing so, we could very easily end up reinforcing structures of racial inequality.’
Fatima says she is already seeing the signs that this pandemic will have a racialised impact, and it’s crucially important that we recognise where it might happen and take steps to minimise the damage to marginalised communities.
‘Ethnic minorities are over-represented in vulnerable groups that are going to be affected by the pandemic, including those with long-term health conditions, low income families and those with no access to public funds and benefits,’ Fatima explains.
‘To get to the heart of the issue we also have to look beyond broad “BAME” categorisation of issues, past the headlines and drill down to understand the immediate and lifelong impacts of what is happening. The picture is a terrifying one for those striving for race equality.’
Last week we had a look at the impact of social distancing and isolation advice on Asian households, who are more likely to live with three generations under one roof.
We found that 80% of the British South Asian population live with younger people in the household, and black families are also more likely to have more than one generation at home. These groups will find it automatically harder to protect vulnerable, older loved ones from exposure to the disease.
‘South Asians have a higher prevalence of diabetes,’ adds Fatima. ‘When hospitals are inevitably overwhelmed with critical cases of COVID-19, we will see the impacts of healthcare that have not been delivering culturally sensitive services prior to a global pandemic.’
Not only may the official advice risk leaving more elderly minorities vulnerable to contracting the illness, they could also be more at risk of being denied care for other conditions as this pandemic progresses.
It isn’t only elderly minorities at risk. Last week a 36-year-old black mother of three died of suspected coronavirus after calling paramedics and being told, her husband says, that she was ‘not a priority’.
The deep-seated mistrust of healthcare professionals in the black community and reported discriminatory experiences at the hands of doctors could prove disastrous for minorities as this crisis unfolds.
The Government announced last week that the police would have increased powers thanks to the introduction of the Coronavirus Bill.
These powers will allow police to force businesses to close and to enforce social distancing – to disperse groups of more than two people and fine people not following social distancing rules. The police and immigration officials will also be able to detain and test anyone they suspect has coronavirus.
Since the bill passed, a number of people voiced concerns that increased police presence could present a danger to minority citizens.
Studies have shown black and Asian people are more likely to be stopped and searched, more likely be tasered, and generally more likely to be over-policed. Research has also found that consistent over-policing in minority communities can contribute to increased criminal behaviour and stunt the progression of young people.
Another area that could disproportionately impact minorities is the disruption to the education system during this pandemic.
‘The recent announcement that GCSEs and A-Levels will be replaced by teacher assessments is rightly ringing alarm bells,’ says Fatima. ‘Recent studies show that black Caribbean boys face systematic undermarking in UK schools.’
So, taking away impartial exams means the final grades of minority students are in the hands of teachers, some of whom may have already made unfounded judgements about them based on unconscious (or conscious) biases.
A HuffPost investigation suggests that black and minority students are likely to be penalised by the decision to award predicted grades to students instead of regular exams this summer – with many black former students reporting that they achieved much higher grades than they were predicted by teachers.
Then there is the financial and economic uncertainty that is a very serious byproduct of this global pandemic.
BAME millenials are much more likely to be in precarious, unstable work – and as a result could be more likely to lose income during this period, and less likely to qualify for statutory sick pay or the benefits that the Government has announced.
‘Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups have particularly high rates of self employment,’ adds Fatima.
‘And beyond that, we have many people in our communities with no recourse to public funds, facing an impossible situation for themselves and their families.’
There is evidence to show that the impact of uncertainty around income and the unstable nature of shift work and zero-hours contracts is already having a damaging impact on the mental health of these communities.
Fatima says that there is a need for urgent recognition of these issues and a commitment to action from both society and the government.
‘Those in power have not even begun to comprehend the far-reaching impact of this pandemic on race equality.’
#CharitySoWhite is a committee dedicated to highlighting racial injustice and working towards equality in the charity sector.
A spokesperson from the committee told us that they share Fatima’s concern about the long-term impacts COVID-19 will have on ‘deepening racial injustices’ in our society.
‘From education, to housing, to criminal justice, we can already see how the pandemic will have disproportionate impacts on ethnic minority communities,’ they said.
‘We need urgent recognition of this and coordinated action from civil society and government to prioritise these issues in their response to the pandemic.’
As the fallout from this unprecedented global crisis continues to spiral, it’s vital that the people making the decisions aren’t overlooking marginalised and minority members of society.
Otherwise, we risk undoing decades of positive steps forward towards greater racial equality in this country.