Opinion: COVID-19's disproportionate toll

Is it really true that COVID-19 is the virus that does not discriminate? Glenn Parsons investigates 


Well, that is what we have repeatedly been told by politicians and various medical and scientific advisers. However, statistical evidence shows to the contrary and that if you are BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) then you are up to four times more likely to die after contracting the Coronavirus, making it clear that this is far from a level playing field.

With the PM urging people to return to work and some courts commencing face-to-face hearings, many in BAME communities fear that these figures are only going to get worse, with legal ramifications that could take years to resolve. 

Currently, 14% of the UK population identify as BAME. However, figures setting out the incidents of death from the Coronavirus make for very sobering reading. Analysis of NHS death rates reveals that you are 1.5 to 2.8 times more likely to die of the virus if you are from Indian and Pakistani ethnic groups, 3 times more likely to succumb if you are Bangladeshi, increasing to 4.3 times more likely if you are black African or Caribbean. Furthermore, in areas with a high density of BAME communities the figures are nothing short of shocking. Birmingham hospitals reported that 64% of all those that died of COVID-19 in March 2020 were BAME.

The reasons for this appear to be far from straightforward, but what is known is that it is not down to a single cause. Suggestions that it is a genetic disposition have been discounted as being too simplistic, not least because if that was correct, the death toll would be even higher. Others have suggested explanations ranging from a lack of vitamin D, to diabetes, high blood pressure and increased levels of melanin. The reality is, perhaps, far more complex. To address it, we may also have to acknowledge the unpalatable truth that many BAME people have been placed on the frontline of fighting this virus with inadequate PPE. Many are in low-paid service industry jobs that cannot be done from home and which have to be undertaken in circumstances where employers have abrogated their responsibility to provide any PPE at all.

Impact on the BAME workforce

No doubt, when this crisis is finally over, some of these issues may well become the subject of litigation in the criminal, employment and civil courts. For example, the much-criticised lack of PPE to people working in frontline services in the NHS has been regarded by many as nothing short of a national scandal. BAME people make up 72% of the NHS workforce and the current BAME death rate is around 64% of NHS workers. Many were also agency workers and people who didn’t feel able to complain about the wholly inadequate PPE provision. It has also emerged that the PPE that was supplied, was designed for European men and simply did not fit many BAME women. Face masks were too big, and it is now accepted that one of the ways for the Coronavirus to enter the body is through the eyes. Another home truth is that many BAME people live in poor-quality housing with multi-generational family members, which allows the virus to spread even faster among these ethnic groups.

Other areas of employment which have been hit very hard by the virus include security guards and bus and taxi drivers, many of which are sectors with a high percentage of BAME employees, most of whom will go to work without any PPE at all. In addition, although lockdown has brought about a significant drop in offending, criminal cases are now emerging where the virus itself is being used as a ‘weapon’ against vulnerable frontline workers. For instance, at the end of March, Belly Mujinga, a Nigerian ticket worker at Victoria Station, was spat at by an as yet unidentified man, who told her that he had the virus. She was to die in hospital of the disease, several days later. Her family are now asking why Transport for London did not make provision for PPE for those workers who interact with the public. Bus drivers and taxi drivers across the country report the same instances of being spat at. In addition, it has also been reported that racist attacks against Chinese and East Asian businesses and citizens are on the increase, no doubt fuelled by some politicians and world leaders who take a ‘Blame the Chinese’ stance to the crisis. Sarah Owen, MP for Luton North and Labour’s first MP of East Asian descent, spoke recently of the ‘terrible racism currently faced by the Chinese community’ in the UK (Labour Party Webinar Conference on the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on BAME communities, 12/5/20).

What exactly can be done?

It is plain that as a society we cannot simply ignore this problem and many agree that urgent action needs to be taken. But what exactly can be done? We have seen the PM urging people back to work if they cannot work from home, even though we are told at the same time that we are still officially in lockdown. The grim facts are that many BAME people will work in the type of low paid service jobs that cannot be done at home. Many will be part of the gig economy and are on zero-hours contracts and many more may feel unable to stand up to pressure and exploitation from employers who would have them go back to work on the frontline, without protection, while they shelter from the virus and work from home. This has led some unions to threaten to tell their members not to return to work until safety issues are addressed. This is all in the face of the alarm MPs themselves expressed when it was suggested that they should return to face-to-face sessions in Parliament.

In addition, some courts have stated that from 11 May, they will require counsel and defendants to attend court in face-to-face hearings. It is also proposed to recommence jury trials from 18 May albeit in small numbers. Many members of the Bar, regardless of their ethnicity, have grave misgivings about the safety of this latest move and it has caused particular anxiety amongst some BAME counsel and solicitors. In addition, BAME defendants will be compelled to attend court, even though the country remains in lockdown, many of whom will undoubtedly have to travel on public transport (something that is not currently advised by the government) and who risk contracting the disease and taking it back home to their families. The same of course applies to jurors and court staff.

However, there is some hope as the new Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has appointed Baroness Doreen Lawrence, the mother of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, to lead a review into the impact of COVID-19 on BAME communities. Other MPs have called for better reporting of COVID-19 fatalities on death certificates, the end to migrant NHS surcharges and a public enquiry into the effects of the virus on BAME people (Diane Abbott MP speaking at the Labour Party Webinar Conference on the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on BAME communities 12/5/20).

Whether any of this is implemented remains to be seen but lest we forget, the crisis is far from over and all those working on the frontline, regardless of their ethnicity, need protection both legal and physical, right now! 

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Glenn Parsons

Glenn Parsons is a barrister at Park Square Barristers, Leeds.