Covid-19’s disproportionate impact must prompt action on inequalities

By Cllr Muhammed Butt | 02 June 2020

Every death caused by coronavirus is a tragedy, and each will be the result of individual and often complex underlying factors.

But among the thousands of heart-breaking personal stories, the wider trends are unmistakable.

Black and minority ethnic (BAME) people make up just 14% of the UK population, but have accounted for over a third of intensive care patients in the pandemic so far. One fifth of the NHS workforce are from ethnic minority backgrounds, but they make up more than two thirds of the frontline health workers who have died due to coronavirus in the UK so far.

In a city like London, where we pride ourselves on our diversity and our multiculturalism, and where around 40% of our residents are from ethnic minorities, these appalling statistics make particularly difficult reading.

Although the full cause of this link is not fully established, it is clear the pandemic is exacerbating longstanding inequalities.

People from ethnic minority backgrounds have a higher likelihood of working in frontline roles and living in overcrowded housing, increasing their chances of contracting coronavirus. They are also more likely to have underlying health conditions that make the virus all the more acute and dangerous once it hits.

In short, ethnic minorities are both more exposed and more vulnerable.

These are ingrained issues for which there is no quick fix. But London boroughs are extremely concerned by the implications for our residents and – as part of our commitment to protect the most vulnerable during this ongoing pandemic – we’re working hard with BAME communities to address their specific needs.

Local government means local knowledge, and councils across the capital are partnering with local faith leaders and voluntary organisations to reach residents with targeted, culturally tailored messaging.

In some London boroughs English is not the main language for around a quarter of residents, so information has been shared in different languages, for example.

The crisis has also demonstrated the crucial need for cultural sensitivity in our provision of emergency food distribution, end of life care, and funeral arrangements, among other important issues. As is always the case with high-quality public service, this means engaging meaningfully with communities – responding to local needs and priorities – rather than operating through top-down diktat.       

London boroughs are working together to share resources, to review and learn from what’s been achieved so far, and to do everything we can to support London’s BAME communities through this hugely challenging time.

But the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on ethnic minorities must now lead to renewed action on tackling inequalities at a bigger, longer-term scale.

And although boroughs are determined to address these inequalities and create a fairer, healthier London, we can only do so much alone.

To make substantial progress, we will also need the government to use all the national policy levers at its disposal. Most importantly, it’s essential ministers make sure that the financial impact of the pandemic and its aftermath – in terms of disruption to jobs, welfare, housing and education – doesn't fall on the very people who have become the biggest victims of the crisis.

London boroughs are clear that we’ll continue working with and supporting our BAME residents, while also seeking fresh government commitments on the vital agenda of reducing inequalities, promoting public health, and boosting the resilience of all communities.

COVID-19 has taken a terrible toll. We now need to ensure it prompts a meaningful shift in policy priorities.

Cllr Muhammed Butt is London Councils’ Executive Member for Welfare, Empowerment and Inclusion

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