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“Why Is Covid Killing People of Colour?”:exposing the role of systemic racism on health inequalities

Today, we discuss the programme “ Why Is Covid Killing People of Colour?” hosted by Black actor David Harewood on BBC One. It’s now been a just over a year since the pandemic first hit and it has been devastating to see the tragic effects it had on Black and Brown communities. In the programme, David investigates why Black and Brown people have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and we will highlight some of the key findings in the programme.

David Harewood looking for answers - Source : BBC website

The programme starts in Brent, one of the UK’s most diverse areas in the UK and the most diverse borough in London. 65% of people living in Brent are non white and the borough experienced the highest rate of COVID-19 related deaths in the UK with over 500 people dying from the virus. When the pandemic first hit, Dr Tariq Husain, head of the Intensive Care Unit in Northwick Park hospital near Brent, witnessed first hand the influx of COVID patients from Black and Brown backgrounds, with admissions rates being 5 times higher than usual.

For Dr Guddi Singh, a paediatric doctor and health expert, what happened in Brent was not an isolated incident and sadly represented what happened all over the UK when it comes to which communities were hit the most. She shared figures from an ethnicity survey conducted by the Office of National Statistics last June which showed that despite making up only 14% of the British population, Black and Brown people represented 34% of people admitted in intensive care during the first wave of the pandemic. In terms of mortality risks, patients from a Pakistani / Bangladeshi / Asian background were twice more likely to die from the virus compared to white patients. This goes up to three times as likely for Black patients.

She also dismissed the idea according which ‘race’ was the reason why non white people were affected at a disproportionate rate. She reminded viewers that race was used as a discrimination tool during Colonial rule and has no effect whatsoever on our genetic code. To illustrate her argument further, she gives Africa as an example of why the race argument is invalid. If race was the issue, infection rates in Africa should have been through the roof, which simply hasn’t been the case.

She then goes on to talk about the actual main factor contributing to contamination rates which is your occupation and whether you will be exposed to people who might have the virus. She gave the example of a farmer in Wales whose risk of catching COVID would be way lower than a healthcare worker in London since their level of exposure to potentially contaminated people would be drastically different.

Staying in London, she shared some further statistics on Black and Brown people in the city. People from non white background make up for 34% of the population in London, yet they represent almost half of healthcare professionals (48%). Black and Asian people make 21% of the NHS workforce yet represented 63% of all NHS deaths.

When looking at Black and Asian doctors, they make 44% of the NHS staff count yet represented 95% of doctors deaths. This is an outrageously high number of deaths that could have been prevented if appropriate measures to protect those members of staff had be taken.

Black and Asian doctors made up 95% of COVID deaths - Source BBC website

In the light of those shocking statistics, the British Medical Association has started investigating the differences between the way Black and Brown members of staff work and white members of staff to find out what factors have increased their risk of getting contaminated. Initial findings show that Black and Brown people are more likely to be in front facing roles meaning they tend to be more exposed to the virus. In contrast, white members of staff were more likely to occupy management roles away from the virus. There is also the issue of lack of or inadequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) which was continuously raised by Black and Brown members of staff since the beginning of the pandemic but not taken seriously for way too long by senior members of staff.

A staggering 63% of Black doctors feel like they are not empowered to talk about how safe they’re working conditions are, mostly because they feel like they won’t be heard by management. In comparison, only 33% of white doctors feel the same way. These numbers say it all.

The programme goes on to highlight other factors that contribute to higher risk of catching and dying from COVID such as underlying health conditions and where you live.

According to Dr Marina Soltan, a respiratory doctor, the risk of dying from COVID is 1.8 times higher if you have high blood pressure, 1.7 times higher if you have diabetes and this goes up to 2.3 times higher if you have chronic kidney disease. Those are all conditions that are prominent in the Afro-Caribbean community.

When looking closer at areas where the most serious cases came from, the vast majority of people seriously affected lived in deprived areas. According to Dr Singh, people who live in deprived areas tend to have worse health than people living in affluent areas, with limited to healthy foods as well as green spaces to exercise. In addition, people living in deprived areas see their life expectancy slashed by 8 years compared to people living in affluent areas. To put things into perspective, Black people are 70% more likely to live in deprived areas compared to white people. That percentage rises to a striking 246% for Pakistani people. As Dr Singh simply puts it, “Deprivation is bad for your health”.

“Deprivation is bad for your health” - Dr Guddi Singh, paediatric doctor and health expert

In conclusion, “Why Is Covid Killing People of Colour?” exposed the shocking health inequalities caused by systemic racism and how they had a much more significant impact on COVID contamination and death rates than so called ‘race’. The pandemic has also amplified racism and discrimination in a way that can no longer be ignored. At the end of the programme, David asks the question “ What is our government going to do about racism? It’s high time the government rise to the occasion and answers that question as a matter of urgency. This level of health inequalities and racism cannot be tolerated anymore.

You can watch the full programme here.

If you are experiencing racism and feel discriminated against, please reach out to Equality4Blacknurses. We are here for you

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