As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the UK, Puru Miah reports how inequality and racism is seeing Covid-19 hit the Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities hardest of all

In the 345 years since the Plague last hit London, what have we learned and what has changed?

With a brave new world of advanced medicine and technology, it would seem that much has changed. However, away from this rhetoric of modernity, on a much more fundamental level this crisis has revealed a real absence of change, confirming Eric Hobsbawm’s observation that too many of us live “in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times [we] live in”.

Looking back at history, the last major London plague was chronicled by Daniel Defoe in his A Journal of the Plague Year. In it he recorded the horror of the plague through the eyes of a saddler living in the East End. Three hundred years on, the social and economic inequalities recorded by Defoe have remained the same, as well as the human and political responses to an epidemic, albeit in a new form. The coronavirus – like its forerunner the Great Plague – is hitting hardest those at the bottom of society: working families on low income; those in precarious employment; minority communities. It has brought into stark contrast the decade-long effects of austerity and the hostile environment towards migrants.

Council estates now resemble overcrowded prisons. No gardens, no second homes in the countryside, just chronic multi-generational overcrowding. Living in these conditions 24 hours a day is resulting in mental stress with ever-increasing domestic tensions. At least in a prison one can expect three square meals a day, but that is now fast becoming a luxury for an ever-increasing number. A majority of households on these estates have wages that need to be topped up by benefits. Wage-earners in these inner-city households have part-time or zero-hour contracts in retail, leisure, hospitality and transport sectors, all of which are now shut down. In between these estates are swathes of private rented accommodation, where unscrupulous landlords and agents are implementing their very own version of the shock doctrine, exploiting tenants in a disaster for profit. Countless times myself and others have had to intervene, reading the riot act to landlords and agents. Further to this is the hostile environment for migrant workers, a multi-dimensional application of ‘separate but equal’: separate in terms of remuneration and no recourse to public funds and services, but equal in terms of economic output. This has resulted in many migrants being left destitute and at greater risk of infection.

Looking at a map, the clusters of coronavirus victims in my ward bathe in the open wounds of politically created deprivation – an observation verified by statistics. The IFS report on the coronavirus, Are some ethnic groups more vulnerable to COVID-19 than others?‘, states: “After stripping out the role of age and geography, Bangladeshi hospital fatalities are twice those of the white British group, Pakistani deaths are 2.9 times as high and black African deaths 3.7 times as high. The Indian, black Caribbean and ‘other white’ ethnic groups also have excess fatalities, with the white Irish group the only one to have fewer fatalities than white British.” The local MP Apsana Begum said in response to the report: “The growing evidence that BAME communities are disproportionately affected by coronavirus is extremely alarming. It is clear that there are systemic economic inequalities that mean that ethnic minority communities are unfairly disadvantaged by such a health crisis. This comes after years of austerity which has had a devastating impact on ethnic minorities.”

Things are even starker in neighbouring Newham, which has recorded the worst mortality rate in England and Wales – 144.3 deaths per 100,000 people, including 27 deaths on one street alone. The borough’s deprivation and diversity make it particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. Speaking about the high death rate, amidst a background of inequality, the Mayor of Newham said: “I’ve grown up in the borough and lived here all my life. Like many of my friends, the opportunities that were promised with regard to the Olympics weren’t necessarily felt by me or my peer group. There’s a real sense of haves and have-nots in the community.”

Local Newham councillor Anamul Islam added his concern that these inequalities have seeped into our public institutions, in particular the NHS. He cited a study carried out by Tim Cook, Emira Kursumovic and Simon Lennane (HSJ 22/04/2020) on the 106 NHS workers who had died from Covid-19. The report found that a staggeringly high proportion of deaths were of individuals from the black and minority ethnic communities. He said, “the overall pattern of disadvantage suggests that the higher one’s socioeconomic status and the higher one’s standard of living, the less likely one is to suffer from them and – assuming that the above factors are relevant – the less likely one is to die from Covid-19. According to this reckoning, it would be expected that the incidence of death of doctors and dentists would be the lowest and that of the healthcare support workers the highest. The figures from these studies bear this supposition out partially as BAME doctors’ and dentists’ deaths are 2.1 times higher than what would be expected from their proportion of the workforce, those of nurses and midwives 3.5 and those of healthcare support workers 3.3 times higher but – although the number of deaths is shockingly high – they constitute a small statistical sample. The question of why the deaths of BAME NHS health workers are so much higher than that of white staff must be answered urgently.”

Our medical evidence reminds us that people with pre-existing health conditions are most at risk. Health inequality analysis demonstrates why, but it is the trenches being dug in East London to accommodate the increasing number of dead that captures the material essence of what is going on here. These are victims of a double epidemic: one, a hidden epidemic of austerity and rising inequality that has lasted for over a decade; the other a short one, in the full glare of the media, the war against a protein waged by our valiant rulers. We have heard it all before and plenty of times: British exceptionalism and stoicism in the face of a foreign invading virus, little about an indifferent and incompetent ruling establishment.

When a hard copy of the official history is written, a sanitised version will be published, where one kind of epidemic will be recorded and reinforced, the others less so. The national flag used first as a blindfold and then as a ceremonial flag to bury the dead. Patriotism will be weaponised to cover up government failure, and our own sense of innate pride will be moulded to justify it. Medals will be given out, heroes will be made, statues erected and victory declared. A national spirit will be invoked, aided by the mesmerising effect of pomp and circumstance afforded by the monarchy. It will all be reduced to a number, all non-inevitable deaths in the cause of Covid Nationalism, Dulce et decorum est Pro Patria Mori (“it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”).

And we will all clap, in a congregation, at 8pm.

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