When black lives don’t matter

The recent Public Health England report on the impact of Covid-19 on Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities contains no action plan and sidesteps equalities law, says Puru Miah

“We want to do more than just provide ‘escape routes’ out of poverty for a talented few. We want to tackle the class divide.” 

Harriet Harman, 2009, speaking on the proposed Single Equalities Act

Ten years ago the Single Equalities Act was passed by Parliament, simplifying the law by bringing together all anti-discrimination laws and creating a public sector duty to tackle entrenched discrimination. It was hailed at the time as the biggest idea in progressive politics for the decade, as a move by the political class to tackle discrimination in our society in a practical and effective manner. 

A decade later we have had the Public Health England (PHE) report on the high number of Covid-19 deaths in our Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. The report tells us what we already knew from earlier reports. There is no explanation of underlying reasons, nor any guidance or recommendations. Ten years on from the passing of the Single Equalities Act it seems nothing has changed.

After accounting for the effect of sex, age, deprivation and region, it found that people of Bangladeshi ethnicity were at most risk, with around twice the risk of death than people of white British ethnicity. Other BAME communities had an increased risk of death from Covid-19 of between 10% and 50% compared to white British. The PHE report also found that the highest rate of Covid-19 diagnoses was in people from BAME groups, while the lowest was among white British. 

The high death rates in BAME communities are a significant reversal of previous trends because until the pandemic white Britons were the ethnic group most likely to die from any cause, PHE says. “This is the opposite of what is seen in previous years when the mortality rates were lower in Asian and black ethnic groups than white ethnic groups.”

Lack of clarity or solutions from the report resulted in instant criticisms. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, commented: “This report alone is not nearly enough. We need to know now why the virus disproportionately impacts these communities and crucially, what is being done to stop it.” In addition, he blamed the impact of Government policies as one of the reasons for the high number of Covid-19 deaths in the BAME community, saying: “The government needs to also review the impacts of their policies that have led to a hostile environment and measures like ‘no recourse to public funds’.” Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the British Medical Association (BMA) council chair, said: “The BMA and the wider community were hoping for a clear action plan to tackle the issues, not a reiteration of what we already know.”

The report generated more heat than light. It seems the adverse reaction forced the Government’s own Equalities Office to announce a review into the government’s response to inequalities in Covid-19 infection and death rates. 

Analysis using available data shows that Pakistanis and Bangladeshis tend to have worse health to begin with, making them more vulnerable to the new disease. They also have less personal space than other ethnic groups, raising their risk of exposure. Fully 30% of Bangladeshis and 16% of Pakistanis live in overcrowded homes, compared with a national average of 3%. 

The ONS’s own data shows that many in the British Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities are in households that have people of school age, people of working age and old retired people living in them. It is in such households that the old people are at the highest risk of catching Covid-19. There are 150,200 such households in the country. These multi-generational households are more likely to be overcrowded, compounding the problem. Broken down by ethnicity, they are most highly concentrated in the Bangladeshi community (6%), followed by the Pakistani community (4%) – compared to less than 0.5% of white households. The largest number of these multi-generational Bangladeshi households is in the London borough of Tower Hamlets.

A graph from the ONS showing the percentage of households who live in a three-generation household, broken down by ethnicity. It shows that over 6% of Bangladeshi households (or 8,100) are multi-generational.

The economic downturn caused by the pandemic means that the outlook for these communities post-lockdown is set to get worse. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that nearly a third of Bangladeshi men work in a shut-down industry and have a partner who does not work, compared with 1% of white British men. Many are also affected by the hostile environment for migrants and No Recourse to Public Funds; for these people, the social security safety net does not exist. Any debate around the rights of those from a migrant background is drowned out by the current Government narrative of skilled versus unskilled migration – though as the lockdown has shown, the most vital services such as retail and public transport are maintained by members of the BAME community at great risk to their health.

The lacuna in the Government’s Covid-19 response to BAME communities can be traced to 2012, when the then Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced that Equality Impact Assessments would no longer be undertaken for government decisions, as set out under the Single Equalities Act. The plan which the Government is using as the basis of its Covid-19 response was formulated after Cameron’s announcement. 

Focusing in on this Government blind spot, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) announced an inquiry into “long-standing, structural race inequality”. To aid the inquiry the EHRC has asked the government for evidence of its consideration of protected minorities in its Covid-19 response and it is now considering using legal powers to force the Government to act.

Mounting concerns at the impact of Covid-19 in BAME communities are fuelled by the growing realisation that levels of inequality have grown in our society – inequalities reinforced by Government policies, of austerity and the hostile environment for migrants

In a post-coronavirus world, a decade after the passing of the Single Equalities Act, will its intended aims and powers now be implemented to tackle the deep class divide that is resulting in high Covid-19 deaths amongst the disadvantaged in society? Or will it just be the usual gesture of all lives matter, but a case of some more than others?

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