The unequal epidemic

Muddassar Ahmed is a former adviser to the British government, a visiting fellow at German Marshall Fund and patron of the Faiths Forum for London.

LONDON — Several weeks into the lockdown that has ground life to a halt in London, I was confronted with a deeply troubling fact: My neighborhood of Newham, where most residents are, like me, minorities, has the highest COVID-19 death rate in all of Britain.

There is no conclusive answer as to why so many casualties in Western countries are ethnic and racial minorities, or why you would be four times likelier to die from coronavirus-related complications if you live in Newham rather than elsewhere in Britain. But recent studies have given us a sense of the factors responsible: decades of underfunding, discrimination, poverty and marginalization.

A survey by the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics showed that, in London, poverty-stricken inner communities are most at risk of coronavirus-related complications due to existing health inequalities.

It also found that black Britons are more than four times likelier to die from COVID-19 than white residents, and that people of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian origin — as well as those from mixed ethnic backgrounds — also have statistically higher risks of death from COVID-19.

During a pandemic, poverty, already detrimental at the best of times, becomes deadly.

This is as outrageous as it is unacceptable. But, unfortunately, it is not surprising.

In Britain, people of color live in worse socio-economic circumstances, which in turn produce worse health outcomes, which in turn lead to higher death rates.

The poor, for example, live in crowded neighborhoods, where disease spreads faster. They also have fewer health care resources and are, as a result, more prone to the kinds of underlying health conditions that put them at a greater risk of COVID-19.

In diaspora immigrant communities, households are often multigenerational by tradition and circumstance, making it easier for the virus to spread through families. Immigrants also often work in industries with greater exposure to the virus, such as health care and public transport.

During a pandemic, poverty, already detrimental at the best of times, becomes deadly.

This is not a peculiarly British phenomenon. In progressive and enlightened Sweden, individuals of Somali ancestry were found to have higher COVID-19 infection rates than their white counterparts. In nearby, prosperous Norway, the Norwegian Institute of Public Health also found that Norwegians of Somali origin had infection rates 10 times higher than the national average. In the United States, lower-income communities of color have also been hit hard, particularly in New York City.

The needless loss of life makes me deeply angry, as does the unfairness of the virus’ predations. But I am also worried about the consequences of this higher infection rate on our perception of immigrant communities more broadly.

In times of crisis, people often search for scapegoats. If, for example, Muslims in Sweden have higher infection rates than white Swedes, there will no doubt be people who may attribute this not to comprehensible social factors but to cultural (or, worse, genetic and biological) factors.

Muslims, immigrants and people of color — already the target of xenophobic, far-right, white-supremacist anger — could become frightening disease vectors to the population at large. Post-Brexit Britain already saw an increase in hate crimes before the coronavirus pandemic. How will people react to data showing that immigrant communities are more likely to fall ill — and how will that data be manipulated by unscrupulous politicians and pundits?

The British government’s inexcusably delayed response to the pandemic has undeniably made things worse. As Shadow Minister for Mental Health, and medical doctor, Rosena Allin-Khan put it to Health Secretary Matt Hancock: All of these people did not have to die. Our government could and should have done better.

Rosena Allin-Khan, the Labour Party’s shadow minister for mental health in the U.K. | Will Oliver/EPA

Contrast the U.K.’s response with countries like New Zealand and Germany, where political leaders made tough decisions — enforcing an early lockdown, say, or conducting widespread national testing. We Britons did neither, and the resulting spread of the coronavirus, rather than being a so-called great leveler, revealed the glaring inequalities of our societies, disproportionately affecting minority and immigrant communities.

We must hold our leaders accountable for the mistakes they made. We must work harder to protect ethnic minorities, who are at greater risk of disease and of racist fear-mongering.

Higher death rates are the product of past and present discrimination. What a horror it would be if this crisis only extends that inequality far into the future.



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