The impact of Covid-19 on black and South Asian groups in Britain has been well documented throughout the pandemic, with a wealth of statistical trends identifying clear relationships across race and health inequalities. As an academic with interests in Critical Race Theory, it was not surprising to see David Harewood’s recent documentary ‘Why is Covid killing people of colour’ being met with a sense of controversy which seemingly went out of its way to overlook and ignore the statistical evidence presented in the documentary. The implications of trends between race and health inequalities exposed within the pandemic invariably draws attention to inequities which will have persisted under the radar and evaded detection in the mainstream public-political space for decades. The picture is disturbing in its own right, but also raises clear questions as to state responses within the context of Covid-19, how these have failed black, South Asian and other racialized and marginalised groups, and what this indicates about the state of race relations nationally.
It is against a backdrop of these kinds of questions that we have seen incremental steps being taken to undermine any critical analysis of race inequities more generally, and inequalities with regard to Covid more specifically. This was initially made evident when Kemi Badenoch set out the government’s position on CRT by stating ‘I want to be absolutely clear. This government stands unequivocally against Critical Race Theory.’ She would go on to say ‘We do not want to see teachers teaching their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt’, before concluding that schools which teach these concepts or ideas which are partisan such as defunding the police would be breaking the law. Badenoch would also feature at the end of Harewood’s documentary, taking something of a confusing position by acknowledging that all of the evidence presented was accurate in terms of the outcomes of health inequalities across race in the pandemic, but attributing them to socio-economic status, occupational factors, and pre-existing co-morbidities – a position which conveniently avoids asking the question ‘even if we accept that these are the effects of socio-economic and occupational factors, why are they so much more proportionally prevalent for black and South Asian groups in the UK compared with their white counterparts?’ Structural racism seems to be a term that the government is avoiding at all costs regardless of its capacity to explain the reality that the pandemic has exposed.
This position was solidified with the publication of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report on 31 March 2021, almost a year to the day that the first lockdown restrictions were introduced in the UK. Again, unsurprisingly, the report insinuated that the UK was not racist, and was actually only short of representing a post-racial state by way of the presence of individual experiences of ‘outright racism’. Rather than acknowledging that the effects of the pandemic have been symptomatic of a wider national legacy of structural racism, the report attributed disparate outcomes across race to ‘…the facts that Black and South Asian people are more likely to live in urban areas with higher population density and levels of deprivation; work in higher risk occupations such as healthcare or transport; and to live with older relatives who themselves are at higher risk due to their age or having other comorbidities such as diabetes and obesity’ – again actively avoiding the question ‘why?’
It goes without saying that conversations around race in the UK over the last year have been invariably informed by the intersection of the death of George Floyd in the US, the resurgence and mobilisation of Black Lives Matter globally and in the UK, and an incremental realisation that something was going terribly wrong in terms of the impact of Covid-19 on the UK’s black and South Asian groups. We cannot ignore that these concerns around health inequalities and race have emerged against a backdrop of discussions around police brutality, with concerns being raised most recently following the identification of Met officer Benjamin Hannam as a former member of white supremacist and banned terrorist organisation National Action. In the context of such turbulent times, and all of this within the context of the pandemic, it is not surprising that the government has found itself on the back foot with issues around race – a position which has been avoidable.
This premise – that the health impacts across race in the pandemic are not only symptomatic of a more deeply rooted structural racism, but that acknowledgement of the ways in which that structural racism works could have informed a different response to that taken – sits at the centre of a new project I am leading funded by UK Research and Innovation through the Economic and Social Research Council, focused on the impacts of Covid-19 on Muslims in Birmingham. Whilst race and religion cannot be conflated, Birmingham’s Muslim communities have a strong representation of many marginalised racialized groups including those who identify as South Asian or black. The research focuses on the role of religious and other Muslim community organisations in providing interventions to provide relief from the impacts of Covid-19 within Muslim communities. The project intends to identify interventions which alleviated the impacts of Covid-19 for Muslims, with a view to providing strategies for similar approaches which could be used across black and South Asian groups more widely as we continue to navigate our way through the pandemic. We will also be looking at the role of religious organisations for community solidarity in times of crisis, along with community perceptions of state responses to their needs, where there have been limitations and the ways in which Mosques and other organisations have stepped in to fill these gaps. Our focus is to identify and share concerns raised by Muslims in Birmingham as a way of refocusing public-political agendas such that they do acknowledge the many a various ways in which race, and intersections across religion and culture, have factored into health inequalities as a result of the pandemic.
For British Muslims, we need to ensure that the impacts of Covid-19 are documented as part of the story of how race and religion have factored into the pandemic; and also to combat wider active efforts to dissolve these narratives into discussions around socio-economic and occupational factors. Covid has impacted hardest for those living in poverty and for frontline workers across the nation. To run away from addressing the question of why these factors have been more proportionally impactful for black and South Asian groups, is not only a significant inequity for those groups as citizens of the state, but also erases the voices of some of those most distinctively impacted by the pandemic.
Dr Damian Breen is Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Fellow of the Higher Education Academy at Birmingham City University.