One of the brutal lessons of the pandemic is that racism and racial inequality kill. The evidence for this was already there, but the impact of the virus and lockdown has brought the tragic impacts of discrimination into sharper focus and made it even more urgent to address the root causes. It is clear that ethnic minority people, from all groups including white minority groups such as Gypsies and Irish Travellers have experienced a much higher risk of Covid-19 related death. As Nazroo and Bécares show, this risk of death – and risks of serious illness with Covid-19 cannot be attributed to biology or genetics. Rather, it reflects increased risk of exposure to the virus that racialized and ethnic minority groups experienced because of their employment in public facing jobs, in insecure and poorly paid work and through living in more deprived areas, with more over-crowded accommodation. Increased death and poor health outcomes after Covid are also the result of pre-existing health inequalities which are themselves driven by social and economic inequalities, many of which are the product of racial discrimination.

However, amidst this tragedy have been two perhaps unexpected and potentially positive effects of the pandemic. The first is an unprecedented recognition by policymakers, politicians and the media that Covid-19 has hit some groups disproportionately. In the context of the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd in the US, this has also led some major institutions to begin the process of reckoning with racism and discrimination. The second is a change in the public’s understanding of which jobs matter; and who is doing those jobs. As the posters went up in support of NHS and other key workers, the knowledge that those fulfilling the most crucial jobs in our society were often the most poorly paid has hopefully hit home. We have a new respect and gratitude for shopkeepers, nurses and taxi drivers who carried on working despite the risks.

There is no doubt that the publication of the report on The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (the Sewell Report) set back some of this understanding – with its attempt to frame the UK as a country which did not have deep-seated racial inequalities. But the widespread response on the part of community organisers, activists and academics to this report have highlighted the ways in which the report has failed to properly consider both the evidence of inequality in research and government data and failed to listen to the experiences of those who have suffered the inequalities and the impact of racism in their lives.

There is an increasingly complex picture of inequality within and between ethnic minority groups – also influenced by class, gender, age, religion, region, sexuality, disability, legal status etc. however, this complexity does not mean that racial, ethnic and religious inequality cease to matter. Nor should this be constructed as a competition between socio-economic class and race. The inequalities and discrimination faced by working class people in the UK are experienced by many racial and ethnic minority people – because they are working class – but this is often compounded by raced disadvantage.

However, if we are to ensure the post-pandemic recovery reflects the need to address ethnic inequalities, we must have a more in-depth understanding of the impact of Covid-19 and lockdown on racialized and religious minorities. There remains a danger that we recognise that ethnicity is a risk factor for severe Covid 19, but then fail to address the underlying causes and wider impact of the pandemic on unequal life chances. That’s why UK Research and Innovation’s funding for new studies into Covid and ethnic minority groups is particularly welcome. The Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE), has launched the Covid Race and Ethnic Inequalities Programme, funded by the ESRC which aims to both understand the impact of the current crisis on racial and ethnic minorities in interlinked areas covering culture, economics, health, policing, agents and activism. This is a rigorous, mixed methods and innovative programme drawing in researchers from 10 universities across the UK, led from the University of Manchester. One part of this programme is a large and comprehensive survey of ethnic and religious minority people’s experience of the pandemic and lockdowns. We need a clear picture of which ethnic groups have been most severely affected, with particular attention paid to gender, age, religion and region. It will examine people’s experiences of racism, encounters with the police as well as the impact of the pandemic on employment, finances and mental and physical health. (You can take part in the Evidence for Equality National Survey (EVENS) through this link until the end of June.)

In other projects, the impacts of Covid-19 on racial and ethnic inequalities health, mental health and aging will be explored, including identifying in more detail the inequalities in access to testing, vaccines and healthcare. We’re also exploring how the unprecedented police powers granted under the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations and the Coronavirus Act have impacted on experiences of police racism and disproportionate policing. We will be considering the importance of housing and welfare policy and how these are experienced differently by racialized and migrant groups. We also have a focus on the labour market, including precarious and gig ethnic economies with particular attention to how changes in the labour market are impacting on young people’s transitions from school to work. This includes attention to the pandemic experiences of ethnic minority people working in or seeking work in the creative and cultural industries – an area where they are already woefully underrepresented in the creative and cultural industries. Both the Black Lives Matter protests which gathered particular momentum over the summer and legislation around protest have brought a focus on activism, protest as well as a re-examination of memorialisation, including statues and monuments. We’re using international comparisons of contested statues to understand how these debates play out in different contexts as well as exploring new forms of mourning and collective action which have emerged out of the crisis.

It is already clear that the social, economic and cultural impact of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns has fallen disproportionately on ethnic minority groups. In the period of October to December 2020, the unemployment rates of Black African/Caribbean people reached 13.8% – compared to the white unemployment rate of 4.5.  Ethnic minority people have been less protected by the furlough scheme (with 15% fewer being furloughed than white people) and young ethnic minority people suffering particularly bad rates of unemployment (20%). This racialized impact of economic crisis and recession could easily predicted – as it mirrors previous trends, yet governments have failed to implement policies which directly address the discrimination and disadvantage faced by ethnic minority groups. The Race Report produced by the Stuart Hall Foundation and CoDE reveals the 589 different recommendations made by previous race and inequality reports and commissions since the 1980s, many of which have yet to be taken up. The Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, alongside the recognition of the uneven impact of the pandemic have given a new urgency to achieving a more just country. Crucially, we need to understand what the government, the NHS, employers, schools, colleges and universities need to do to make a step change in measures to address discrimination and inequality. We’ve had a wake-up call on racial discrimination and inequality: we need to fully understand how it works and who it effects in order to stop it. We also need to galvanise the political will and momentum to act.

Bridget Byrne is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE).  Twitter: @EthnicityUK; Instagram: @codemcr.