Coronavirus and its impact on Black communities

In the rising coronavirus death toll, black and brown people in the UK are represented in disproportionate numbers, due to not only discrimination and poverty, but because they make up a sizeable amount of the frontline workforce working without adequate PPE, argues Zita Holbourne.

Zita Holbourne. Photo copyright Elizabeth Dalziel photographer, courtesy of Women Activists of East London exhibition.

Black and minority ethnic workers and communities are disproportionately adversely impacted by coronavirus in multiple ways with the most devastating, sudden and harshest impact being the high and disproportionate number of people dying from the virus, especially those who are key workers, with a particular impact on those who work in the health sector and in transport. 

These are the workers on the frontline, delivering essential public services including caring for and treating those with coronavirus who have disgracefully been failed by the government who have not protected them and failed to provide personal protective equipment, effectively being sent to die with no care for their lives. 

Black communities have historically and right up to the present day faced race discrimination at work and in the labour market, meaning they are in frontline jobs, often working precariously, bearing the brunt of ten years of austerity and cuts to the public and voluntary sectors, pay freezes, zero-hours contracts and discrimination in promotion and progression. They are the same people who experienced the horrendous Windrush scandal – some of whom are still experiencing destitution and homelessness and with the majority impacted still not receiving compensation, they are from migrant communities who have been demonized, labelled and scapegoated through a decade of austerity and who have and continue to face not just discrimination and racist abuse at work but in wider society. Black and migrant communities have for decades been crucial in keeping public and voluntary sector services running. 

Other impacts are the increase in racist attacks and abuse. Chinese people and communities and those perceived by racists to be Chinese who are not, have been subjected to horrific abuse, including hate mail sent to Chinese restaurants and takeaways and physical attacks leading to people having to be hospitalised. 

There have been reports of key workers, even while they keep essential services running and are caring for those who are ill, facing abuse and told they want a white nurse or carer. 

I think that any moves by the government to end lockdown before it is safe to do so will impact adversely on even more black workers and must be resisted. 

There is now an inquiry underway to look into the reasons for BAME people dying disproportionately but there is little faith amongst black communities in the person originally appointed to lead this inquiry and an array of formal letters issued by BAME and health representatives calling for this to be changed including one by 100 black women and one representing thousands of BAME people. There has been speculation that the reasons for black and other minority ethnic people dying disproportionately is due to underlying health conditions that impact on our communities and whilst this may be a factor the key reasons are linked to racism and poverty, where we live, how we are treated in the workplace and the labour market and now the complete disregard for our lives in failing to provide protection and safety.

I know of one family where two members of the same family, key workers in different sectors died a day apart from each other. The trauma and pain for families who have lost more than one loved one, will have lasting impacts – mentally, physically, spiritually and economically and whilst the government have announced a payment to families who have lost loved ones, this cannot bring back lives – the priority should be on keeping everybody safe and reducing all the risks of getting coronavirus – lives cannot be replaced by cash.

We have had so many inquiries and reports into race discrimination in the UK and what we don’t need is another inquiry for the sake of an inquiry without action to address the causes and reasons – but this is an urgent situation that cannot wait for the outcome of an inquiry – an inquiry cannot be an excuse to do nothing in the meantime. The government should be carrying out equality impact assessments on all key work and carrying out ethnicity monitoring on those doing key work, those who get the virus and those who die from the virus by sector and work area. Official figures broken down by ethnicity is not there for all areas, but we sadly see it for ourselves as the photos alongside heart-breaking tributes to those who have died are published by the media and shared on our social media.

Whilst responding to the coronavirus pandemic is clearly a priority, we must not forget about the other injustices faced by black and migrant communities here in the UK and globally.

For the past 7 years, I have organised regular aid and solidarity missions to people who are refugees in Northern France in addition to being part of a European Trade Union group who have monitored and responded to the impacts on refugees and migrants coming to Europe, visiting refugee centres in Melilla and Palermo. Due to the coronavirus, for the safety of people who are refugees and volunteers and closed borders, some of the charities on the ground we work with have had to stop the support work they do as have we and this has left already vulnerable traumatised, predominantly young people at risk and without basic sanitation, food and water, let alone shelter, people who are displaced due to climate change, conflict, poverty and persecution and who have in recent years been labelled and demonised as coming to steal jobs and strip resources. Yet it is a large proportion of migrant and black workers who the UK are depending upon right now to keep essential services running. The government have already indicated that when we are through the coronavirus crisis, they will continue with their hostile environment policies. 

This will coincide with an economic crisis which will also have disproportionate adverse equality impacts as the last decade long one did but with potential impacts we have never experienced before with whole sectors that black and migrant workers are concentrated in impacted in a major way by the coronavirus crisis and the necessary lockdown that has come with it.

However, whilst the response by the government in ensuring safety and reducing the spread of the virus is essential, I do not agree that there is no individual responsibility required. This week we have seen people travelling to hold protests outside the workplaces of key workers. Whilst some may have walked to these demos, others may have taken public transport, putting predominantly BAME public sector workers at risk at a time when those workers have expressed over recent weeks their fears about going to work. I know from family and friends who are key workers that they worry about using shared facilities such as toilets, cannot access food or drink during the working day and have to put their own measures in place to protect themselves and have to do all they can do be socially distanced from their colleagues. Meanwhile, there are people outside their workplaces, not practising social distancing, not considering the safety of workers who have no choice but to be there, blocking pathways and posing for photos with smiles on their faces. Yes, we should protest and campaign for their rights but we need to do this in different ways to what we may be used to and with respect for the safety of everyone else, as well as in coordination with the workers in these workplaces.

In the midst of the coronavirus crisis the Windrush Lessons Learned report was published with a range of recommendations and the two year anniversary of the Windrush scandal came whilst more than one thousand applicants to the Windrush Compensation scheme, some waiting for over one year, have not even had their cases considered by the government. 

Black nurses, transport workers and other public sector workers who came to the UK as part of the Windrush generation faced the most horrific racism yet dedicated their lives to helping others and to public service and now face destitution, injustice and poverty because of the way they were discriminated against due to racist immigration policies and laws and it is black and migrant workers who are keeping essential services running now – some of them the children and grandchildren of the Windrush generation who have also experienced the impacts of the hostile environment in their lives. We must hold the government to account for failing them yet again.

Black Lives Matter.


Zita Holbourne is the Chair of BARAC UK, a founding member of BAME Lawyers for Justice, a trade unionist, human rights campaigner, author, visual artist and poet.


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