by Lisa Insansa Woods

CW: racism

At the moment, we are led to believe that Covid-19 is a marauder snatching away our media, our minds and our vulnerable population and that the only way to defeat such a pernicious beast is to sing hollow cries of “we are all in this together.” Yes, this should be a time for us to unify in communal admonishment of the situation; a time where we should realise our shared will to thrive alongside our neighbours; a time to join mutual aid groups to help those more vulnerable in a true display of fraternité; but, in doing this, we should not be blind to the fact that we do not share an equal burden.

In the UK, BAME (Black Asian and Minority Ethnic) people account for 1/3 of coronavirus patients in intensive care, despite representing 14% of the population. In the UK, 2/3 of healthcare worker deaths from Covid-19 are BAME. In England and Wales, black people are over 4 times more likely to die of the virus than white people. So don’t tell me that “we are all in this together.”

To understand the racial disparity within these coronavirus figures we first need to understand the unrelenting force of racism in our society.

Racism is a system that works to benefit white people whilst disadvantaging ethnic minorities. It is a system that has been actively constructed through the institutions of slavery and colonialism, in order to uphold the white patriarchal power structure in which we live.

This force of racism manifests within our healthcare system to produce health inequalities between white people and ethnic minorities. Therefore, the stark figures on BAME people and coronavirus merely shine a light on the already embedded health disparity.

To understand the racial disparity within these coronavirus figures we first need to understand the unrelenting force of racism in our society.

This is not solely the case for our current COVID-19 situation, of course. BAME people suffer higher rates of diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure compared to white people and two thirds of British Bangladeshi men over the age of 60 have a long-term health condition.

Poor health is inextricably linked to socioeconomic factors. Ethnic minorities are disproportionately on low income which means that they may have less access to safe outdoor space to exercise; their schools may be less likely to serve nutritious food; their house may be near industrial areas with higher toxic waste and by-products spilling out into the air.

Ethnic minorities are also more likely to live in overcrowded accommodation. For example, 30% of British Bangladeshi men live in overcrowded housing compared with 2% of white people in the UK. Multigenerational housing is also more common. This means that when a virus does strike, BAME people are more likely to get infected and spread it to different generations where it could be more harmful.

African American Harvard Professor David Williams, who specialises in Public Health and African American Studies and who has written extensively on the topic of health inequalities, highlights that “[h]ealth builds from where we live, learn, work and play – and only secondarily in the doctor’s office.”

It is in the doctor’s office where we can indeed see more systemic racism manifest. I’m referring, in particular, to the Myth of the Pain Threshold. This myth supposes that black people feel less pain than their white counterparts, which therefore affects the treatment they receive in the doctor’s office.

This myth was constructed during slavery to justify whipping, burning and mutilating genitals (as well as countless other tortures) of black slaves. It was produced and perpetuated by notable physicians such as James Marion Sims (also known as ‘The Father of Gynaecology’) who developed the practice of gynaecology by surgically operating on enslaved black women without anaesthesia.

This myth still pervades society today.  A 2016 study found that 40% of first- and second-year medical students in the U.S. believe that black people’s skin is thicker than white people’s. Another study in the same year found that black people were half as likely to receive opioid medication in emergency departments than white people.

This means that black people are not taken as seriously in a medical context compared to white people and subconscious bias can seep through our medical institution. Therefore, black people may be less likely to visit the doctor after displaying coronavirus symptoms due to past experiences and when they do go, their symptoms may not be deemed as worthy as their white counterparts.

black people are not taken as seriously in a medical context compared to white people

All these factors of oppression within our health system present an irony within our society because it is our BAME communities who are being oppressed but it is also those same communities who are disproportionately at the front line of the Covid-19 outbreak.

In the UK, 20% of all nurses and 44% of all doctors are BAME, whereas they constitute only 14% of the general population. This means that they have higher levels of exposure to the virus. Moreover, ethnic minorities are also highly represented in other key worker roles such as care workers (67% in London alone), bus, taxi and delivery drivers, and supermarket-floor workers.

It is sobering when you realise that these BAME communities are actually being oppressed within their roles too. We have seen how BAME doctors are twice as likely to face disciplinary action than white doctors, even though they are less likely to complain. Also, looking specifically at this pandemic, we don’t have to look far to see the case of Belly Mujinga, a black woman working for TfL during the lockdown, who was spat at and consequently died of the virus. We might also highlight the racist abuse directed at Chinese communities who are yet another overrepresented demographic among our NHS medical workforce.

Therefore, to sing “we are all in this together” is colour-blind; it ignores the unequal experience of ethnic minorities during this pandemic. We must take the opportunity to fight to change these disparities, working to conquer and oppress us, but we cannot do this without first acknowledging the different podiums on which we stand.

Featured image CC BY-NC 2.0 Tim Dennell

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