Covid-19: BAME Communities

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:36 pm on 18th June 2020.

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Photo of Apsana Begum Apsana Begum Labour, Poplar and Limehouse 2:36 pm, 18th June 2020

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Dawn Butler on securing this important debate.

My constituency is one of the most diverse in the country, with a large Bangladeshi population, and it is one of the most deprived, with the highest rate of child poverty in the country—and now we have suffered a high percentage of excess deaths due to covid-19. That is no coincidence. In particular, it is not random that British Bangladeshis are one of the groups most vulnerable to the virus.

Discrimination and structural racism continue to dictate who gets dumped and who gets resources—who suffers events worse. BAME individuals are more likely to work in jobs that cannot be done remotely, obviously increasing their risk of contracting covid-19. Not only are we yet to have justice for workers such as Belly Mujinga, but many are still being forced to work in unsafe conditions. Shockingly, a study by the Royal College of Nursing even revealed that BAME nursing staff experience the greatest PPE shortages.

Data from the annual population survey in 2018 revealed that Bangladeshi workers are disproportionately employed in distribution, hotels and restaurants, and transport and communication, which includes road transport drivers as well as key workers such as sales assistants and retail cashiers. That is one of the many reasons why it is incomprehensible that a full regulatory impact assessment had not been prepared for the statutory instrument relating to health regulations that we considered this week.

Likewise, BAME individuals continue to face an unfair pay gap, on average having lower incomes than their white counterparts. Workers of Bangladeshi heritage have the lowest median hourly pay of any ethnic group and are over-represented in the most deprived neighbour- hoods in England—the very areas where deaths from covid-19 occur at double the rate in more affluent areas. Households with a low income are more likely than higher-income households to be overcrowded and have damp problems, because they cannot afford to move to a larger house or fix damp problems. That is highly relevant as covid-19 attacks the respiratory system, which can be compromised by chronic exposure to damp conditions.

I raised the issue of overcrowding when I spoke in the House all the way back on 18 March. Since then, it has become clear that the probability of being infected by covid-19 is likely to be higher in close-contact settings, and that social distancing and self-isolation rules are much more difficult to uphold in overcrowded households. Moreover, the evidence points towards an increase in the mortality rate among ethnic minority people living in more densely populated, more polluted and more deprived areas, including among key workers.

According to campaigners, more than 40% of the population in my borough, Tower Hamlets, lives in areas with unacceptable air quality, with the situation predicted to get worse. Our children are growing up with reduced lung capacity due to nitrogen dioxide exposure, and they are at greater risk of developing lifelong breathing disorders—the exact symptoms that affect an individual’s vulnerability to covid-19. It is not just that BAME people are held back by economic and health inequalities; research suggests that they also experience poorer access to services and poorer quality of services. Privatisation and underfunding continue to undermine the daily efforts of our health workers. We have demanded urgent measures to safeguard the health and wellbeing of migrants, including an amnesty for undocumented migrants, an immediate suspension of the NHS charging for migrants and the scrapping of the no recourse to public funds policy, yet undocumented migrants, in particular, in my constituency, are still contacting me on a daily basis in despair.

I have been moved and inspired by Black Lives Matters protesters all around the world and I truly hope that the Government are listening. However, last week, as people were calling out the state regarding racism, Islamophobia and discrimination, the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill received its Second Reading. That Bill delays the long-awaited review of Prevent, which fosters discrimination against Muslim people and introduces significant curtailments of civil liberties, which will disadvantage BAME communities. It is time for some joined-up thinking and plain speaking: from now on, every decision by government or other public authorities needs to consider and act on addressing the needs of BAME communities. Lockdown restrictions should not be eased further unless it is safe for everyone. I continue to repeat over and over again: urgent and immediate action must be taken; the lives of people in my constituency and all over the UK matter.