Covid-19: BAME Communities

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:48 pm on 18th June 2020.

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Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South 3:48 pm, 18th June 2020

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

I would like to begin by marking two anniversaries that speak to the heart of this debate. The first was on Sunday, which marked three years since 72 lives were cruelly cut short in the Grenfell Tower fire. That night will forever be seared in my mind—the blazing inferno of the tower, the live-streamed videos of victims reciting prayers before they passed away, friends and families desperately searching for loved ones, the firefighters exhausted and shellshocked having done everything they could and the multiracial working-class community coming together to support one another.

What happened at Grenfell was a tragedy, but it was not a natural disaster. It was avoidable and foreseeable. Residents raised concerns, but they were not listened to. They were not listened to because they were working class, because many were migrants and because the community was majority black and brown. That is why the structures of power neglected them, exploited them and discarded them. It shames this Government that, three years on, survivors are still living in temporary accommodation, and 56,000 people are still living in homes wrapped in unsafe, flammable cladding.

The second anniversary, which also speaks to this topic, is on Monday. That day marks 72 years since HMS Windrush arrived in the UK. Black Britons came to the UK and helped to rebuild this country after the war, and we know how they were repaid. A Government determined to stoke division and target migrants created the racist hostile environment and had black and brown people detained, deported and denied their rights. Again, the structures of power neglected black and brown people, exploited them and discarded them. Even now, compensation totalling just £360,000 has been paid to just 60 victims of this scandal, so let us call it what it is: systemic racism, and the disproportionate deaths of black and brown people from coronavirus is a third striking example of this.

The evidence is clear that people with Bangladeshi backgrounds face double the risk of dying from covid-19 compared with white people, while people from Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Caribbean and other black ethnicity backgrounds face a 10% to 50% higher risk of death. This is not some innate vulnerability of black and brown people. It is not something natural—it is social. It is because black and brown people are disproportionately poor and that makes them more likely to have ill health. They are disproportionately in overcrowded housing and are therefore more likely to spread this deadly disease, and disproportionately in jobs exposed to the virus, from being over-represented in the NHS, to being in the low-paid, often precarious, frontline key worker roles. Again, what we see is a system that neglects black and brown people, exploits black and brown people, and all too tragically discards black and brown people.

These are neither discrete incidents nor aberrations from the norm. They are reminders of what is painfully clear to many people outside this Chamber: that race and class are the dividing lines between two very different Britains. The people of Grenfell Tower lived and died in the shadow of immense wealth in Kensington and Chelsea. The Windrush scandal exposed the second-class citizenship for black and brown people in Britain today and the contempt with which migrants are treated. The coronavirus pandemic has revealed the fatal inequities that are rife within our society and are truly a matter of life and death.

This systemic racism is not incidental. It has a history, and thanks to the action of Black Lives Matter campaigners, light is being shed on this history. It is a history of colonialism and conquest, empire and enslavement, and inequality and exploitation. It is a history of the rich and powerful using their influence to maintain control and spread hate. Today, their newspapers run stories spreading fear about migrants arriving on our shores. Tomorrow, it might be about Muslims or young black men or Gypsies or Roma, and it is done with the same purpose: to divide the people, deflect blame and protect their rotten system. That is why they target minorities, and we see it with the threat to the trans community at the moment.

Systemic racism is causing black and brown people to disproportionately die from coronavirus. This needs to be urgently addressed, with workplace risk assessments, PPE and tests for everyone who needs them, but it needs deeper change, too. We need to tackle the system that drives these inequalities and empowers people in this Chamber and in Parliament and the billionaire press barons who whip up fear and exploit and discard working-class people, black, brown and white alike. We need to tackle this system, and in its place, build a society that has equality and freedom at its heart. That is the call of socialism and it is more timely than ever.