Covid-19: BAME Communities

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:16 pm on 18th June 2020.

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Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Home Office) 4:16 pm, 18th June 2020

I congratulate my hon. Friend Dawn Butler on securing this important and timely debate, and on her excellent speech.

Some 16% of the population in my constituency come from a black and minority ethnic background, and even before we knew the hard data about covid-19 deaths, the BAME community could sense that it was disproportionately affected. My local community joined in mourning the tragic death of 26-year-old care worker, Sonya Kaygan. Sonya died from covid-19 in mid-April after being exposed to coronavirus in the care home where she worked. Sonya leaves behind a three-year-old daughter, who is now growing up without a mother.

Sadly, Sonya is one of thousands of people from the BAME community who worked in frontline services and have lost their lives. As we watched the news and heard about the disproportionate number of BAME lives being lost, people rightly asked, “Why is this happening to our community?” Although some of it can be put down to social gatherings between different communities, that is by no means the only explanation.

Two weeks ago Public Health England published its first report on the disparities in the risks and outcomes of covid-19, but although it showed the bare facts it provided no explanations, which led to more questions than answers. Why were BAME Britons who contracted coronavirus twice as likely to die as white Britons? Why do black and Asian groups have the highest death rates from coronavirus? Why was race and ethnicity such a prevalent factor in the death stats?

Last week, we learned of the existence of Public Health England’s second report “Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on BAME groups”, which had not been released. It made for shocking reading. The report stated that structural racism had significantly impacted the effect of covid-19 on the BAME community, and that historical racism had made BAME NHS staff less likely to speak up about a lack of personal protective equipment or the increased risks they faced. Dr Chaand Nagpaul, who chairs the British Medical Association, said in response to the report that more than 90% of doctors who died during the pandemic were from BAME backgrounds, and that BAME staff were three times as likely to say that they felt pressured to work without sufficient PPE.

The PHE report echoed those comments and stated:

“Historic racism and poorer experiences of healthcare or at work mean that BAME individuals are less likely to seek care when they needed it” and they are also less likely to speak up if they have concerns about risks in the workplace. The report further states:

“The unequal impact of covid-19…may be explained by a number of factors ranging from social and economic inequalities, racism, discrimination and stigma,” as well as differing risks at work and underlying health conditions.

Data published in the Health Service Journal on BAME deaths from covid-19 highlighted that BAME groups accounted for 21% of NHS staff, but 63% of covid-19 deaths. Among medical staff, those from BAME backgrounds accounted for 44% of the staff, but 95% of the covid-19 deaths. These figures are truly shocking, and we cannot shy away from the fact that underlying racism is a key factor in these covid-19 deaths.

During the course of this debate, other colleagues have made the point that the BAME community is also over-represented in other frontline services, leading to more public interaction and exposure to covid-19. I shall not dwell on that now, but we must also remember those public transport workers, such as Belly Mujinga, who contracted the virus and died.

The Government’s failure to release the second report on time does not inspire confidence that they are serious about taking action. Action is needed to tackle the inequality among health workers. Viewed together with the failure of the Government to implement the recommendations of the Lammy review, the Wendy Williams Windrush review and Baroness McGregor-Smith’s review on race in the workplace, we have to wonder whether they have any intention on tackling structural racism at all. I challenge the Government to prove me wrong. Implementing the recommendations of the reports in full would be a start, but if the Government truly believe that black lives matter then they will be judged on their actions.