Covid-19 Reveals the Deadly Consequences of Failing to Tackle Racial Inequality

Socialists of Colour is a collective of activists which campaigns for racial liberation and anti-racist policy, both within and beyond the Labour Party. We established ourselves due to the belief that Labour has not adequately campaigned and supported the policies necessary to counter institutional racism. We campaign in Labour because we still believe the party is the best vehicle to achieve many of our political aims. The 2019 Labour Race and Faith Manifesto confirmed this, a radical and innovative document, which could have tackled colonial injustices and economic racial inequality. We want to see a Labour Party which is passionately anti-racist not just in policy, but in actions, solidarity and rhetoric too.

In the upcoming months, we will be campaigning and producing educational resources on the impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities. The virus does not discriminate and everyone is at risk of catching it. However, years of the Conservative government failing to tackle social, economic and health racial inequality has meant that Covid-19 has resulted in serious and often fatal consequences for people of colour.

Firstly, we have seen a disproportionate number of deaths of people of colour from Covid-19, notably within NHS staff. The death rate amongst ethnic minorities is especially high amongst nurses and dentists, where ethnic minorities make up 71% and 94% deaths, despite only being 20% and 44% of the workforce respectively. Due to the campaign led by the BMA and Shadow Women and Equalities Secretary Marsha De Cordova, the government has committed to reviewing why ethnic minorities are dying at a disproportionate rate. However, we know many of the answers to this question without the review.

In 2016 in the UK, the richest 1% of the population owned 29 times more wealth than the poorest 20%. We know in our capitalist society that wealth correlates to wellbeing. Having stripped the NHS bare, many people cannot get the treatment they need. There are certain diseases more prevalent in ethnic minority communities. There are high rates of hypertension in black communities and asians are more likely to suffer from diabetes than people of other ethnicities. However, it would be misleading to assume that the reason for the disproportionate number of deaths of people of colour from Covid-19 is due to genetics. Ethnicity is a social construct, there is no gene to be black or asian.

Ethnic minorities are over-represented in the essential work category, which puts them at higher risk of catching Covid-19. This includes working in the NHS, in the transport sector and supermarkets. Despite being classed as key workers and essential to keeping our society running during the lockdown, this labour is often low-paid and insecure. Disproportionate rates of poverty means a large proportion of ethnic minorities live in dense, over-crowded urban areas, especially in major cities such as London and Manchester. Cramped and inadequate housing, often with multiple generations living under one roof, means social distancing is impossible.

Analysis from The Guardian based on figures from the Office of National Statistics found that for every 10% increase in ethnic minority residents, deaths from Covid-19 increased by 2.9 per 100,000 people. The London boroughs of Harrow and Brent have had some of the highest death rates in the country, with 37 and 32 deaths per 100,000 people respectively. The proportion of ethnic minority residents in Harrow is 58% and in Brent it is 64%.

Secondly, the Coronavirus Act 2020 increased the powers of the police to a concerning level. These powers include the ability to detain you if they believe you are infectious and to restrict your right to move around and be part of a gathering. Whilst this may seem a necessary move to reduce infections spreading through the population, we know that the police do not treat ethnic minorities, in particular black people, equally.

Although the two Race Relations Acts made stop and searching citizens based on their ethnicity illegal, it is still done to a worryingly high degree. According to official government data, in 2019 there were only 4 stop and searches for every 1,000 white people. This increased to 11 stop and searches per 1,000 asian people but this figure shot up dramatically when it came to black people with 38 stop and searches taking place per 1,000 black individuals. Despite this, according to the Runnymede Trust’s Race and Policing in England and Wales report published in 2015, only 9% of the one million stop and searches per year actually lead to an arrest and it is well known that over 99% of complaints regarding racism provided by ethnic minorities are dismissed by the Met Police. Knowing these facts, these police powers are more akin to targeted harassment of ethnic minority communities than safe and lawful policing of society.

Thirdly, we must appreciate the brunt of the damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic will be faced by the Global South. The Global South includes countries in Africa, South and Latin America and Southeast Asia and are under-developed compared to Western standards. This is often exacerbated by political and economic interference from richer and more powerful countries, like the USA, such as sanctions and withholding access to the international markets. The healthcare and social security systems of countries in the Global South are low or even non-existent, meaning the effects of the virus will be heavily felt throughout the population, especially by the poorest. These countries may have to borrow from organisations such as the IMF (a global organisation but heavily influenced by the USA) or richer countries to adequately fight the virus, leaving them susceptible to be buried under high interest rate debt which they may be paying off for decades to come. In previous years, richer countries have provided human and financial assistance to poorer countries to help them deal with health crises. However, as countries such as the UK realise the impact of austerity on their capacity to protect their own population from the virus and countries such as the USA succumb to right-wing, insular and racist ideologies, the internationalist, solidary and catch-free approach to the pandemic is uncertain. Due to this, we thank Preet Gill for supporting the Jubilee Debt Campaign in calling for a cancellation of debt from the Global South. The Global South does not deserve to be savaged by debt while they are dealing with the economic and social consequences of this pandemic.

The Labour Party should be front and centre in defending people of colour during this pandemic. Labour is the party which over 70% of ethnic minorities voted for, and without this support, they would have lost dozens of more seats in the 2019 general election. Labour is also the party which claims to represent socialism and equality. Due to this, it is the responsibility of the party to stand up to the government and loudly campaign for the interests of people of colour. Many Labour MPs have stood with people of colour during this pandemic, and run some brilliant campaigns. We are also pleased to see that Keir Starmer has appointed Doreen Lawrence to lead a Labour review into the disproportionate number of BAME deaths. Keir Starmer said that ‘We cannot afford to treat this as an issue to investigate once the crisis is over. We must address it now’ and we completely agree. Tackling racial inequality cannot wait and must be at the forefront of Labour’s political agenda, it also must not be sidelined once the mainstream press has lost interest in the inequalities our communities face. People of colour deserve to live in a country where they aren’t more likely to die from Covid-19 due to government policy and negligence. People of colour deserve to live in a country where increased police powers don’t put our communities at risk. The Global South does not deserve to be financially crushed by debt while it is struggling with the economic consequences of the pandemic.

Please follow Socialists of Colour on Twitter to stay up to date with our activities. We will be releasing details on how to join our collective soon and we hope you can get involved.

Written by Neal and Kayleigh from Socialists of Colour