Letter From Britain: COVID-19 Devastating Black Britons

Editor’s Note: Joan Blaney, a plain advocate for the black community in the United Kingdom, is the author of From Kitchen Sink to Boardroom: Realizing Women’s Potential for Corporate Success. An international social entrepreneur, Blaney was honoured with the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by the Queen (CBE). She is a member of The PuLSE Institute National Advisory Panel. She contributes columns about the socioeconomic challenges facing Britain’s black community. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson, the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute at info@thepulseinstitute.org

By Joan Blaney

The PuLSE Institute

Constant news-updates on COVID-19 informs us in the United Kingdom about newly diagnosed patients, the daily rise in death rates and, the bravery of our frontline health care workers who risk their own lives to save others.

As we enter our fourth week in a semi-lockdown, the general mood is a sombre one as Social Isolation takes hold and we risk being arrested if we venture out of our homes without a good reason to do so. The coronavirus is a new pandemic disease, and scientists expect it to peak in the UK around mid-April. For this reason, make-shift hospitals are being built to cope with new cases, and ice rinks are being proposed as make-shift mortuaries. 

In an attempt to rally everyone’s support and to some extent, to calm the situation, the mantra from different parts of the political spectrum is that, ‘We are all in this together.’ But whilst we are all susceptible to the virus, the most vulnerable and those living in poor and disadvantaged communities are affected to a greater degree.

Social and economic inequalities continue to be burning injustices, with black people experiencing high unemployment rates, less security in work, lower wages, and poorer housing.  Such issues are a major threat to our long-term health and well-being and are readily exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While government policies are to be observed by all to help slow the spread of the virus, they nonetheless bring deeper social and economic pain to many black people, particularly those in disadvantaged communities. 

For example, 60% of black people in the UK depend on social housing. According to a report by the charity group “Shelter,” Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups are disproportionately likely to suffer from poor housing and seven times more likely to live in overcrowded conditions than white households. Social isolation therefore is not practicable in these circumstances.

British social entrepreneur Joan Blaney (center), a member of The PuLSE Institute National Advisory Panel, is flanked by two former British Prime Ministers Theresa May and David Cameron discussing issues in the UK. PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo.

As part of the virus containment measures, people are being encouraged to work from home. While predominantly white-collar workers can do so, the majority of black people who are mainly employed in manual and frontline caring jobs, will find it hard to sustain such a lockdown.

In fact, a high percentage of black women are single parents who are on a zero-hours contracts.  If they don’t work, they don’t get paid. With school and nursery provision closures, their children risk being further plunged into poverty.

The government has made financial provision for large, medium and small businesses, while micro-businesses, which account for most black businesses, are yet to be specifically included. Should these funds be made available the bureaucracy will make them difficult to access. Additionally, many of these businesses are not registered and therefore will not even qualify for financial aid.  Evidently, COVID-19 will be the death knell for those trying to make a living at this level.

Our national health service is the biggest employer of black people. With the country being encouraged to show appreciation for all those who are on the front-line, one would expect that there would be adequate and consistent Personal Protective Equipment. However, this is not the case and ironically a black medical doctor who warned about the probable consequences of not being properly protected, died after contracting COVID-19.  

Additionally, two doctors of Sudanese and one of Nigerian descent also died and a black healthcare assistant died after treating sick patients with only gloves for protection. The British Medical Association has since called on the government to investigate why so many BAME doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals are dying from the coronavirus.

Early research from the Intensive Care National Audit Research Centre, found that 35% of almost 2,000 critically ill COVID-19 patients were non-white, with 14% of those being black. With calls for further research to understand such disparities, it is currently being linked with underlying health issues such as malnutrition, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and coronary heart disease, which are more prevalent in the black community.  Attention should be paid to these underlying conditions to minimise such disastrous statics in the future.

Although the proportion of African and Caribbean people in the UK dying from the virus may not be in the proportions identified in America, the emerging evidence suggests that racial heritage is a factor in the deceased figures. 

As the death toll within the black community continues to rise with several community and church leaders being amongst them, the black churches have become proactive in providing a network support that includes food and pastoral care. 

However, funerals that were often attended by hundreds are now limited to ten, and burial takes place within days of the deaths. There are no traditional ‘nine nights and COVID-19 has even caused severe departure from traditional practices. No one knows when the lockdown will end but one thing is certain and that is that life for many, will not be the same again.

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