By Heather Norris Nicholson
The need for an inquiry into the impact of coronavirus on people with black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds grows more urgent with each day that passes.
As KLTV reported last week, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on BAME communities and indicate that black males are 4.2 times more likely to die and black females 4.3 times more likely to die from a COVID-19-related death than people of a white background.
Figures for the South Asian community are stark too. Men of Pakistani and Bangladeshi background are 3.6 times more likely to die from COVID-19-related causes, while the figure for women is 3.4 times more likely.
In my opinion, COVID-19 has truly exposed the social inequalities and disparities within our society at every level.
What’s more, emerging evidence also points to a deeply worrying overrepresentation of BAME health and care professionals among coronavirus fatalities.
Consultants, doctors, nurses and care-workers have been disproportionately represented among the number of all NHS staff and carers who have died.
Every death is a tragedy for family, friends and colleagues but this disparity and heavy toll upon the very people offering treatment and care is frightening.
Figures point to people of BAME background being harder hit by COVID-19 than any other group among healthcare workers at all levels of the NHS.
Such findings expose more troubling structural concerns with our healthcare system that need addressing, including complex and highly sensitive issues of who is where providing treatment and care.
Joan Saddler, director of partnerships and equality at the NHS Confederation urges a more thorough investigation than the review currently being led by Public Health England, findings of which are due to be published by the end of May. She highlights the need for more data and its intelligent analysis.
She said: “If we are to understand all the factors contributing to the deaths in our communities, and recognise the sacrifice of those who have already died, we must make sure the data, plus the experience and leadership of our communities, are used to drive real change and prevent the issues once again being swept under the carpet,”
COVID 19’s unequal impact across Britain is yet another stark reminder of deeper societal inequalities. Ethnicity and race bring about unequal treatment regardless of whether people are born in the UK or recruited from overseas to fill critical skill shortages.
Almost two months have passed since 19 March 2020 when the Home Secretary apologised on behalf of the government, for the Windrush Scandal. That momentous day for British politics slipped away as COVID-19 focused the nation’s minds and resources on dealing with the pandemic.
Since then there have been many momentous moments for us all.
COVID-19 invites us to reflect on public and private actions. Priti Patel’s apology was both a reminder and also a call for action. Holding politicians accountable is important but so too are taking steps to eradicate the attitudes, mindset and behaviours that allowed the Windrush Scandal to happen. That is something we all must help with.
The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, said that she was ‘truly sorry’ for the terrible injustices and ‘serious harm’ done to the families of the Windrush Generation.
Her apology acknowledges the Home Office’s ‘institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race’. Patel spoke of how decisions had ‘ground people down’ and ‘labelled them as a group that didn’t matter.’
Indifference to ‘indignity and inhumanity’ lay at the core of government.
For the ‘victims of Windrush’, their voices had seemed irrelevant: ‘too many people feel that they are treated differently because of who they are and where their parents came from.’
Priti Patel apologised for the indignities, as well as the ‘pain and suffering’ dealt to individuals, families and whole communities. It was an apology to Britain’s Black population.
‘We must do better at walking in other people’s shoes.’ There is, she said, ‘an ongoing mission to put this right’. The list of ruined lives, health and hopes, the shattered families, careers and opportunities brought about by the decisions of politicians, ministers and senior civil servants as they defined rules, showed their indifference to human suffering of monstrous proportions defies belief.
For the people on the receiving end, it was all so familiar.
For years, Home Office actions have perpetuated inequalities. The history of racial injustice has been ignored from White Hall right down to local level.
Despite talk of equality and diversity, hostile attitudes, behaviours and enduring networks of privilege have persisted. Britain’s institutions still find it hard to shake off old assumptions, patterns of leadership and values.
Too many people are oblivious to how others feel, think and experience life being treated differently. Valuing the very peoples whose ancestors’ labours contributed to Britain’s historical power seems a basic form of pay-back.
But for the Windrush Generation that was never the case: from even before the first passengers came ashore at Tilbury, in June 1948, the Mother Country’s government had misgivings. Are there echoes now in the COVID-19 figures for BAME?
Wendy Williams, a former Crown Prosecutor, and HM Inspector of Constabulary headed up the enquiry into the Windrush Scandal.
She is the author of the independent review, Windrush Lesson Learned that prompted Priti Patel’s apology. Appointed by Javid Savid, Patel’s predecessor at the Home Office, Williams distilled a shocking episode in British political life.
The 276-page report into the dismissals, deportations and denied rights of all kinds, is a harrowing read. ‘Institutional failings,’ Wendy Williams told us were ‘consistent with some elements of the definition of institutional racism.’
And what of lessons learned? Williams recommends change and improvements in three key areas.
First, the Home Office must acknowledge the wrong which has been done.
Second, the Home Office must make itself more accountable open itself up to greater scrutiny from outside; and third, it must fundamentally change its mindset and core values: in other words, the Home Office’s principles, vision and working practice must recognise that migration is about the humane treatment of people and should be nothing less than rooted in humanity.
Why did take so many decades for such home truths and basic actions to be acknowledged as priorities for action? May other areas of life see a parallel need for action?
Political apologies are not infrequent: they seek to right past wrongs, draw lines and help people to move on. But political remorse about past actions, usually rooted in unequal power relations – land grabs, slavery, colonialism, genocide – is never enough on its own.
Let’s also face the issues before moving on. The Windrush Scandal is a crisis that was slowly incubating for decades within national laws, policies and institutions.
Back in 2015, the Civil Service launched its bold vision of its own future: A Brilliant Civil Service, characterised by ‘a truly inclusive environment’ and ‘supported by the enduring and universally admired values of the Civil Service – integrity, honesty, impartiality and objectivity – which underpin everything we do’.
Not everyone, not everywhere, always subscribed. Enough of the rhetoric, enough of the hand-wringing ‘contrition chic’, a phrase coined by James Shapiro (1997): have the honesty to have proper conversations more of the time and listen.
Every British politician, civil servant and officer in public life must go further to right these past wrongs. So must we all. Let us acknowledge the diversity of the Caribbean but also look further.
Where else do stereotypes, bias and ignorance get in the way of treating people as people, deny their voice and obstruct opportunities?
Let us hear the stories of migration, empire, Windrush and their legacies. Hostile environments that batter individuals, families and whole communities have no place. Labels imposed by others cause incalculable damage as history shows.
A culture of inclusivity and respect for diversity should be at the heart of what all we do. These values are the foundations for creating a more resilient, confident and empowered society.
Let us be more thoughtful and considerate. Let us avoid the lazy thinking that conflates migration and nationality law and cudgels people without mercy. Let us remove discrimination from all our institutions.
Putting yourself into someone else’s shoes requires imagination and a will to bring about change.
This agenda goes beyond political circles and times of crisis. At the community level, respect and value and collaboration are vital too, as shown by the present emergency.
When tackling COVID 19 denies many, particularly the most vulnerable, from essential support and care, and hits particularly hard at BAME people, the case for strength through solidarity is never stronger.
Huddersfield’s very own forthcoming Windrush Anniversary Garden symbolises grassroots activism and collaboration at its very best. Currently on hold, due to council staff coping with other needs, this small green oasis will be a delight.
Springwood’s history of bringing together people from diverse backgrounds lives on.
What a tribute to local endeavour that others might follow? KLTV looks forward to sharing how the garden grows and how people may get involved.
As Margaret Mead, the American cultural anthropologist said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
All situations offer food for thought and reflection. Windrush has a message for us all.