Workers' Weekly On-Line
Volume 50 Number 14, April 18, 2020 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Coronavirus Pandemic

Disproportionate Impact of COVID-19 on Minorities
Underscores Need for People's Empowerment

The first ten doctors to die in the UK were all from minority backgrounds

One of the main features of the current pandemic is that it is revealing the fact that the entire society, and particularly the health service, is not organised to place the care of the most essential workers, the most vulnerable workers, and other working people in first place.

Recently, for example, there has been much concern expressed about the fact that a disproportionate number of people from African, Asian, Caribbean and other minority backgrounds, many of them health workers, have lost their lives during the pandemic. This month, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the head of the British Medical Association (BMA), wrote to the government demanding an investigation as to why the first ten doctors to die from COVID-19 all came from minority backgrounds. An investigation by The Guardian found that of the 53 NHS staff known to have died in the pandemic at that time, 68% were of African, Asian and other minority backgrounds. They also include twenty-two nurses, two porters, a radiology support worker, a patient discharge planner and a hospital bus driver. According to The Guardian, twelve of the health workers who have died were of Filipino origin.

Dr Nagpaul also drew attention to the fact that about one third of all patients in intensive care as a result of the pandemic also came from such backgrounds, even though they only comprise about 14% of the entire population. According to the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre, around 33.6% of patients in critical care with COVID-19 are from African, Asian and other minority backgrounds, even in those areas where such patients make up as many as 25% of the population. Dr Nagpaul added that these facts were "extremely distressing and worrying", and he concluded that "there's no doubt there appears to be a manifest disproportionate severity of infection in BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) people and doctors. This has to be addressed - the government must act now."

On April 19, the government agreed that there would be a review by NHS England and Public Health England into why people from certain backgrounds appear to be disproportionately affected by the virus. But it did not provide any information about what - if any - data would be made publicly available. The head of the BMA cautiously welcomed the review but added that it required "taking vital steps now to protect our BAME communities until we can develop a detailed understanding of the threats they face".

Some of many health workers who have given their lives while treating their patients with COVID-19

Certainly, one important factor to be taken into account is the large number of people from a minority background who work in health and social care. Around 44% work in the NHS (40% of all doctors, 20% of all nurses nationally and 50% in London), and 17% of the social care workforce also come from these backgrounds nationally, rising to 59% in London. They are amongst the health and care workers who have been placed in harm's way by their devotion to those they care for and the government's criminal inability to provide adequate PPE and the wide-scale testing of health workers. However, even taking such criminal neglect into account, the figures are still disproportionate, even for London, where the percentage of NHS staff corresponds most closely with the composition of the capital's population.

Researchers point out that what must also be taken into account are other social and economic factors that have demonstrated that, for many years, Asian, African, Caribbean and other minority communities in general experience worse health outcomes for conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, coronary heart disease, HIV, breast and prostate cancer, and sickle-cell anaemia. Many of these "underlying conditions" are associated with poorer coronavirus survival rates and put such communities at higher risk of contracting the virus and displaying greater adverse symptoms.

In addition, those from these communities are often employed in other public-facing occupations such as transport, are less likely to be working at home during the pandemic, or have higher incidents of poverty and unemployment, homelessness, overcrowding and the social conditions which arise from them. In general, these communities are more prone to all the so-called health inequalities, the inability of capital-centred economies to provide adequate health, economic and social conditions for all. These conditions have deteriorated even more greatly over the past ten years as a result of the austerity programmes of successive governments.

Such disparities are also being exhibited in other countries, most starkly in the US, perhaps for similar reasons. In the city of Chicago, for example, African Americans make up only 30% of the inhabitants, but half of all coronavirus cases and 70% of deaths from the virus. Across the entire state of Illinois, African Americans are only 14% of the population but account for 41% of the deaths from COVID-19.

The governments of such societies can no longer hide the fact that they do not take care of their most vulnerable citizens, do not protect their most essential workers and do not have adequate health care systems. What is now essential is to step up the struggle for people's empowerment in order to bring about a society which puts the health and well-being of all people in first place.


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