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The Enemy Within

COVID19: A conversation about structure, agency and social inequality. The politicisation and racialisation narrative of COVID19

People from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) are more susceptible to contracting COVID19. Recent data shows that around 19% of COVID19 deaths were people from a BAME background, despite this group only representing 14% of the British population. Public Health England published their report on June 2nd found that ethnicity was a key denominator for those dying from COVID19. But why are BAME people more at risk? The complexity of this debate is far too much for a single article as this is a truly multifaced discussion.

Eid ul’Fitr 2020 was on May 23rd and for the first time in my living memory, there was no mass gathering for prayers due to COVID19. Days later this image appeared of Southend Beach. The inconsistent energy is so dangerous. Photograph: Finnbarr

For the first time in 28 years, I was not able to complete Eid prayers at my local Mosque but days later I saw crowded beaches and the Dominic Cummings scandal unfold. With family and relatives being self-employed and being placed in the ‘at risk’ category, a sense of panic hit when the pandemic started. Many commentators have argued there has been an inconsistent energy in the condemning of Black Lives Matter protests. The Secretary of State himself even asked people to stay at home and avoid mass gatherings. A second wave will be, more likely than not, be caused by, in large parts, schools reopening, conga-esque VE day gatherings, easing of lockdown restrictions and Cummings-gate. A protest for racial equality, an urgent matter for today, will inevitably be blamed. Yet, with growing fears of a potential second spike and Black Lives Matter protests across the country, Britain’s uncomfortable battle with racial and socio-economic equality continues.

The media and Policymakers have consistently led with this story and as lockdown begins to ease, the shift from structure to agency is being reinforced. ‘Common sense’ even its Churchillian ‘keep calm and carry on’, stiff upper lip patriotic sense has meant the majority of the British public are still confused on exactly what freedoms and liberties we can enjoy. A binary is now being formed where ‘stay at home’ was an enforced state idea where people were instructed to avoid social mixing. Whereas ‘stay alert’ has a moral autonomous overtone with ‘sensible’ adults making ‘rational’ decisions about how they prevent the spread of COVID19. ‘Choice’ and autonomy are an interesting ideal because for many BAME people, there never really has been much ‘choice’ during this pandemic. It is the ‘choice’ for people to work, gather for prayer, protest and send children to school. Yet, ‘choice’ implies some form of personally manufactured agency and largely ignores the socio-economic disparity, a decade of austerity and poor living conditions faced by many BAME people.

In this discussion, I want to tear apart three narratives of politicising and racializing of COVID19. As a small Sociological piece, with elements of empirical evidence, it is important to assess wider structural inequalities as part of our analysis of COVID19. This is by no mean an all-exhaustive article but a means to critically assess an important discussion.

  1. The disparity of socio-economic wealth – This cannot be ignored as health inequalities are inextricably interrelated to wealth inequalities. If we use the government’s own unemployment data, compared to White British people, Black and Pakistani/Bangladeshi people are twice as likely to be unemployed. The same three ethnic groups are also most likely to leave school with inadequate qualifications, with Black-Caribbean more likely than any other ethnic group to be permanently excluded from school. Poverty is also distributed more heavily amongst these groups. Without going too heavily into the reasons, we must always consider structural and institutional discrimination which prevents these groups attaining good life chances. BAME families (15% of Black African and 30% of Bangladeshi) are also more likely to live in overcrowded conditions, making self-isolating incredibly challenging. Degenerative and coronary diseases are also more prominent for BAME people. This ‘at risk’ category that has yet to have a ‘protective ring’ placed around it has been created by generations of unaddressed socio-economic inequalities. The depth and deeply entrenched manner of these inequalities means BAME people are at risk not simply because of their background but their standing in Britain’s class system. As Sociologists, we know the dangers of assessing power dynamics in isolation. Within this paradigm of inequality of BAME deaths during COVID19, we also need to be considerate of social class, age, gender, sexuality and ability. The continuation of the ‘disproportionate BAME deaths to COVID19’ are being dangerously detached from wider structural inequalities, by a government that has tormented the very fabric of our society with a decade of austerity. Nothing exists in a political vacuum; thus, we have to ask deeper questions about social inequalities to assess the true reason behind why BAME people at such risk. This small paragraph doesn’t do inequalities the justice!

  2. Types of work BAME people do – The work that BAME people do tend to place them at a greater risk. BAME people still tend to occupy roles that require them to work during the global pandemic. Around 18% of NHS staff come from are BAME and with continued fears about a lack of PPE, this ‘at risk’ category is certainly exacerbated. The first ten Doctors to die from COVID19 were in fact of BAME origin. Carers, taxi drivers, nurses, shop workers and those who are self-employed tend to come from BAME backgrounds, and many have continued in their roles during the pandemic. But the thing is, even if BAME people have higher chances of diabetes and high blood pressure, dying from COVID is still a social issue. It is still because they have less access to services, more likely to work key worker jobs i.e. the low-income key worker jobs, less likely to be able to take a day off from feeling poorly. More likely to have to use public transport. Many due to their low socio-economic standing have no choice but to work. The focus is on ‘how many more people are dying? And NOT ‘how many more BAME people are catching it’? Because if they understood why more of them are catching it they would have to address the structural causes rather than launch another App or continue to obfuscate us in daily briefings. The position of BAME people in the labour market has meant, even during a global pandemic and where furloughs are being rolled out, for many it has still been a choice to pay bills or to have food in the fridge. Again, we are looking at the wider socio-economic inequalities and life chances as, although COVID19 doesn’t discriminate, BAME people are at risk because of their social standing.

  3. Lifestyle-ism – I want to pan back to the idea of ‘choice’ here. There is a very neo-liberal plot whereby people are responsible for their actions and subsequently fully accountable for these choices. BAME people are more likely to have underlying health problems such as diabetes, coronary heart illnesses and degenerative diseases. Many of these are hereditary, as I know from my own family, high blood pressure runs right across almost every generation. With underlying health problems come a weaker immune system which is means an incurable virus like COVID19 is more difficult to fight off. If we consider poor housing for example, it is a socio-economic decision and not a lifestyle choice to live in an overcrowded home. Poorer areas have fewer lower access to parks or open spaces, when money is tight, things like going to the gym become an additional expense. Areas that are also densely populated are also high in air pollution, but again, this is very often not a ‘choice’. It is a ‘choice’ out of a limited number of choices. Nobody on earth wants to breathe in dangerous chemicals as they take a stroll. When we focus too heavily on agency and render the existence of social structures, we implicitly lay blame on individuals who have suffered from decades of generational disadvantages, many of which they have no control over. This lifestyle-ism approach also subjects bias and imperialistic interpretations of what are healthy and unhealthy lifestyle choices. Secretary of State advised people not to attend the Black Lives Matter protests over this past weekend and that they would be risking public health if they did protest. However, what has really been done to tackle inter-generational disadvantages? Where was the denouncing of Dominic Cummings or those packed beaches? Lifestyle-ism dangerously disconnects the impacts of austerity, inequality and structural disadvantage on COVID19.

In Summary:

Although the Black Lives Matter protests will inevitably have an impact on the R rate, we cannot ignore the impact of wider structural inequality and the lowly position of many BAME people in the labour market, and in wider society. The media and political narratives are very much based upon Sociology’s most potent debate, structure vs. agency. Yet, the choice to work, self-isolate, pray and send children to school is one option out of a limited number of options. Although BAME people are more likely to contract COVID19, what is being done to address the structural causes of this? Simply placing a bandage or more topically, a facemask over the problem does not address its underlying causes.

There has been political incompetence that also must be called out. Dispatches on Channel 4 just last week discovered that with an earlier lockdown and real leadership, 13,000 lives could have been saved. In a world of 7.8 billion people, 400,000 COVID19 deaths have been recorded. The UK has 10% of these recorded deaths, with only 0.87% of the world’s population. What on earth is going on? People continue to die, we continue to hear about this ‘world leading’ track and trace App, daily briefings continue to have this ‘look at us we are changing the world’ sentiment. We must be critical, analyse carefully, take no ‘facts’ for granted and really consider the choices and options that are available to us. It isn’t as simple as, keep calm and carry on. The most vulnerable in our society need to be protected.

Finally, I just wanted to finish off with the inconsistent energies in the condemning breaches of social distancing. As mentioned, I was unable to read Eid prayers, Ramadan was odd because the tradition of seeing family and relatives was not an option. There remains crippling fear and anxiety living in the community, even shaking hands, an absolute sacred gesture has become a taboo. With regards to Black Lives Matter, certain quarters of society will be looking to assert blame towards these protests. Protests that wouldn’t even need to happen if we had used the past century to sustain racial equality! These protests were urgent, needed and a real reflection point for British society. BAME people are calling for change. Change that begins with challenging our own personal biases and a willingness to hold conversations that matter, no matter how much discomfort they create. Ultimately, consistent treatment must also be matched with consistent condemnation. If bullying down a statue slave owner receives public condemnation by political leaders, then where is the justice for those who lost their lives in Grenfell Tower? Has Boris Johnson apologised for his appalling racist marks? Can we have an update on the Windrush scandal? Where is the conversation about Kashmir? The inconsistent energy is adding fuel to an already incredibly challenging time for us all. Until then, these biases are our enemy within as we aim to process and reflect upon this truly unprecedented time.

We are stronger together. We all need to read more, connect more, think more and do more to improve the world around us. Black lives matter.

Thank you for reading,

Shuaib Khan

Twitter: @shuaibkhan26

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