The Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) community has been left hurt and angry, after being blamed for the increase in Covid-19 cases in certain pockets of the UK, including Greater Manchester, Bradford and Kirklees. Ahead of Eid-Al Adha celebrations, Tory MP Craig Whittaker claimed that “BAME communities are not taking this virus seriously” even as there is no evidence to support these claims.
Hitting out against Whittaker’s alleged racist comments, Liberal Democrat councillor for Shadwell, Rabina Khan told this newsweekly, “His comments are clearly one-sided and blinkered, as there are multiple factors that are involved. There will always be some people in every community – white and BAME – who fail to adhere to government guidelines regarding social distancing.
“You only need to look at the recent mass gatherings on Bournemouth Beach, public parks and other such spots to realise that this is a national issue, not just a BAME one. We are all aware of the furore surrounding Dominic Cummings and the predominantly white journalists and photographers who gathered outside Mr Cummings’ home, shoulder to shoulder, jostling for position, with some not wearing masks, yet Craig Whittaker chose to ignore all these other incidents. Playing the blame game is always a dangerous move, as it promotes discrimination, which means that we take another step backwards in the campaign for equality, diversity and community cohesion.”
However, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government told Asian Voice exclusively, “The Government is clear that no single community is responsible for the spread of COVID-19 and decisions around local lockdowns have been taken on the scientific evidence to prevent the further spread of the virus.
“We’ve seen British Muslims across the country step up as volunteers, front line workers and good friends and neighbours to support others during this time. This Eid has been a time to reflect and celebrate that effort while making sure everyone stays safe.”
Inflammatory attempt of the government to divide the community
The MP for Calder Valley’s statements appear as the government announced changes to rules on gatherings in Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and East Lancashire. As many as four million people across these regions now banned from meeting people from different households indoors. Declaring a major incident in the region, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) has imposed new lockdown restrictions in a bid to combat a “second-wave” of Covid-19 virus whilst emphasising that it was “standard practice” and that “people should not be alarmed.”
GMCA comprises of ten councils: Bolton, Bury, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford and Wigan. In the past week, there have been 69 cases per 100,000 in Blackburn with Darwen, which has now crossed Leicester where the infection rate has fallen to 50 cases per 100,000. However, there is no clear data indicating that a majority of the Covid-19 patients across these regions are from the BAME community.
Challenging the government for its “inflammatory attempt” of dividing the community, Claudia Webbe, Labour MP for Leicester East said, “We must oppose all attempts to divide our communities, which have been under significant strain and have made many sacrifices during lockdown.
“When people punch downwards, they let the powerful and those responsible off the hook. At every step in this crisis - from lockdown delay, equipment shortages, care home neglect, testing delays, insufficient data and much more – the government has failed to adequately protect our communities.
The government should be ashamed at their inflammatory attempts to deflect from their own failures. Our diversity is our strength – and we must reject these divide and rule tactics.”
Johnson refuses to criticise Whittaker
However, prime minister Boris Johnson has refused to criticise Whittaker’s comments and instead explained that “it is up to the whole country to get this right and do it together”. At a Downing Street press conference he thanked all faith and community leaders especially the Imams and mosques for accurate dissemination of crucial information about coronavirus in the communities and said, “I think it’s up to all of us in Government to make sure that the message is being heard loud and clear by everybody across the country, and to make sure that everybody is complying with the guidance. I want to thank all the community leaders, I want to thank everybody, the mosques, the imams who have worked hard with us to get messages across. But, ultimately, it’s up everybody. It’s up to the whole country to get this right and do it together.”
Yet, recent analysis of fixed-penalty notices issued under the coronavirus regulations by National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) found that BAME people were 1.6 times more likely to be fined than white people for violating the lockdown rules. The NPCC found 17,039 fines were issued between 27 March and 25 May, which represents only three fines per 10,000 people. But the rate for black people was 4.6 per 10,000 and for Asian people it was 4.7. This only demonstrates that the BAME community is yet again found at the receiving end of discrimination.
BAME doctors at Covid-19 frontline
The government appears to have forgotten that the BAME community has been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 due to their socio-economic lifestyle, pre-existing illnesses with a majority of them being employed as key frontlines workers as NHS doctors, care workers, TfL bus drivers and at cash and carry shops.
Dr Adnan Sharif is a consultant transplant nephrologist at Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) Birmingham. QEH is part of the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, combining four hospitals together and has recorded the highest number of Covid-19 fatalities across the UK. According to Dr. Shariff said, “We had just about 900 Covid-19 deaths, the highest number of Covid-19 deaths reported across hospitals in the UK with about 5,000 or more coronavirus patients. We discharged the final Covid-19 patient from our intensive care unit last month. And since then, things have been much quieter than they were in April.
“It is difficult to estimate the exact number of coronavirus patients today but there may be about 10-25 active coronavirus cases at the hospital.”
Dr Shariff explains that the QRH had resumed their kidney transplant program which had been temporarily suspended since late March due to the Covid-19 outbreak. They are now extremely cautious of conducting any procedures before ensuring that every single patient that comes to the hospital is first tested for Covid-19. According to him, the test results arrive in an hour and only then do they move forward with their line of treatment and admissions. The latest statistics in Wolverhampton reveal that there was an average of 15.26 cases per 100,000 residents over the seven days in the run up to August 1, up from 14.49 cases a week before. In the meantime, Sandwell has also been placed on the list of “area of concern” by Public Health England.
Reacting to Whittaker’s baseless allegations about Asians and immigrants not following lockdown rules, Dr Shariff said, “They are not particularly helpful statements and they pertain to a trend of blame game without any accurate information being available. Yes, in Birmingham we did see a large number of coronavirus cases coming in from the BAME community. But that is our local population and the admission at our hospitals will be a reflection of the population. It is true that certain ethnic groups have a much higher risk of contracting severe Covid-19 and a disproportionate amount of people from the BAME community who are likely to be admitted to Intensive Care Unit and possibly die. But there are other reasons for their deaths including their socio-economic lifestyle patterns and pre-existing health issues.
“There may be, some people in BAME communities who may not be properly following the lockdown rules. But there are people across all ethnic groups who are not following these rules. We have had a spell of nice weather and beaches in South England a couple of weeks ago were absolutely packed. Pictures showed that the majority of those people were people from the white community. I don’t think the blame game is correct because across the board there is a majority of people who follow the rules and a minority who don’t. But that doesn’t mean one ethnic group should be targeted or victimised.”
Flu drive and contact tracing to combat a second Covid-19 wave
The government has reportedly adopted several measures to prevent a second Covid-19 wave. This includes local councils setting up their own virus-hunting team after the national system failed to reach hundreds of its most vulnerable residents. Blackburn with Darwen council, in Lancashire with the highest infection rate in England has launched its own contact-tracing system to plug holes in the £10bn national scheme. Whilst local lockdowns are seen as a way to combat the spread of infection, the government is gearing up to launch the largest flu vaccination drive this year especially as advisors warn that complications from Covid-19 infection during the onset of the flu season can result in about 120,000 deaths across the UK.
Speaking about the UK’s preparedness for a second wave, Dr Shariff said, “The projections may or may not be correct. If there were to be a second wave, we are much better prepared than we were in the beginning with new hospitals at our disposal. We do have much better capacity now to deal with any kind of a surge in cases. With regards to the flu vaccine drive, we are always required to give a flu jab to all our dialysis patients every single year. And instead of asking the GPs or primary care doctors to provide a flu jab, we give it to our dialysis patients before they show up for their dialysis sessions to make things easier for the patients. So, as long as we use such initiatives and ensure that all the vulnerable groups are vaccinated, it should help prevent any more complications.”
Report highlights Islamophobic online cyber hubs
This concern about certain right-wing groups and online tweets claiming that the community is not abiding by the Government guidelines around social distancing to prevent coronavirus was flagged up a few months ago when Ramadan had just commenced. In his research study Imran Awan, Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University and Roxana Khan-Williams, found that Islamophobic online ‘Cyber Hubs’ were being formed which linked Muslims to the spread of COVID-19, and therefore spreading anti-Muslim memes and sharing fake news stories. Commenting on the research study, Dr Awan had then said, “The rise of fake news and how social media spreads it has led to a lot of these myths produced by the far-right being spread to the point that some have actually made their way into mainstream media, despite being debunked.
“What this report demonstrates is how the COVID-19 crisis has been used to create ‘others’ of Muslims blaming them for the spread of the virus, and the extent to which the spread of fake news online is contributing to this extremely worrying trend.”
The research was commissioned by the independent members of the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group and the report is available here: https://anti-muslim-hatred-working-group.home.blog/2020/04/20/coronavirus-fear-and-how-islamophobia-spreads-on-social-media/
Community, businesses and academics worry for future
Anil Puri, Chairman at Purico Ltd. said, “We have noticed that there are pockets within the country which are worse than the rest of the country, which partly comes down to religious issues etc., where people are still meeting up for religious occasions, thus assisting the virus as I put it. But it seems there are certain pockets that are not listening. I hope people will listen more and follow the guidelines and will be better off with that.”
Puri said that his leisure centre was shut down and it reopened recently on July 4. He said, “The start has been good, but we don't expect the business to be back in immediate strength. This could be or will be a horrible year for weddings, but we hope that 2021 should be a fairly good year for us. We will have the current year's weddings and next year's weddings. I appreciate the efforts that the government has taken for the industry, and this month ‘Eat Out’ for three days in a week, subsidised rate for holidays, all of that is very helpful.”
He also owns two care homes and had put it under a lockdown much ahead of the government’s lockdown announcement.
“We had stopped any family member from coming to the care home. There were no visitors. In one of them, we did not have a single death of a resident due to Covid-19. I am very proud of that. As an industry, we did not have the PPE in time due to the shortage of it. We have done our own analysis of it and we found that it is not because of any mismanagement in our teams. The nature of the virus was changing shape very rapidly. We were unable to guide our key members and understand their needs. This has been a challenging industry as we know for a long time and I think it will continue to be a challenging industry in the near future.”
Speaking about the investment and property sector, Puri added that he has been trying to help his tenants at shopping centres. “We know the chaos of the major retailers. The business of shops versus online has been a big challenge. Some of the bigger shops and property will be affected I suspect,” he said.
Puri’s enterprise also makes papers for the tea bags, coffee pouches, papers for the outer layer of the salamis and sausages. He said, “All of this business has had a phenomenal demand. To the retailers who are supplying to our customers the major high street retailers for domestic consumption, their sales have gone up. Those customers who were providing these services to the hospitality and leisure services have collapsed completely.”
At his mills, Puri’s teams have been measuring temperatures of workers, checking on them for their well-being to make sure that none of their family members come in contact with a Covid-19 patient.
Dr Subhajit Basu, (Chair, BILETA, Managing Editor, IRLCT, School of Law, University of Leeds) feels that the narrative that the BAME communities in Britain are deliberately flaunting rules is dangerous, misguided and condemnable. Dr Basu told this newsweekly, “For some people, this challenges their ill-conceived rhetoric around race and immigration, 'for any problem in this country, blame the immigrants'. We have seen online toxicity and the BAME community have faced outright racism. Stigmatisation also takes a toll on those who are actually affected by the disease. Attitudes towards immigrants have been worsening over the years.
“However, in recent years we have seen a considerable increase in anti-Muslim sentiment across Britain and these misguided comments by some of the MPs will fuel the existing racial and religious prejudices. I am apprehensive about Islamophobia within the political circle. Any large-scale gathering can become a hotspot for virus transmission regardless of the racial profile of participants. The additional restrictions that have been placed on people living in Greater Manchester, parts of East Lancashire, West Yorkshire and Leicester highlights that some people from the BAME community are significantly more vulnerable than others and that could be related to several factors including underlying health conditions due to their socioeconomically disadvantaged background. People from minority communities often live with extended families mingling in crowded conditions, where maintaining social distancing sometimes can be very difficult.
Even though we understand Covid-19 a bit more than what we used to back in March, the possibility and fear of a second wave were always predicted unless there is a vaccine. It could be argued that relaxation of lockdown happened too fast and did not actually give enough time to flatten the pandemic curve successfully.”
Sharing his thoughts further on how the community needs to go forward during the second wave, he said, “The stereotyping done by some of the MPs is a failure on the part of the government to expand public outreach, promote tolerance, and counter hate speech while aggressively investigating and prosecuting hate crimes. The government needs to ensure individuals from the BAME community can access the support they need to avoid social isolation. The government should proactively restrict stereotypical and misleading reporting about Covid-19 to stop further reinstatement towards the community.”
From an academic point of view, Dr Basu thinks that the UK is not sending the right message, particularly when UK Universities are trying very hard to attract international students. “This stigmatisation will not help! Currently, people from BAME communities are under-represented as senior officials, senior academics or in leadership positions in academia. The immediate concern is not so about safety but more about discrimination, and a sense of helplessness against scapegoating and scare-mongering,” he said.
Reacting to the Islamophobic comments recently made by the MPs ahead of Eid, Ghanashyam Nabar, an Indian settled in the UK said, “The impact of Covid-19 is felt by all and spirits have sadly been extremely low over last many months. Festivals like Eid bring back the community spirit, the celebratory mood and above all the feeling of belongingness. And although digitally, families must have certainly made the most of this beautiful festival, especially the kids and elders. I think it is time we all become sensitive around what we communicate and how we communicate in these testing times. A kind and considerate word is all we need.”
Speaking about the fate of businesses, he added, “The Government has actively tried to re-ignite the fire across sectors, regions and communities through the injection of funding and various schemes. However the Covid-19 impact through the lockdown restriction has not only impacted UK Plc. but global businesses. With uncertainty looming over a resurgence of a second wave, no one is able to correctly predict the future business environment. Fate of many businesses remains undecided, although it is definitely time to introspect and explore partnerships with innovation for long term sustainability and survival.”
In reference to the BAME population, he further said, “Amongst the many things the community has consistently done, it has supported the NHS by being the first and last line of defence through the huge number of nurses and doctors who have sacrificed, in many cases their lives in their dedication to their patients. Racist remarks and selective outrage will not only dampen the spirits of this motivated community but it will also affect the future generations, making them rethink about their options.”
A Muslim member of the BAME community who wants to remain anonymous, shared with us how the family celebrated Eid this year. “Eid was celebrated without friends and family sharing meals, laughing together, with kids playing, we did not visit others homes and it did have an impact on the whole celebration. But I think it was necessary to be cautious to protect the vulnerable. It is a known fact that Islamophobia exists in the UK and many other countries worldwide. Unfortunately our leaders are the ones who help propel such hate and discrimination and set the narrative for a story that is biased and twisted. In these trying times it is totally unacceptable and unfair to single out and taint a specific community, when it is clear that the problem is caused by a small percentage of all types of people. Hearing Islamophobic comments so close to Eid is very disheartening but sadly something that I have come to expect from our leaders. I wish this could be different and we could become a more open and tolerant society , but this also works both ways as we must also practice what we preach and embrace the change that we hope will be bestowed upon us.
“However I do agree with the government that some people, Asians included have not been following the guidelines and rules as they should. There is a need to take a closer look at the communities where there are second spikes and try to analyse why this is happening. Is there total disregard for rules by the community? Is it lack of education due to Covid-19 and hygiene? Is it because extended families all live under one roof increasing chances for exposure? Is it lower socioeconomic areas where locals have jobs where they interact more with the public and are more at risk? I’m not sure what the answer to these are. This does not mean that only Asians are causing increased spread , I think it’s a problem we have with people as a whole as they are fed up with being at home, and we must realise that it takes a huge psychological toll on all of us. The government has done well in helping the hospitality sector but still we are unsure what the future holds as a second or third wave can decimate many businesses in this area.”
Anindita Ghosh, Professor of Modern Indian History at the University of Manchester feels that, while poverty and poor health might have had a role to play, silence around other key issues such as structural racism in our society and our institutions, is problematic. She said, “The racialised narrative of blame is selective, tactical and has a long history to do with empire, and with both irrationality and disease being situated indelibly in colonial bodies, cultures and mindsets.”
Prof Ghosh also commented on Islamophobia and language related rumours, “So let us consider what the experts have said so far about the reasons for higher numbers of infections and deaths among South Asian communities. We are familiar with the usual reasons cited by now by experts – poverty, poor housing, health inequality, frontline jobs and multigenerational households. But while these might be the obvious and immediate reasons for the virus to spread, it points to deeper social inequalities that correspond with racial inequalities. It is worth asking the question why it is that BAME communities have suffered so. The virus in my opinion has signalled the time for social change, and exposed the systemic faults more starkly than we could have ever imagined. What it has also done is to solidify the typologies around migrants, races and ethnicities. The illiterate, non-English speaking (warning leaflets needed printing in multiple languages), unhygienic (‘they don’t wash their hands’ - on social media), irresponsible, milling populations who threaten the borders of the healthy bodies. It is interesting that faced with a smallpox epidemic the British colonial government in India had operated on the principle that a ‘cordon sanitaire’ (sanitary cordon) needed to be constructed around English and European populations living in the sub-continent, by introducing compulsory vaccination for the Indian populations. The underlying premise here was that all Indians were vectors or carriers of the disease with potential for infecting Europeans.”
Ghosh feels that there has been a remarkable lack of sympathy in the geography, manner and timing of the lockdown messages. “The most recent one a few hours before the Eid celebrations were due to begin, operative in predominantly Muslim areas and let us admit, not handled in the most sensitive manner (first released via a twitter message). The government’s fear was that the convivial occasion of Eid - when families and friends met for happy celebrations in situations where social distancing is vastly reduced - might lead to widespread infection. A more holistic approach in tackling the disease would ensure success. The virus does not discriminate, nor should the measures drawn up to tackle it,” she said.