Health and Healthcare Systems

Why are Black people in the UK more at risk from COVID-19?

A demonstrator wearing a face mask marches during a Black Lives Matter protest in London, Britain, July 12, 2020

People of colour make up one-third of all COVID-19 hospital admissions in the UK Image: REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Bayo Adelaja
CEO, Do it Now Now
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Systemic Racism

  • COVID-19 is exploiting and exacerbating existing systemic biases against Black people in the UK.
  • Given this context, addressing these issues has never been more urgent.
  • Here are two possible places to start making changes.

The Black community globally is not without its issues. I recently saw a photograph of the rapper André 3000 wearing a jumpsuit that sported a slogan: “Across cultures, darker people suffer most. Why?”

It ignited a thought-spiral that began with this statement and follow-up question: “The Black population is systematically oppressed by social policy decisions that negatively and disproportionately affect our wellbeing and financial stability. What is the potential long-term effect of this reality if it continues to go unchecked?”

In this post, I’m exploring that question in light of the expected outcomes of the coronavirus in the UK.

Have you read?

For context, I’d like to introduce you to the reality of Blackness in the UK, according to the most recent reports from the UK's Office of National Statistics (ONS):

● Black people are the least likely racial group to have a combined household income of over £4,000.

● The households most likely to have a weekly income of less than £400 are from Black ethnic groups.

● 19.6% of the Black population lives in the most deprived parts of the country, the highest of any racial group to be concentrated in deprived areas.

● 14.7% of Black people also live in the most employment-deprived areas of the country, again the highest of any racial group.

● 14.7% of Black people also live in the most employment-deprived areas of the country, again the highest of any racial group.

Also according to the ONS, 45% of the Black African population in the UK is living in poverty and 53% is on some form of government support. For comparison, 56% of the white population is in receipt of government support while 20% are living in poverty, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. In that final comparison, the disparity may be accounted for by “no recourse to public funds” cases; many Black African immigrants are living below the poverty line but are unable to claim any government support due to their immigration status.

Finally, according to the British Heart Foundation, Black people are more likely to be living with co-morbidities that can exacerbate the symptoms of COVID-19, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

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At time of writing, data has not been released about the specific racial breakdown of the disproportionate number people of colour who have died from COVID-19. However, according to the BBC, despite making up only 14% of the British population, people of colour represent one-third of all COVID-19 patients admitted to hospital.

With that information as a backdrop to the current global pandemic, a severe impact on the Black community is to be expected. We are at risk and we are dying – yet we continue to be ineffectively supported. Unconscious bias is rife within the system that we have to rely on to save our lives. The people in the Black community in the UK have been repeatedly gaslighted by a health system that, in aggregate, won’t believe our pain is real. We are reliant on a system in which even our service is unwelcome.

We don’t yet know what the overall figures look like, and we won’t be able to tell for a few years the extent of the long-term effect on our personhood as individuals or as a society. These are very tough times for everyone across all races and spheres of life. But despite the difficulties, it is time to press into change and innovation, to address challenges in real-time and curb disturbing trends before they can be described as wilful negligence.

Here are two possibilities:

1. Address unconscious bias within the UK’s healthcare industry. A short-term solution could make an incredible amount of difference in the immediate circumstances. I’m not suggesting the NHS shuts down for a 24 hour period to re-train its staff, as Starbucks did when a member of their US staff was caught on video displaying extreme bias against a couple of Black patrons. I am, however, suggesting that something can be done to help both medical and non-medical staff address and avoid occurrences of unconscious bias against people of colour, as described in this article in The Independent.

2. Increase the level of financial support for unemployed and self-employed people, to bring it into line with full-time minimum wage across the country. Black people are typically financially unstable with a high rate of unemployment. The recession brought on by the pandemic has led to hiring freezes and lay-offs across the country. Without the expectation of a somewhat immediate return to normalcy, even a short-term boost similar to that being provided for furloughed and self-employed workers could be an effective way to support groups, like the Black population, who are more at risk of financial ruin.

With all of that said, I recognise the privilege I have in writing this post, speaking into the void without any responsibility or ability to affect change in these circumstances. I wholeheartedly applaud everyone working day in and day out to provide solutions to the problems they perceive and prioritise.

It is my hope that as more people use their platforms to voice their concerns about the trajectory of these goings-on, we may collectively affect the direction of the discussions in the rooms where power is wielded.

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