Are we really all equal in the eyes of COVID-19?

 Article published by CRER on 22nd April

As the impact of COVID-19 grows within the UK, there have been reports that it is the “great leveller”. However, with this statement comes the assumption that we are all equal when it comes to being affected by COVID-19, ignoring both the diversity of the UK and the inequality that has pervaded our society.

A statement like this ignores that the NHS has identified groups that are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. This includes people who have heart disease, diabetes, and sickle cell disease. As the recent articles by Runnymede and the Race Equality Foundation highlight, many of the conditions associated with being vulnerable to COVID-19 are prevalent in black and minority ethnic (BME) groups.

For instance, in a report from Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH), it was highlighted that Pakistani men and women had higher rates of heart disease than the white Scottish population. The Scottish Diabetes Survey (2018) found rates of diabetes to be higher in people from a South Asian background than white ethnic groups and in general it has been reported that South Asians have a high risk of developing diabetes. The NHS also reports a greater prevalence of sickle cell disease among people of African and Caribbean ethnicity.

A few weeks ago the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre (ICNARC) released a report which highlighted that hospital patients in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who were of Black, African and Caribbean ethnicity were more likely to be critically ill with COVID-19 than other ethnic groups.

It is impossible to tell at this moment if the BME health vulnerabilities have manifested in the COVID-19 statistics, and the review into BME coronavirus deaths that was recently announced by the UK Government is welcome. But it is unclear to what extent Scotland will be a participant in this review and this needs urgent clarification.

However, not only might there be heightened vulnerability when it comes to health during the crisis, calling COVID-19 the “great leveller” also masks that in the long term, the financial consequences of coronavirus pose a greater risk to BME groups.

The potential impact of structural racial inequality was laid bare in a recent article from Runnymede that argues BME groups will find it harder to cope both during this crisis and from the fallout.

The article highlights that black and minority ethnic (BME) groups form some of the poorest socio-economic groups in the UK. It notes that BME people are more likely to be in precarious employment or unemployed than white British people. BME people are also less likely to be homeowners than white British people, instead they are more likely to be residing in the Private Rented Sector (PRS).

Although the assertions from the Runnymede article are based on UK data, the same is true in Scotland. Using data from the 2011 census, SPICe reported that white Scottish school leavers were much more likely to be in work than other ethnic groups. There are also higher rates of economic inactivity for BME groups when compared with the white Scottish group. The Scottish Household Survey 2018 also noted BME people were more likely to be living in PRS properties than other tenures.

What all of this boils down to is that people from BME backgrounds will often have less economic resources with which to cope with the ramifications of COVID-19.

In a nation where panic buying food for weeks at a time has become commonplace, this means that those who do not have the income to be able to bulk buy for months on end can quickly find themselves going without essentials. Given BME people’s increased chances of being in precarious employment and living in more expensive private rented housing, there can be fewer options and resources for this group.

Subsequently, as highlighted in the Runnymede article, while few people will be unaffected by COVID-19, what is different is how people from a multitude of socio-economic backgrounds and of different ethnicities will be able to cope during and beyond this crisis.

While there have been rafts of financial support announced by the Chancellor in recent weeks, Social Security Scotland have highlighted that BME applicants for welfare have lower rates for success than white applicants. This suggests that BME people could have a harder time accessing support from the Government.

In this time of uncertainty, one thing is clear – BME groups require specific approaches that meet their specific needs, not blanket strategies that may not work for them. The new enquiry is a step in the right direction, however Governments of the UK need to act immediately and start taking the needs of different communities into account when formulating responses. It is only by doing this that we can start to deconstruct structural disadvantage and build a fairer society.

22nd April, Jennifer Galbraith, CRER