An investigation by the government’s new adviser on Covid-19 and ethnicity, Dr Raghib Ali, has found that socioeconomic inequalities were a significant contributor to the higher risk of Covid-19 among BAME communities.
The expert, who is a Senior Clinical Research Associate at Cambridge University’s MRC Epidemiology Unit, said he did not find evidence for any genetic reason for people of colour to be more seriously afflicted by the virus. Neither did he find evidence that BAME patients were treated in a discriminatory fashion once they reached hospital.
However, he argues that the higher risk these groups face can be “readily explained” by socioeconomic and geographical factors such as working in fields that heightened exposure to the virus, living in densely populated areas, high-occupancy households, and having pre-existing health problems.
“Deprivation is a good marker of many of these factors,” he told a press briefing.
BAME workers make up 20% of staff in jobs with high-exposure to the virus despite accounting for just 11% of the workforce as a whole, he explained.
The government accepted all 13 of Dr Ali’s recommendations, which included recording ethnicity on death certificates, increasing public health communications among BAME communites, and better impact assessment of government policy taking into account racial disparities.
But Dr Ali stressed that more research was required to uncover all of the factors leading to health inequalities along racial lines during the pandemic, and many felt the investigation did not go far enough.
Dr Hajira Dambha-Miller, a Clinical Lecturer at the University of Southampton, said: “I don’t think the report goes far enough in exploring the wider social factors that may contribute to viral transmission and death.”
Professor Trish Greenhalgh, Professor of Primary Health Care at the University of Oxford, said the government must now consider how its Job Support Scheme will deepen the structural inequalities found in the report.
“Policies on quarantining will interfere with people’s ability work and hence to generate income for themselves and their dependents – and these policies, now that the furlough scheme has ended, will disproportionaately affect those in certain types of job,” she explained.
“Those in low-paid jobs, for example, also typically have lower job security, less flexibility in their roles, and less entitlement to sick pay and occupational health services.
“In other words, effectively reducing the inequalities of outcome in Black and South Asian groups will need a cross-government apprach (both nationally and locally) to address these upstream structural inequalities.”
Whether or not the government will take this advice remains to be seen, as the Equalities Minister, Kemi Badenoch, immediately courted controversy in recent statements to the House of Commons.
Two of her most headline-grabbing speeches included her assertion that unconcious bias training should be removed from the civil service, and her opposition to decolonising British history education, saying that it is illegal for teachers to instruct pupils on white privilege as if it is a fact.