The recent report published by Public Health England confirmed what I feared but suspected – that coronavirus is disproportionality affecting our black and ethnic minority population. The statistic that jumped out at me was the Bangladeshi community having twice the risk of Covid-19 death than those who are white British. This news report was of course sat between stories about the tragic death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. It seemed that the news was telling me that whatever my community, or other minority communities, achieved we would still be defined by the colour of our skin.
As a proud British Bangladeshi and deputy mayor in Tower Hamlets – home to Banglatown and Brick Lane, and a borough where Bangladeshi is the largest ethnic group – knowing that we might be more susceptible simply because of the colour of our skin makes me anxious for my family, friends and residents. It also makes me really angry because the government is dragging its heels. The PHE report was toothless and didn’t contain anything in the way of solutions. Like the Black Lives Matter protesters, I feel a sense of fury at the injustice caused by our society still discriminating due to people’s backgrounds. I do not feel that the government is making tackling this a priority, and it is letting down our BAME communities.
Of course, we know more than most in the East End that health inequalities are not new. Studies have shown that as you travel along the tube lines in London, life expectancy varies widely. We are a city of great wealth and great poverty. The underlying causes are complex, ranging from overcrowding and poor quality housing to food poverty and diet.
As the killing of George Floyd told us what we already knew about police brutality in the US, coronavirus has highlighted the same about health outcomes in the UK. The two stories seem to have crystallised the unfairness of what’s been going on for some time, but has previously been accepted. They have opened up wounds of racism and inequalities in communities across the world. I can only hope that they will be catalysts for bigger changes towards creating a much fairer society for my children to grow up in.
Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth hit the nail on the head when he said that “coronavirus thrives on inequalities”. A decade of austerity has meant that progress on health inequalities nationally was going backwards, and our public services have been cut to the bone. Locally, we made the argument against austerity and I believe we had our political priorities right. We had maintained a local ‘safety net’ and stood firm to protect this despite budget pressures, so that we had a council tax reduction scheme, crisis loans and a Tackling Poverty Fund in place before Covid-19 hit.
I am also proud that as a local authority we have been at the forefront of the response to the pandemic. From making sure public health messages get out to all our diverse communities by translating them, to providing emergency food and getting rough sleepers off the streets, we have been on the sides of our residents. Our elected Mayor John Biggs gets how personal this is, not just for me but for the residents of Tower Hamlets. He wrote to the Prime Minister demanding action. This week we met with Queen Mary University, which has been looking at the latest statistics on the impact of the virus locally and seeing what we can learn from these, and what other actions we can take as a council.
Equality is a continuous fight for us all. It should not be for your skin colour, background or where you live to determine your life chances, how are treated, or whether you are more likely to be stopped and searched or to die if you catch coronavirus. We have to act, we have to change, we have to do better. People in positions of change need to raise their voices and demand better. The government should not be dragging its heels on taking action. When people are losing loved ones, they cannot wait for more reports without recommendations.