On 16 June Public Health England published a report, Beyond the Data: Understanding the Impact of COVID-19 on BAME Groups (see here).
PHE have produced a striking summary of the multiple ways in which the Covid-19 crisis is far more of a crisis for black and brown people (and some other ethnic minorities such as Travellers) in the UK. The findings confirm that the Tories’ sacrifice of many thousands of lives to the interests of profit and their neo-liberal and nationalist ideology is not just an assault on the whole working class but specifically racist.
However, the recommendations are extremely limited compared to the reality it depicts and the conclusions it half-indicates.
Beyond the Data contains strings of data about the greater vulnerability of most ethnic minorities to transmission of Covid-19, becoming ill as a result of the virus, and death. One piece of research it reviewed found that that higher excess deaths due to Covid-19 were 1.5 times higher in Indian populations than in white British; 2.8 times higher in Pakistani; 3 times higher in Bangladeshi; 4.3 times higher in black African; 2.5 times higher in black Caribbean; and 7.3 times higher in other black populations.
Another found that all-cause mortality for the period of the pandemic was was twice as high as previously among white males, but three times as high among Asian males and four times among black males. The figures for women were lower but showed the same pattern.
Another piece found that accounting for various other factor factors, people of Bangladeshi ethnicity who became ill from the virus had around twice the risk of death when compared to people of white British ethnicity. People of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Other Asian, Caribbean and Other Black ethnicity had between 10 and 50% higher risk of death.
Another piece of research found that people of black ethnicity had 4.75 times higher odds of a positive Covid-19 test than those of white ethnicity. And so on. Some of the figures seem contradictory in part because different research took into account different additional factors. I couldn’t quite work it all out, but the overall picture is sadly clear.
Not all the factors beneath this are socio-economic. The report flags up biological differences between different ethnicities, but makes it clear this is a minor issue. There are important cultural and ideological issues involved, including the impact of racism and discrimination on people’s mental health and on their likelihood of accessing the services and support they need to stay safe(r).
People of Indian background are on average socio-economically better off than white British people. But there are other things at play: racism, but also the fact that 16pc of doctors are Indian and the greater likelihood of Indian over-65s living with young people or children.
For vast numbers of BME people, however, the impact of racism as such and of specific cultural and occupational factors are heavily intertwined with questions of deprivation and class-based inequalities.
The report reiterates that people in most BME groups on average live and work in worse conditions than British whites, leading to worse health in various ways; and that such disadvantage is associated with a greater likelihood of Covid-19 diagnosis, illness, complications and death. It is also associated with other health conditions which increase the risks and impact of Covid-19.
Other class-based factors the report emphasises include the concentration of BME people in jobs with a higher risk of exposure, and mostly not well-paid and secure ones like doctors; and the issue of poor housing, particularly overcrowding. 30% of Bangladeshi, 18% of Pakistani and 16% of black African households have more residents than rooms, compared to 2% of white British households. BME people have also suffered disproportionately from the destruction of local government and other public-sector services and infrastructure.
The authors of the PHE report hosted 17 consultation sessions involving over 4,000 people. They summarise the political thrust of the contributions as follows:
"Stakeholders felt that the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BAME groups presented an opportunity to create fast but sustainable change and mitigate further impact. Change needs to be large scale and transformative. Action is needed to change the structural and societal environments such as the homes, neighbourhoods, work places – not solely focusing on individuals. There is a legal duty and moral responsibility to reduce inequalities."
Large scale and transformative societal change is exactly what is needed. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, the report’s recommendations do not measure up. Several are to do with further data collection and research - fair enough, but very limited. They include almost no class-based measures, beyond the most vaguely-worded aspirations, and substantive changes that are included seem likely to be ineffective without them (eg how do you strengthen social provision targeted to BME people when council budgets are being further decimated?)
In the absence of clear transformative policies, both for immediate changes and for radically reshaping society, we are likely to see fast change in the wrong direction.
The report does not even advocate clear immediate changes like guaranteeing decent sick pay, abolishing the "No recourse to public funds" rule which bars many migrants from accessing services, reversing council cuts or building council housing – all of which would make a major difference here. The last three relate to problems it flags up, but without solutions; the crucial issue of sick pay is not even mentioned.
There is also a question of agency. Many of the problems the PHE report identifies highlight the need for a strong labour movement which can fight and win changes, from workplaces to communities to government. The report rightly highlights “tackling workplace bullying, racism and discrimination to create environments that allow workers to express and address concerns about risk”, but considers neither how this can be done nor how social changes can be won more widely.
The “stakeholders” PHE consulted included “faith groups” and “business leaders”, but not trade unions – the largest organisations of BME people in the country.
Whatever this says about Public Health England, it also reflects how by its passivity the labour movement has made itself marginal at a time when it desperately needs to become central. There has been almost no organised union presence on the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, even. The issue is not that a body like PHE is failing to advocate radical policies and aggressive struggle for them - it is that the labour movement is failing to do so.
Socialists and antiracist campaigners must incite the labour movement, unions and Labour Party, to take up this kind of research as an educational resource and banner, for discussion, agitation and campaigning around clear demands.