In an honest debate over Covid-19 and culture, bad ideas need to be discredited, not humoured

Discussion of coronavirus and minority groups is not an excuse to repeat demonstrably false claims.

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Are some of the barriers to vaccine hesitancy and observation of social distancing issues “cultural” as opposed to simply socio-economic? That’s the argument Dan Hodges makes in his Mail on Sunday column this week, which calls for an “honest debate” on the issue.

I think some of the barriers are undoubtedly cultural rather than about socio-economics, and it’s important to be able to discuss these honestly and openly. But part of an honest debate has to be the rejection of ideas and arguments that are found to be wrong.

Let’s take the case of Craig Whittaker, which Hodges raises in his piece: the Calder Valley MP suggested that the reason for high rates of coronavirus cases was that ethnic minority Britons, particularly British Muslims, were “not taking this seriously enough”.

This is a remarkable but crucially testable claim, which was not on the face of it true: there was no correlation between having a population with a high number of British Muslims and a higher number of coronavirus cases at the time that Whittaker made his remarks, and there is still no correlation now. What united areas with high rates were a variety of socio-economic factors: the number of key workers and those otherwise exposed to the coronavirus (like people who work in shops, as workers on public transport, or for the NHS).

Casting further doubt on the thesis that a “cultural” issue was at work is the plain fact that coronavirus lockdowns and social distancing were enthusiastically adopted in Muslim-majority countries and by Muslims worldwide, as the beautiful but rather sad pictures of Muslims observing the Haaj and Umrah pilgrimages demonstrated.

So we have what is very clearly an absurd claim: that while the average Muslim anywhere in the world is observing lockdown and following social distancing, while the average British person is observing lockdown and following social distancing, some strange alchemy takes place when a person is both Muslim and British which causes them not to do so.

If you want to have an honest debate, it’s important that ideas that are clearly shown to be false and wrongheaded are abandoned, not defended. If you advance ideas about a minority community that are shown to be wrong and continue to advocate for them, it is hard to see how you are not exhibiting racist behaviour and parroting racist tropes.

It’s important, too, to be honest about the debate we are and aren’t having. Hodges describes “an inability of non-English speakers to understand Covid safety and health advice” as a coronavirus problem that does not “align comfortably with progressive sentiment”.

I think it’s important to be honest here: there is a really simple gauge of which “side” in British politics is comfortable with having people resident in Britain who lack proper English, and it is funding for English language lessons. Under the last Labour government, funding for these classes rose every year from 2001 to 2009, when it stood at a little shy of £300m. After a decade of Conservative government, funding for English language lessons stands at a little more than £90m. If progressives are the ones who are uncomfortable with the idea that ethnic minorities should learn language, why has a Conservative government cut it to the bone?

It is true to say, as I have written before, that there are distinct religious issues driving vaccine hesitancy among some British ethnic minorities, and indeed it’s worth noting that the government has deployed religious leaders in an intelligent manner to combat this. It’s also worth noting that actually vaccine hesitancy among ethnic minorities in the UK continues to fall as more people have the vaccine. The useful honest debate would be whether the British government should end or at least pause its frozen relations with the Muslim Council of Britain in order to further tackle this issue.

One group that can be fairly said not to be observing social distancing and lockdown are the strictly Orthodox Jewish communities around Stamford Hill in north-east London. But it is hard to square this with Hodges’s argument that there is a “conspiracy of silence” on the issue, not least because the main organisation making the running in covering this story is the Jewish News.

This may well be a cultural, not a socio-economic issue, because it mirrors similar political debates involving the strictly Orthodox in the state of Israel, though of course there are some shared socio-economic factors that may also be at work, too. It deserves further study and is an important issue: but it is one that is obscured rather than illuminated by talking about the merits or otherwise of false claims about British Muslims.

But to the extent that there is a conspiracy of silence, it is over the consequences of decisions made by government. It is not helpful to an honest debate to continue to defend discredited and racist claims.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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