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The Covid Inquiry must find answers on racial disparities

While the focus is on WhatsApps and Tory infighting, we risk letting the government off the hook.

By Jabeer Butt

The Covid-19 Inquiry appears to have been consumed by the psychodrama that has gripped the Conservative Party. What information should be given to the inquiry appears to be a secondary issue, compared with personal grievances against former and current leaders. A recent report by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) served as a reminder of how the imposition of austerity undermined the health and care sectors even before Covid-19 hit, but it has barely secured attention compared with Boris Johnson’s WhatsApps. We might conclude that personalities rather than policies are more important to the UK’s experience of the worst pandemic in over a century.

But the Covid Inquiry needs to look deeper. One starting point would be a sober assessment of the reasons for the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. While political presentations of the Public Health England reports produced from mid-2020 onwards went out of their way to suggest that racism was not the key to understanding higher rates of infection and deaths, the reports themselves did show clear evidence of disproportionate impacts. There were changes over the different waves. People of black Caribbean and black African origin had the highest death rates in the first wave, while people of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin had higher death rates in subsequent waves. Importantly, people with a learning disabilities from these communities had higher rates throughout the pandemic. The pattern of disproportionate risk of infection and death was undeniable.

Some in government and their advisers appear to still be searching for a “biological” explanation, but the likely answer is the cumulative impact of austerity, as highlighted by the TUC, and the failure of the policies adopted in response to the pandemic. My organisation, the Race Equality Foundation, warned in 2011 that child poverty, unemployment and under-claiming would mean that benefit cuts would have a disproportionate impact on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. Worryingly, the evidence was already emerging that higher rates of employment among these groups were not accompanied by an improvement in income and wealth. Much of the increased participation rates in the labour market was in the poorest paid parts of the economy, such as front-line health and social care.

Evidence gathered over the following ten years showed that changes such as the imposition of the two-child limit for child benefit, the cap on housing benefit, and the roll-out of universal credit, as well as freezes or below-inflation rises in benefits more generally, also had a disproportionate impact. No one was surprised when in February 2020, on the eve of the first lockdown, The Marmot Review Ten Years On, by the Institute of Health Equity, concluded that “ethnic minority” communities had been at the sharp end of austerity.

At the start of the pandemic black, Asian and minority ethnic communities were already more likely to have less wealth to protect them in adversity, even before a series of pandemic policy decisions were made that took no account of the impact they would have on these communities. Working from home, a key measure to slow the spread of infections, meant some people improved their savings as they were no longer having to meet the cost of travelling to work. The closure of all but essential businesses allowed some households to boost their financial position by reducing their outgoings on social spending, entertainment and holidays abroad. But for many from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, working from home meant losing income because workers such as cleaners were no longer needed to clean workplaces. Spending on meals out and foreign travel took up a far lower proportion of total outgoings for low-income households than for better off, salaried, white-collar workers – a category in which ethnic minority communities are under-represented.

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For those employed in factories, again a greater source of employment for these communities, work could not be done from home. Most of these workers were reliant on measly rates of statutory sick pay if they were off due to ill health. Many at the time highlighted that this reliance on an effective loss of income for sickness was a disincentive to stay at home if showing symptoms, yet the government refused to act until it set up a local authority-based scheme that had little take-up. When a lockdown was imposed on Leicester, for example, due to increasing infection rates in the city, garment workers of Asian origin were pilloried for continuing to work and spreading the infection. It was of no surprise when one of our analyses published in 2021 showed that people of black, Asian and minority ethnic origin not only had lower savings as we emerged from the third lockdown, but were more likely to report that they were in arrears with a range of bills.

As the Covid Inquiry prepares to hear its first public submissions and testimonies, we cannot be distracted by the infighting in the Conservative Party. The TUC report highlights that we must instead focus on understanding the concrete issues that made some groups and communities more vulnerable to the pandemic than others. We must also focus on whether and how the policy response understood and acted to ensure the racial inequalities that were widened by austerity were not exacerbated by the measures imposed to “protect” us all.

[See also: Labour will inherit the chaos of the Covid inquiry]

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