So here we find ourselves smack-bang in the middle of a global pandemic. Some may describe this time as a bad dream, I personally feel like I’m trapped in a sci-fi thriller film, as it feels like whilst we were aware of past pandemics, this one has all the factors of a bad dream or a good sci-fi thriller. For the most part I have been successful with tuning out most of the media white noise surrounding the pandemic as it’s become too much of an information overload for me and I’ve found myself growing increasingly cynical about most things I see and hear. Whilst I knew I felt uneasy about several things I had seen and heard, I could not quite pinpoint why! Not wanting to be a negative Nancy as the world was descending further into this nightmare, I’m careful who I share my cynicism with as it seemed most people had in fact bought the positivity propaganda and were regurgitating the same hashtags : “Stay Home”, “Stay Safe”, “ProtectTheNHS”, “Save Lives”.
No doubt through these uncertain times positivity is needed to keep spirits high and allow society to function without going into complete despair. Nevertheless, we have to be mindful and cautious that in keeping positive we are not ignoring the realities and failing to recognise the deeply entrenched socio-political issues. I speak specifically around the positivity propaganda that has been utilised by the government to police society and encourage us to police one another. Social media has been rife with many people shaming people who do not follow government guidelines or people who express their negative feelings. For many the government guidelines and the policing of one another has a simple positive intention of protecting as many people as possible from the virus, including key workers and frontline NHS staff whose lives are at risk whilst working. Yet, the disregard of people’s negative feelings or failure to empathise with those who are struggling with self-isolation and following government guidelines raises the age-old question: whose lives matter in our society?
It has been brought to national and international attention that those categorised at “BAME” or “BME” have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Robert Jenrick, Communities Secretary, during a coronavirus daily update confirms this disproportionate impact on BAME groups. The evening standard reports as of Friday 17th April 4,873 patients with Covid-19 in critical care, 1,681 were from the BAME community, making up 34.5 % of per cent of cases, despite only making up about 13% of the population according to the 2011 census. Following public pressure put on minister’s, the government is set to launch a review into the reasons for this. Most people of colour do not need a review to ascertain the reasons Black and Brown communities are victims to this virus. The health status of these groups has always been adversely impacted by the health inequalities prevalent within our entire health system for many years. This is not NHS bashing, but the truth revealed by numerous evidence that suggests Black and Brown bodies and minds are often less valued and not worthy of saving. For instance, prior to the pandemic the mental health support available to BAME communities were inadequate, which saw many Black people come in contact with the mental health system through initial contact with the criminal justice system. The use of excessive force on Black and Brown bodies has resulted in more deaths in police custody. The death of Christopher Alder, 1998, the death of Olaseni Lewis in 2010, Sean Rigg in 2008, Thomas Orchard in 2012 and more recently Kevin Clarke in 2018 all came as a result of excessive police force whilst going through a mental health crisis. These cases form a pattern in which almost three quartersof those who died during or following contact with the police were reported to have mental health concerns
This pandemic has witnessed many come together to recognise the importance of our NHS, NHS staff, porters, kitchen staff, our ‘key workers’ such as carers, customer service agents, waste management workers, etc. – previously referred to as “low skilled” workers. It has been identified that often individuals from BAME communities account for many of these key workers, with 42.4% of junior doctors and 44.3% of NHS staff, from BAME backgrounds. Additionally, people from Black and Brown communities are largely over represented in four of the eight areas highlighted as essential during the pandemic – health and social care, education and childcare, food and other vital goods and transportation. The You Clap for Me Now poem performed by NHS workers highlights a pattern of racism and xenophobia experienced by non-white or non-British NHS workers. This pattern is often similar for Black and Brown key workers in our wider society.
Migrant communities, especially undocumented people and those seeking refuge and asylum, are some of the most vulnerable groups during this pandemic. Physically, they are more prone to getting the virus due to the areas the built up and largely populated areas they work and live in. However, they are less likely to receive adequate support to sustain self-isolation and follow lockdown guidelines as they have no recourse to public funds and often rely on community support to survive. Although some MPs have written to the health secretary to highlight how undocumented migrants are dying from covid-19 and the various ways in which migrant communities are being disadvantaged by the hostile environment during this current pandemic, the home office have chosen take a hard line on maintaining this hostile environment during this time by reiterating low-skilled workers are not wanted beyond the pandemic. The juxtaposition between clapping for key workers, but sending some of them ‘back’ once they have done saving our lives is unsettling and presents the reality that Black and Brown bodies are disposable like bombs over Baghdad.
History has shown us during a national crisis, society often comes together, in this case metaphorically, to overcome the challenges faced. After WW2, Black and Brown communities, who had witnessed decades of racism and socioeconomic hostility, were employed to not only fight but to rebuild many western countries, including the UK, – infamous is the case of the Windrush generation. However, following this collective effort to rebuild societies, Black and Brown communities were again relegated to adverse socioeconomic positions, subject to racisms in education, policing, housing, health and many other areas of society.
But what about once the peak of the pandemic panic is over? Will we return back to business as usual – maintaining and promoting the hostile environment with xenophobia towards migrant communities and racism towards Black and Brown people? Over the past two months we have undergone many changes in how our social lives function in order to reduce the spread of the coronavirus in an aim to curtail the pressure it puts on the NHS and the economy at large. The pandemic, and many of the changes brought in to respond to it, should cause us to employ a little cynicism to question: what is important on the government’s agenda during this time? What social issues were previously ignored that have led to this pandemic disproportionately impacting migrant and Black and Brown communities? How do we ensure we do not return to the way things were before? We ask that reflection on racism and xenophobia and solutions to address it remain a constant with this pandemic, like many national crisis conversations, have brought to the forefront the socio-political issues that existed previously. To clap along with the positivity propaganda without further dialogue on how we dismantle structures that undervalue the lives of these key workers, and Black and Brown people at large, would do a disservice to our history, again!
Article by Sharon Anyiam @Shaanyiam