Covid-19 is still worsening health inequality. Why hasn’t anything been done? | Gurch Randhawa | Opinion | The Guardian
The first wave of Covid-19 threw the UK’s existing health inequalities into stark relief. Black people were most likely to be diagnosed with Covid-19, and people from a Bangladeshi background were twice as likely to die from the virus compared with white British people. The Public Health England (PHE) review has only confirmed what we all knew anecdotally: Covid-19 hit the black and minority ethnic (BAME) population very hard, both in the community and among healthcare staff.
Now infection rates are creeping up again, and weekly data shows ethnic minority communities are once again being disproportionately affected by the virus. And yet nothing appears to have been done to reinforce their protection: there is silence from the government as to how and when it will implement PHE’s review recommendations.
We need urgent action to tackle the structural inequalities affecting these communities. If we fail, we risk sleepwalking into a nightmare version of Groundhog Day, witnessing another significant and disproportionate rise of Covid-19 related deaths among ethnic minority communities.
Health inequality goes back a long way. We’ve known for a long time that some BAME doctors, nurses and healthcare assistants in the NHS receive poorer treatment than their colleagues. This is a well-documented phenomenon backed by decades of research. During the first wave, ethnic minority staff had worse access to PPE, more trying shift patterns and greater exposure to Covid-19 patients. The recent surveys of staff by the British Medical Association and Royal College of Nursing lend credence to the fact that BAME staff continue to suffer from a lack of PPE. Too little was done to combat this in the years before the virus struck, and now we’re seeing the consequences of this neglect.
It is not just failed policy initiatives we have an abundance of, it’s laws too. In theory the UK has some of the most progressive laws on equality in the world. We have the Equality Act 2010, the public sector equality duty and equality impact tools, but none were evident in the government’s Covid-19 action plan, published in March. Had they been applied, the government may well have taken a more sophisticated and tailored approach towards public health, rather than the “protect the NHS” position that was adopted.
The original government action plan didn’t appear to focus very much on preventing people getting the virus. The government response of “people will get ill, we need to protect NHS” translated into political messages of “take it on the chin”, and “we need herd immunity”. It was a medical approach, not a public health approach, and it ignored existing inequalities and specific community sensitivities. Inevitably those on lower incomes, in more crowded housing and with long-term health issues suffered the most. This explains the high and disproportionate death toll in many ethnic minority communities.