By Shailesh Solanki
THE disproportionate number of people from Asian and black communities who have died from coronavirus is a “tragic episode of systemic failure”, a senior NHS leader has said.
In an exclusive interview with Eastern Eye, Lord Victor Adebowale claimed racism “clearly played a role” in the rising death rates within ethnic minority groups. The peer added that the initial figures related to BAME patients affected by the virus were “alarming, but not surprising.”
People from Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities were about three and-a-half times more likely to die with coronavirus as their white peers in England and Wales. Those of Indian origin are two and-a-half times as likely, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said last week.
The government review led by Public Health England (PHE) into the high number of BAME deaths and chaired by Professor Kevin Fenton is due to release its findings at the end of May.
Lord Adebowale is the chairman of the NHS Confederation, a membership body which represents over 500 members across health and social care. He is also the former chief executive of social care enterprise Turning Point.
Reflecting on the BAME death rates and subsequent response, he said: “In a crisis, like this one, the true values and the true priorities of the country become apparent. And it strikes me that what we’re seeing is a really tragic episode of systemic failure.”
Asked if racism was a factor in the death rates, the peer admitted that “it clearly plays a role”.
“It cannot have escaped the attention of anyone … (that the) people who appear to be leading the response to Covid-19 are mainly white, and the people dying are mainly black,” he said.
Although stressing he was not criticising the ability of those who had been chosen to lead, he warned a lack of diversity in decision making could mean mistakes being made.
The failures, he said, related to factors which included severe health and socio-economic inequalities in BAME communities, as well as experience and outcomes relating to mental health, cancer, diabetes and poverty.
“In that context, (the impact of Covid-19 on BAME groups) is sadly not unexpected,” Lord Adebowale, who was one of the first group of people to be appointed as people’s peers in 2001, said.
Although he acknowledged that progress had been made, greater action still needed to be taken.
Last month, the British Medical Association (BMA) reported that BAME doctors are twice as likely not to complain about safety in the workplace as they have far greater fear of facing recriminations or reprisals. In response, Lord Adebowale said a listening culture needed to be created, in which ethnic minority NHS staff felt free to express their concerns.
“That’s part of the culture that we need to change,” he said. “The way to resolve that is to open up listening channels and co-design some of the solutions with the people who are likely to be most affected by it.”
He stressed this response should also apply to workers outside of the NHS, including employees in care homes.
Protective personal equipment (PPE) should also be designed with some medical staff’s religious needs in mind, Lord Adebowale suggested.
Last month, it was reported that a Sikh doctor was moved off the front line after he refused to shave his beard in order for the FFP3 mask to fit. “We should respect the needs of people who wear religious garbs,” he said.