• Thursday, August 11, 2022


‘Studying Covid’s ethnic impact can end inequality’

BAME students are less likely to secure the top degree grades and go on to postgraduate research. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images).

By: Radhakrishna N S


By Professor Bridget Byrne

ONE of the lessons of the pandemic is that ra­cial discrimination and racial inequality kill.

The evidence was al­ready there, but the im­pact of the virus and lockdown has brought the tragic impact of dis­crimination into sharp­er focus, and made it even more urgent to ad­dress the root causes.

We know that ethnic minority people have died at higher rates due to Covid-19. Chief med­ical officer Chris Whit­ty’s recent risk analysis tool highlighted ethnic­ity as a risk factor for severe Covid-19. But there is a danger that we recognise this fact, then fail to address the underlying causes and the wider impact of the pandemic on unequal life chances.

It’s not only death and illness due to Cov­id-19 that’s the problem. Ethnic minority people are more vulnerable to the lockdowns and eco­nomic shock caused by the pandemic. It’s im­portant we understand this vulnerability is due to the discrimination and disadvantage they experience in the UK, from housing to health­care, education to em­ployment and encoun­ters with the police.

An independent gov­ernment review in 2017 highlighted the contin­ued disadvantage faced by those from ethnic minority backgrounds in the labour market compared to white Brit­ish people, even accounting for the differences between groups.

This disadvantage has led many people to choose self-employ­ment and the (high) concentration of ethnic minority groups in cer­tain sectors such as hospitality, healthcare and transport. It has not only increased their ex­posure to Covid-19, but also resulted in increased financial hardship and higher rates of un­employment. For exam­ple, from July to Sep­tember 2020, the UK unemployment rate for people from a white ethic background was 4.5 per cent, compared to 8.5 per cent for eth­nic minorities.

Unsurprisingly, financial pressures and ill­ness have profound ef­fects on wellbeing and mental health. At the start of the first lock­down, around a third of those from Indian, black, African, Caribbean or black British back­grounds reported an in­creased or persistent loss of sleep over worry. This compared with less than a quarter of white British respondents.

Then there’s the im­pact of bereavement on families, particularly where they may have lost multiple loved ones or not had the opportu­nity to come together to mourn fully.

However, there have been two unexpected and potentially positive effects of the pandemic. The first is an unprece­dented recognition – by policymakers, politicians and the media – of the injustice caused by ine­quality and the ways in which Covid-19 has hit some groups dispropor­tionately. The second is a change in the public’s understanding of which jobs matter; and who is doing those jobs.

As the posters went up in support of NHS and other key workers, the knowledge that those doing the most crucial jobs in our soci­ety were often the most poorly paid and often from ethnic minority backgrounds has hope­fully hit home. We have a new respect and grati­tude for shopkeepers, nurses and taxi drivers who carried on working despite the risks.

However, if we are to ensure the post-pandemic recovery reflects the need to address ethnic inequalities, we must have a more in-depth understanding of the impact of Covid-19 and lockdown on minorities.

That’s why UK Re­search and Innovation’s funding for new studies into Covid and ethnic minority groups is par­ticularly welcome. The Centre on the Dynam­ics of Ethnicity (CoDE) is conducting the larg­est ever survey of ethnic and religious minority people’s experience of the pandemic and lock­downs so we can get a clear picture of which ethnic groups have been most severely af­fected, with particular attention paid to gender, age, religion and region.

While compliment­ing the 2021 Census, it will ask a much broader range of questions, ex­amining people’s expe­riences of racism, en­counters with the police as well as the impact of Covid on employment, finances and mental and physical health.

The Black Lives Mat­ter protests over the summer, alongside the recognition of the une­ven impact of the pan­demic, have given a new urgency to achieving a more just country. Cru­cially, we need to understand what the govern­ment, the NHS, employ­ers, schools, colleges and universities need to do to address discrimina­tion and inequality.

We’ve had a wake-up call on racial discrimi­nation and inequality – we need to fully under­stand how it works and who it affects in order to stop it.

Professor Bridget By­rne is director of the Centre on the Dynam­ics of Ethnicity (CoDE: www.ethnicity.ac.uk) and co-editor sociology at the University of Manchester: www.re­search.manchester.ac.uk/portal/bridget.by­rne.html

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