By Barnie Choudhury
IF CORONAVIRUS has shown us one thing, it is that Asian and black people are dying disproportionately from the disease.
This pandemic neither knows nor cares for race, social class or gender. It destroys lives, wreaking physical and emotional havoc in its wake.
This week, Ankur Khajuria, an NHS surgeon and lead researcher for the Royal College of Surgeons revealed further evidence of Covid-19’s destruction. In the Guardian, Khajuria revealed that in his study of almost 900 UK health workers, more than 60 per cent felt ‘down, depressed or hopeless’, nearly 80 per cent had ‘sleeping difficulties’ and 60 per cent felt ‘lonely’ during the pandemic.
It echoed what Poppy Jaman, CEO of City Mental Health Alliance, warned in last week’s Eastern Eye virtual roundtable – we will have a new pandemic six months down the line, but this time it will be a mental health contagion.
So, it is with great sadness that I tell you about something which is very personal to me. After 25 years of championing mental health advice, assisting and campaigning for the Cinderella of Cinderella services, Awaaz, the charity I have been honoured to chair for a decade, is closing its doors. During that time, we believe we have helped almost 3,000 people, including police officers, medics and other professionals.
The reason for our decision? Since I became chair in 2010, clinical commissioning groups, local authorities and government have systematically made it more difficult for small organisations, like ours, to survive.
You see, the money is being siphoned to bigger organisations who say they provide culturally appropriate, culturally sensitive and culturally competent services to black, Asian and minority ethnic users. The truth is they hire one, maybe two, BAME staff, and when they realise they cannot deliver, they turn to organisations like Awaaz. And the authorities are complicit in this conspiracy. They turn a blind eye to those who are, at best, misleading them and, at worst, deliberately lying, to the detriment of the people who are literally dying in need of help.
Post-Covid, the situation we are in will only get worse. We saw that in the testimony of Eastern Eye’s recent exclusive story on forced marriage during Covid. A woman went to a mainstream organisation who simply could not help. So she turned to ours, and our team helped, as we always have done, magnificently, countless times over the years. Would a so-called ‘mainstream’ organisation have joined the dots and realised that forced marriage causes serious mental health problems?
If Covid has shown us one thing, it is that these mainstream, white-led organisations rarely understand the needs of ethnic minorities. The British Medical Association has evidence that black and Asian workers are too scared to ‘make a fuss’ in case they are labelled as troublemakers and lose their job or any hope of promotion. This is no excuse, but the NHS is simply battling too many fronts, and seemingly it cannot afford the time to dig into data and ask obvious questions about health inequalities.
Here is why proper and relevant data is important. In 2004, the report into the death of David ‘Rocky’ Bennett once again raised the pernicious issue of racial inequality in the mental health system. On the night he died, Rocky had been racially abused by a fellow patient at the Norvic Clinic in Norwich. He was sent to another ward, while nothing happened to his abuser. Rocky attacked and seriously injured a nurse, and was restrained. Four or five staff put him face down and sat on his torso and legs for 25 minutes. I will never forget the words of his sister, Dr Joanna Bennett, who told me her brother was treated as a “lesser being” that night.
I recount this because of what followed. The then health secretary, John Reid, ordered that from 2005, as part of a five-year plan to address racial inequality in mental health services, there would be an annual census of all people receiving inpatient psychiatric care. We learnt that some black men were 18 times more likely to be inpatients than white people. With these figures, like stop and search, governments had to listen and, more, investigate the root causes.
If coronavirus has shown us one thing, it is that scientific data trumps all. Today we do not know the extent to which mental health inequalities exist with such certainty. So, we need every government to resume this yearly mental health census, to record properly and investigate diligently along ethnic lines. We need to investigate why this is happening, how we can prevent it and what communities can do for themselves.
Otherwise more black and Asian people will die. This pandemic has shown us that much, at least, will happen.