Anjali Mukhi discusses the trend in scapegoating minority communities during the Covid-19 pandemic.
A noticeable trend that has been emerging during this pandemic is the quickness to scapegoat ethnic minority communities for what are arguably the failures of the government.
This tendency was perhaps foreshadowed at the start of the year, when East Asians in the UK voiced concern over the increase in stereotyping and overt discrimination they faced due to the public’s concerns about the novel coronavirus. Rather than trying to quell people’s fears or deal with the potential emerging threat, Conservative politicians, such as George Osborne and Bob Stewart, drew a link between Covid-19 and China. Instead of targeting Chinese people and East Asians, more questions should be asked of the government, who were arguably too slow to react. For example, Professor Neil Ferguson, a former government adviser, has suggested that had we gone into lockdown a week earlier, we could have halved the death toll.
Notably, Health Secretary Matt Hancock was also quick to warn that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, which sprung up following the tragic killing of George Floyd by US police, could spread Covid-19 further. By this point, we had already seen thousands flock to the beaches and celebrate VE Day with conga lines and street parties. However, rather than blaming individuals for protesting systematic anti-blackness, or even enjoying the sunny weather, again, questions should be asked of the government, who saw fit to announce the future easing of restrictions ahead of a sunny weekend, despite warnings from its scientific advisers that it was too soon. Similarly, the police’s use of kettling seemed to defy social distancing guidelines.
This pandemic itself has highlighted the extent of racial inequalities in the UK. By the end of May, 6 in 10 healthcare workers who died from Covid-19 were from a black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background. It is not fully clear why BAME communities are disproportionately at risk, and the government notably refrained from publishing Public Health England’s analysis of the contributions of racism and discrimination to the higher risk rates. Nevertheless, some BAME healthcare workers have spoken of ‘systemic discrimination’ and complained that they are more likely to be deployed to coronavirus wards than their white counterparts. With BAME staff more likely to be found at lower levels of the NHS, and therefore more at risk, surely now is the time to address longstanding racial inequalities and ensure more diversity at management levels of all organisations? In the same interview where Hancock denied that Britain was racist, he was also unable to name any Black Cabinet ministers. Perhaps a government that took black and ethnic minority representation seriously would also take BAME lives more seriously and seek to tackle the disproportionate risks they face.
Moreover, if MPs like Craig Whittaker are concerned that BAME communities are not taking this pandemic seriously enough – and he has failed to show any evidence of this - then it is up to the government to ensure vulnerable communities receive clear, tailored and properly translated communications. Instead, it has chosen to announce new restrictions in parts of northern England just a few of hours before its imposition – notably just before Eid.
Labour is not above reproach in this either. Despite criticising Whittaker, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham also managed to suggest that gatherings in Asian multi-generational households are partly to blame for the rise in transmission. It is not clear why living with your extended family is problematic, and rather than pointing the finger at BAME communities, politicians should be focusing on addressing issues of overcrowding and poor habitation.
Ultimately, many of the criticisms lobbed at BAME communities speak to institutional failures within the UK, such as poor housing conditions, systematic racism and discrimination and incompetent communications from the government. The pandemic has shone a light on a lot of inequalities in the UK, and instead of blaming minority communities, now should be the time to address these issues.
Anjali Mukhi is currently completing her masters in European Politics and Policy at UCL. She is Co-Chair of the Young Fabians BAME Advocacy Group.
She tweets at @Anjie591.