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The Coronavirus Crisis: Is Racism in the Medical Profession Contributing to High BAME Staff Deaths from COVID-19?

Tasnim Nazeer speaks to NHS doctors and nurses from minority communities who have experienced discrimination in the workforce.

The Coronavirus Crisis
Is Racism in the Medical Profession Contributing to High BAME Staff Deaths from COVID-19?

Tasnim Nazeer speaks to NHS doctors and nurses from minority communities who have experienced discrimination in the workforce.

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The disproportionate number of black and ethnic minority health workers dying from COVID-19 could be linked to racism within the medical profession.

As Byline Times revealed last week, a shocking 97% of Britain’s medical staff who have died from COVID-19 are from BAME backgrounds, while 65% of nursing staff and 63% of healthcare assistants who have died also come from Britain’s diverse BAME communities.

However, an issue that has not yet been explored is the role discrimination within the profession may be playing in contributing to BAME staff being put at a greater risk from COVID-19.

Dr Asifa Khan (not her real name) has been working as a doctor in England for four years. She told Byline Times that she has faced racism during this time.

“I have experienced being discriminated against by senior colleagues who would smirk at me, talk about me behind my back and make me feel bad in the rare occasions that I had to take sick leave,” she said. “When the pandemic hit, I knew I would be the first to be called in, even though the work is not being shared out properly with my white counterpart colleagues. There are levels of discrimination against us in the NHS. To me, this has been an issue for a long time but has never been addressed properly. I know many other Muslim and Asian doctors like myself who have experienced the same. I cannot talk to senior colleagues because I don’t feel comfortable speaking to them.”

Dr Khan said that her hospital still does not have adequate supplies of PPE and that she now has the Coronavirus.

Muslim doctors were noted as being among the first to have died on the COVID-19 frontline. Dr Abdul Mabdud Choudhry, who died after contracting the Coronavirus, wrote a Facebook post detailing the lack of PPE just five days before his death.

“I have lost my friends to COVID-19 which has been heartbreaking,” Dr Zahid Chauhan OBE, a doctor from Oldham, told Byline Times. “I am currently working on the frontline working more or less 24 hours a day. I have had dreams of myself being on a ventilator and am preparing to write my will now because I do not know what will happen to me. The disproportionate deaths of BAME workers makes us even more anxious that we are still being placed on the frontline.”

Media reports have suggested some reasons to explain why a higher number of BAME COVID-19 deaths is occurring – including demography, co-morbidities and having higher risk occupations that expose them to the virus. However, Dr Majeed, a doctor working on the frontline in Scotland, told this newspaper that this is only part of the explanation. 

“I am the only doctor who would identify as being from a BAME background in the hospital that I work in,” he said. “In the past, I have worked at other hospitals and have seen discrepancies in the way that I am treated compared to my white colleagues and it really saddens me. This has been going on for some time but I choose to ignore it and focus on my work. I feel that currently the workload has not been shared properly amongst us and I am on the frontline most of the time.”

Dr Majeed added: “During my time doing my speciality training in the past I have experienced racism… and I feel that there is a level of discrimination that still exists today. This is definitely one of the reasons I feel that there is a higher number of BAME deaths of NHS workers as the past issue of racism has still not been looked into and we are still being made to be on the frontline whilst we are told that some of our white counterparts are either off-sick or in quarantine.”

A frontline nurse, who wished to remain anonymous, told Byline Times that she and her children caught the Coronavirus after she worked in a hospital where she did not have access to a face mask.

“I am fed up with the Government’s lack of action,” she said. “There are black and Asian minority NHS workers dying more than our fellow white NHS workers and, instead of considering the risks, we are still being made to come in, work long hours, have not got enough PPE or face the feeling of ‘not doing our part’. I want to help our British people and have a genuine desire to save lives. I don’t want to be praised for risking my life, I just want to be valued from within our workforce.”  

Dr Mohamed Jiva OBE, a GP who has worked in the NHS for more than 22 years, has decided to collaborate alongside eight other BAME doctors to create a new risk scoring assessment for BAME staff following the death of a colleague from COVID-19. His aim is to help protect BAME frontline staff and address the lack of guidance provided to them by the Government.

“The death of a local friend and colleague who was buried by a number of co-authors for this scoring system brought home the reality of how exposed and vulnerable the BAME community is,” Dr Jiva told Byline Times. “Guidance available from the Government was inadequate and did not recognise the true risk for BAME staff, with BMIs [body mass indexes] of more than 30 being referenced when risk for the BAME community starts with a BMI of 23.”

The Government has pledged to conduct an inquiry into BAME COVID-19 deaths, which has attracted controversy over its decision to appoint Trevor Phillips as a BAME advisor.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the Council Chair of the British Medical Association – the trade union for doctors in the UK – said it is vital that this review “records data on healthcare workers who are admitted to hospital, their occupational status, whether they worked in infectious areas, and also whether they had access to appropriate personal protective equipment”.

“While this investigation takes place, it is crucial that we put in place all measures right now to protect those BAME doctors who are at high risk of serious illness or death,” he added. “This must include occupational risk assessments, including whether they have other medical conditions, and redeploying those doctors at highest risk away from COVID-19 areas. Such doctors can still provide an essential role in the NHS in less infectious or non-patient-facing areas, including remote working with telephone and video consultations.”

A spokesman for the General Medical Council said it hopes that the review will provide “critical insight and learning on the seriousness of health inequalities for the health sector and the medical profession”.

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