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Equality Groups Demand Structural Racism be Considered in COVID Inquiry

A coalition of experts and civil society groups have warned that unless structural racism is included in the COVID inquiry, we will lose the opportunity to learn lessons and save lives

A nurse takes a COVID-19 test. Photo: SeventyFour Images/Alamy

Equality Groups Demand Structural Racism be Considered in COVID Inquiry

A coalition of experts and civil society groups have warned that unless structural racism is included in the COVID inquiry, we will lose the opportunity to learn lessons and save lives

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Structural racism must be included in module one of the COVID Inquiry, bereaved families and civil society organisations have said, as concerns are raised that the disproportionate impact on black and ethnic minority people of the pandemic will fail to be explored.

A letter addressed to Lady Hallett, and signed by a range of racial equality and medical organisations, has asked that structural racism be investigated as a key issue in every module of the inquiry.

It states that experts in structural racism should be present as witnesses and asks that migrant rights groups and representatives from the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community are recognised as core participants.

The inquiry does include people with protected characteristics in its terms of reference, after a backlash from bereaved families and civil rights groups. However, some marginalised groups have not been recognised as core participants: groups representing migrant people, and those from the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community.

“The announcement that structural racism won’t be looked at during the module on ‘pandemic preparation’ is extremely worrying,” said Jean Adamson, spokesperson for the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Campaign.


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The signatories – including Doctors of the World UK, the NHS BME Network, the Joint Committee for the Welfare of Immigrants, and the Jewish Council for Racial Equality – also expressed concern that the listening exercise for the inquiry had been “outsourced to PR companies with close ties to Government as part of an entirely separate process to the Inquiry itself”. 

They ask that the inquiry rethink its listening exercise to “centre those most impacted in a supportive and accessible way, to enable full trust and participation in this process”. 

The letter was co-ordinated by the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice and the Runnymede Trust. 

“The role that structural racism played, and continues to play, in determining which communities were hit first and hardest by the pandemic is abundantly clear,” said Mandeer Kataria, interim senior policy manager at the Runnymede Trust.

At Risk

The Government recognised that being from a black or ethnic minority background was a risk factor to contracting COVID-19. In order to prepare for the next pandemic, it is therefore important to understand how and why some groups were disproportionately impacted, in order to save more lives.

The most recent Coronavirus mortality data lays bare the scale of how black and ethnic minority communities were disproportionately likely to die from the virus that killed tens of thousands in the first two years. 

The death rate for Bangladeshi men was 3.1 times greater than for white British men, while the death rate for men of Pakistani origin was 2.3 times higher than their white British peers. Black Caribbean men’s death rate was 1.8 times higher than white men. 

For women the disparity was similar. The rate for Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Black Caribbean women were 2.4 times, 2.1 times and 1.5 times higher than for white British women respectively. 

Death rates for women in the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community was 1.8 times higher than for white British women. 

The reasons for higher death rates in black and ethnic minority communities are complex and include higher rates of poverty, poor and overcrowded housing, and a greater number of underlying health conditions which are, in turn, linked to poverty. 

“The COVID-19 Inquiry needs to focus on why those at the intersection of certain vulnerabilities, including ethnicity, disability, immigration status and socio-economic position, were disproportionately impacted,” the letter states. 

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Black and ethnic minority people were also more likely to be working in low-paid key worker roles, such as in health and social care, and transport and food infrastructure, while white British people were more able to socially distance and work from home. 

The impact of the Government’s ‘hostile environment’ immigration policy also meant some migrant people faced multiple barriers to access healthcare during the worst days of the pandemic. Although the Government added COVID-19 testing and treatment to the list of NHS treatments exempt from the NHS migrant surcharge, a decade of hostility left migrant people – and particularly undocumented migrant people – wary of seeking medical care.  

The letter writers demand that the consultations for the inquiry therefore “must include undocumented migrants, who were deeply impacted by the pandemic. The UK Government’s Hostile Environment policies… worsened the effects of COVID-19 across all areas of life”.

“Any inquiry which seeks to learn lessons from how the pandemic was handled must thoroughly evaluate the role of structural racism to ensure we are able to mitigate against such a devastating outcome in the future,” added Kataria.

Since the pandemic began in 2020, 218,948 people have died where COVID-19 is recorded on the death certificate.

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