As Public Health England research confirms that Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people are being disproportionately killed by Covid-19, campaigners continue to demand greater protection for pregnant mothers from these communities.
Recent data shows that 55% of pregnant women in the UK admitted to hospital between 1 March to 14 April with coronavirus were from BAME backgrounds.
As it stands, government guidance categorises all pregnant women as “vulnerable” to Covid-19. In light of this research, campaigners are calling for BAME expectant mothers to be classed as “clinically extremely vulnerable”, which would effectively force employers to better safeguard them.
Dr Edward Morris, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), said: “We already know women from certain ethnic groups may be more likely to have pre-existing health conditions and complications, and socioeconomic inequalities impact on the accessibility of health services, and lead to poorer outcomes.
“We need to better understand these complex factors and how to make services fully accessible and inclusive so that no woman is left behind.”
Pregnant Then Screwed, an organisation that advocates for working mothers’ rights, has launched a petition calling for BAME pregnant women to be shielded. It has so far garnered more than 3,000 signatures.
But additional numbers paint a bleak picture: some 25% of pregnant NHS workers are risking their lives by working in direct contact with patients who could have Covid-19, while 24% of pregnant NHS workers feel “unsafe”, a survey by the organisation found.
This figure is significantly higher for BAME pregnant NHS workers, with 31% feeling unsafe.
Some 8% of pregnant women in general are working in environments they consider unsafe; that figure increased to 12% for BME pregnant workers.
A further 8% have been suspended from work on the wrong terms, a potential breach of their employment rights.
One pregnant woman – who asked not to be named – echoed this while describing her own harrowing experience.
The mother from the north of England, who is of dual ethnicity with a Black father and white mother, works in healthcare where she says non-white pregnant employees’ lives are being endangered.
For weeks, the mother was pressured by her employer to work in an unsafe environment and she was forced to repeatedly explain why she was unable to take this risk – all while managing her pregnancy, juggling home life and coping with the overall fear of manoeuvring through a global pandemic.
Under section 16 of the Management of Health and Safety Regulations 1996, employers have a legal responsibility to conduct a workplace risk assessment for new or expectant mothers. This was not carried out in the first instance, she says.
This legislation also states that you must consider the impact of infectious diseases, and take steps to minimise these risks where possible, including altering working conditions and hours if necessary.
Instead of adhering to this, however, this mother’s employer advised that she take unpaid leave if she stays at home due to the heightened risk that comes with working on the frontline during the lockdown – before relenting and offering her a pay cut.
“On one occasion, I just burst into tears,” she told HuffPost UK. “I wasn’t able to sleep as I couldn’t stop worrying and obviously felt a lot anger too. While I’ve been at work, I wondered how they could be such hypocrites as a healthcare company.”
Workplace discrimination continues to plague society – and is placing the lives of BAME women in jeopardy during the Covid-19 pandemic.
This mother describes a real fear of speaking out for fear of being sacked.
“It’s harder for Black, Asian and minority ethnic women to ask for the protection that they need from employers,” she sighed.
“When you work for these big companies, it’s quite difficult to be confident in the information that you’ve got. You worry about suffering a fall out from it.”
She added: “Most people who work in frontline healthcare are not massively well off even though it’s a regular income. Some people don’t want to risk jeopardising that in case it goes wrong.
“I think of myself as very resilient but this has been very difficult. I’ve been gaslighted – and going back and forth over my rights has added to a lot of stress at this time.”
“Some of my colleagues, pregnant women who are from BAME communities, are working at companies who are putting them in difficult positions. I’ve written to my MP about this and didn’t receive any help,” the aforementioned pregnant woman reflected.
“I decided to speak out to raise awareness and help bring about change.”
There are five known cases of pregnant women who have died from Covid-19 in the UK. We know the identity of three of those women – Mary Agyeiwaa Agyapong, Fozia Hanif and Salina Shaw – all from BAME communities.
One paramedic told Pregnant Then Screwed: “My mental health has been severely affected by the continuous arguments with management not protecting me because I am not vulnerable under 28 weeks pregnant.
“I am constantly at less than two metres from frontline colleagues, we share the same rooms, kitchen and toilet facilities. I have been threatened with forced sick pay, unpaid leave, have been refused furlough.
“I have been refused because there are no laptops left. I have also been threatened with a disciplinary. I have zero support.”
Black, Asian and minority ethnic pregnant women get a raw deal in the workplace. It's hard for them to point out discrimination for fear of losing their jobs.
Joeli Brearley, CEO of Pregnant Then Screwed, told HuffPost UK: “Not only are we seeing that BAME people are more likely to die and get critically ill but we are also more likely to be working in dangerous situations.
“There’s very clearly here a link between how BAME women are being told that they must perhaps work in these situations and then we’re seeing more deaths. It’s too dangerous for this to continue without there being clear guidance from the guidance and shielding for BAME pregnant women.
“All pregnant women are classed as clinically vulnerable and, again, there is still a lack of clarity from the government about exactly what that means in terms of employment.”
Campaigners have criticised the newly published PHE review into the impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities for failing to offer solutions to this ongoing problem and only confirming what was already widely known.
On Tuesday, it also emerged that key recommendations which could ultimately save lives were removed from an earlier draft.
An initial version included responses from the 1,000-plus organisations and individuals who supplied evidence to the review and many of these suggested that discrimination and poorer life chances were playing a part in the increased risk of Covid-19 to those with BAME backgrounds, the HSJ revealed.