We don’t know what the true scale or impact of Covid-19 will be, but the numbers of people who are testing positive and dying are escalating. As of 6 April, of those who have tested positive for coronavirus, 5,373 people have died and a total of 51,608 people had tested positive for coronavirus.
Early data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on the breakdown of registered deaths “where coronavirus was mentioned” reveals more people over the age of 65 than under have died, more men have died than women, and the region of London has had more deaths in relation to coronavirus than any other region. But a glaring omission is coronavirus-related deaths by ethnicity.
This is worrying. In the US, places like Chicago and Michigan are already showing racial disparities, with disproportionate numbers of African American people representing coronavirus cases and Covid-19 related deaths (African Americans represent 14% of Michigan’s population but 40% of the deaths with positive Covid-19 results).
In the UK, the impacts of the pandemic on different ethnic groups is still unclear. But not collecting or analysing coronavirus cases and related deaths by ethnicity means that we may be overlooking racial disproportionalities. Very few people will be immune from the health or economic consequences of this pandemic, but existing structural inequalities means that some groups are more likely to bear the brunt of it.
Inequality is a risk factor here. Black and ethnic minority groups in the UK are among the poorest socio-economic groups, with high rates of child poverty, ill health, high numbers of people employed in precarious work, and a higher likelihood of living in overcrowded and multi-generational households.
Bangladeshis and Pakistanis have higher rates of heart disease compared to their white British counterparts; black African and African Caribbean people have higher rates of hypertension compared to other ethnic groups, and BME groups overall are six times more likely to develop diabetes compared to white British people. These structural health inequalities place BME groups at much higher risk of severe illness and mortality from Covid-19.
Ethnic minorities are also more likely to live in ‘overcrowded’ housing — where there are more people than bedrooms — with several generations living under one roof: for example, South Asian households are more likely to have over-65s living in the same house as under-16s. Almost a third (30%) of Bangladeshi households and 15% of black African households live in overcrowded housing, compared to 2% of white British households. These structural housing inequalities mean that some BME groups, including elderly BME people, are more vulnerable to infection from Covid-19.
“Structural health, housing and labour market inequalities place BME groups at much higher risk of severe illness and mortality from Covid-19.”
And labour market inequalities tell us that BME groups in Britain will be less likely to weather the economic fallout from the Covid-19 crisis. BME groups are, on average, twice as likely to be unemployed compared to their white British counterparts, and much more likely (particularly Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups) to be in low skilled, low paying and precarious work, including zero hour and agency contracts. BME women are particularly vulnerable in this regard.
The chancellor’s and prime minister’s social and economic measures, including the wage support scheme and access to Universal Credit, have so far been welcome, but it’s clear that the government must go further with its economic response to specifically protect low income groups. They need to support those in precarious work, people living in the private rented sector as well as those with insecure immigration status. All of these factors disproportionately affect black and ethnic minority groups in Britain.
Collating and monitoring cases of infection, hospital admissions and deaths by ethnicity during Covid-19 are essential during this crisis. Large inequalities in health, housing and the labour market mean that the British government must do more to protect BME communities, women and lower socio-economic groups from bearing the brunt of Covid-19.
Dr Zubaida Haque is deputy director of the Runnymede Trust.