Dr Alfa Saadu, Dr Habib Zaidi, Dr Adil El Tayar and Dr Amged El-Hawrani. These are the first NHS doctors to die from Covid-19 — we can but hope they will be the last. Like most NHS staff, the four doctors selflessly put themselves at risk to save the sick. Unfortunately, they have paid with their lives.
All four were of a minority race. There’s been some media coverage of their deaths, which is only right, but there is little mention of their migrant backgrounds. I don’t have a problem with that: people’s backgrounds, race or colour shouldn’t factor into the coverage. All people are equal. What troubles me, though, is that ethnicity and immigration status always take centre stage when a migrant commits a crime or does something wrong. ‘Man is hacked to death by his Syrian migrant ex-flatmate’, or ‘Afghan migrant stabbed ex-girlfriend to death’ — such headlines are common. This is often the same case as well with Muslims, and the four medics who died were Muslim, yet there has been little mention of that either.
I came to the UK in 2005 from Malawi, with huge respect for this country, and I studied law in Newcastle. Unfortunately, after my family became involved in a prolonged battle with the Home Office over settlement matters, all my respect dissipated. We moved from Sunderland to Bolton and eventually Glasgow, where we got a bit of relief, at least for now.
My family’s extremely painful experience opened to me a whole world of the unappreciated, oppressed and marginalised migrant people in the UK. It was a world I never knew at all for all the ten years I lived here — until our ordeal. It is a world of poverty, anguish and uncertainty, unknown to most people. I must hasten to add that the horrible treatment we have had at the hands of the state is hugely contrasted with the sweetest fellowship we have enjoyed with individual British people.
More generally, my experience has taught me that we’re never allowed to see migrants as heroes, only as villains. We choose too often to pander to divisive voices, feed the stereotype of the violent migrant and ignore the benefits that migrants bring to this nation. The deaths of the four doctors have been a lost opportunity to make a positive case for immigration. And although the research shows that migrants give more to the NHS than they take from it, most people in this country believe the myth that ‘migrants heap pressure on the NHS’.
As Covid-19 peaks, tens of thousands of migrants are putting their lives in harm’s way by serving in the NHS and in the social care sector. The UK would not have been such a great nation without the migrant communities that contribute so much, as we saw with Windrush Generation migrants who were shipped into Britain to rebuild the country after the war but unjustly treated later.
“We’re never allowed to see migrants as heroes, only as villains.”
While this could be a time of sober reflection on issues that really matter, worryingly Home Secretary Priti Patel and her department are not doing this. It’s very disheartening that even during this pandemic, migrants can be denied accommodation, charged extortionate amounts for healthcare and reported to the Home Office simply for trying to access what they need to keep themselves and those around them safe.
While Priti Patel urges only the ‘bright and the best’ migrants to the UK, we have seen those who were labelled ‘low-skilled’ suddenly transform into ‘key workers’ who are critical for our economy and safety. Many of these are undocumented migrants, care workers, nurses and cleaners who are treated poorly, yet they still want to serve selflessly in very dangerous environments.
As Covid-19 is devastating our nation, the Home Office could have made a positive and logical move by easing its oppressive rules against the migrant community who are doing so much to keep this country going. Such a move would not only give migrants a good chance to fight the virus, as we all need to do but also to freely offer their talents to the nation. While MOT exemptions have been made to cars, banks and councils suspend debt collection, and library book fines have been frozen, why not extend this understanding and compassion to fellow human beings?
Just ask the three people on the forefront fighting the pandemic in the country — Boris Johnston, Professor Chris Whitty, Matt Hancock — who are all in self-isolation after testing positive to the coronavirus: they will tell you that the virus is non-discriminating.
As the nation mourns the death of many people and the four NHS medics from the Covid-19 pandemic, let us reflect on the vital contributions migrants bring to the UK — and that’s not just the work they do, but the value they bring to our communities as neighbours, friends and colleagues.
This is an opportune time to treat all migrants in the UK as permanent residents so that they have access to public services and can help fight the coronavirus outbreak. And this would be an appropriate tribute to all migrants who are losing their lives to the pandemic. Our chances of survival increase when we are in it together.
Cryton Chikoko is a member of Migrant Voice, a migrant-led organisation established to develop the skills, capacity and confidence of members of migrant communities, including asylum seekers and refugees.