A Covid Inquiry Won't Save Black Lives – Not With Kemi Badenoch At The Helm

The past decade has seen a throng of inquiries that touched on racism and yielded little substantive change, Tinaye Mapako writes.

I think Matt Hancock meant it when he said: “Black lives matter” in parliament last week. I think he meant it, but I am not sure he understood what it means.

Evidence of this was shown when he named two Asian ministers after being asked by Sky’s Sophy Ridge about the number of Black cabinet members. Needless to say, this is not an answer that builds confidence in Black communities.

To make matters worse, junior equalities minister Kemi Badenoch swiftly rubbished the suggestion that systemic discrimination is a factor in the racial disparities in outcomes of Covid-19. Speaking in the House of Commons last week, Badenoch chose not to engage principled criticism from opposition MPs meaningfully. While protesters across the UK demanded racial justice, the equalities minister spent her time penning a defensive attack on the BBC.

As long as government ministers remain in denial about racial injustice, choosing partisan politicking rather than moral and practical leadership, more ethnic minorities’ lives may be lost.

Kemi Badenoch addresses MPs in the House of Commons
Kemi Badenoch addresses MPs in the House of Commons

As much as I respect calls for a more independent inquiry into racial disparities in Covid-19 outcomes, we have to be careful what we wish for. The past decade has seen a throng of inquiries that touched on racism and yielded little substantive change. The report by David Lammy MP on BAME outcomes in the criminal justice system, the watered-down Windrush report and the missing inquiry into Tory islamophobia have set a troubling precedent of inertia and inaction.

The pattern of these flopped government reports is nigh on identical. The prime minister of the day is pressured by the Opposition to begin an inquiry. Scandal abounds as they struggle to appoint a diverse panel to head the inquiry. The report is then delayed or suppressed. Eventually, in the middle of the night, in the background of a significant political event or in any way to avoid the report- making headlines, the report is released. Once we can read it, we find its recommendations are whitewashed. What is then left to action by the Government is summarily ignored in favour of other political priorities. Though rest assured, they will defensively bring up any inquiry, whose recommendations they did not enact, to deflect from any criticism of failing minority groups.

This is the same pattern that has already befallen the Public health England report before its full release. The criticism of the report was almost universal from trade Unions, opposition MPs, equality organisations and former Tory ministers. As ex-minister Caroline Noakes put it: “Where are the recommendations?”. If even former cabinet ministers can point out the obvious, why can’t those in the current administration?

Did anyone think what it must be like for Black and Asian people who woke up on Wednesday morning and heard yet again that they were at higher risk? These are not dry statistics; ethnic minority key workers were going out to work more fearful, while ministers denied evidence of structural injustice. How can it be that the government had spent a month cobbling together data with no solutions for why people like me, my parents and elders are dying at disproportionate rates.

Equalities minister Ms Badenoch MP said on race: : “I think this government has a record to be proud of.” However, according to the BMA, 40% of ethnic minority doctors have not been risk assessed, and while more than half of BAME nurses have inadequate PPE.” I am unsure what exactly the minister is proud of.

The government’s inability to even consider that the reasons behind these Covid-19 disparities have roots in how racism pervades our society illogical. What is the final report going to be about if not about how the lives of POC make them more vulnerable to this disease? Nurse union chief Prof. Dame Donna Kinnair is right when it comes to health: “Structural racism is inherent.” The allegation that the government stripped out the words of thousands of people of colour and organisations about their experiences of institutional racism is perhaps telling. Badenoch said: “This is one of the best countries in the world to be a Black person.” This shows the shallowness of the undertaking we are likely to have: a minister engaging in racial “Top Trumps” to patronise Black people, rather than face up to the challenges of inequality.

“I hope the intellectual ambivalence and political stymieing that we have seen in previous government inquiries is not repeated when assessing the reasons behind these deaths.”

It is no surprise that Badenoch at the outset has decided that racial injustice is not to blame before looking at the evidence. Talking about historic police brutality, she says: “People pick on one bad experience, blow it up and say: ‘This is institutional racism’”. This is profoundly uncomfortable reading from a minister who has barely expressed any solidarity to African Americans killed by US police departments, and Britons fighting racism here at home.

Anyone who has taken a public health course knows that racism can even affect the tiniest of microbes. Its transmission is enabled by gutless or bigoted politicians distracted from understanding the social determinants of health: housing, employment, poverty. I hope the intellectual ambivalence and political stymieing that we have seen in previous government inquiries is not repeated when assessing Covid-19 disparities. Saying ”Black lives matter” and doing it are two different things.

Tinaye Mapoko is a student doctor, writer and podcaster.


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