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Equalities campaigner Doreen Lawrence has been appointed by Keir Starmer to head up a Labour review of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities.
Baroness Lawrence, whose son Stephen was murdered by racists in 1993, will lead a team looking at why the Covid-19 outbreak is disproportionately impacting people from BAME backgrounds, including NHS and care staff.
Official figures show more than a third of people in intensive care from Covid-19 are from BAME backgrounds – well over double the proportion of BAME people in the wider population.
All 15 doctors known to have died from the virus were from minority ethnic backgrounds. While BAME staff make up 44% of the overall NHS workforce, they account for 72% of its deaths.
On Friday it emerged that another neonatologist Dr Vishna Rasiah, who worked at Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Foundation Trust, had died from the virus.
His wife, Liza, said his family in the UK, Trinidad and Malaysia “meant the world to him”. “Vish loved his work; to him it was so much more than a job and his colleagues are part of our family too.
“He treated every patient and family he cared for as his own. I couldn’t have been prouder of him.”
Lawrence, who has also been appointed Starmer’s race relations adviser, started work by convening a meeting of equalities groups including Operation Black Vote, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Royal College of Nursing, the Sikh Network, the Jewish Medical Association and the British Medical Association.
The head of the British Medical Association, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, and national medical director of NHS England, Professor Stephen Powis, are among those who have called for more investigation into the disproportionate impact of the pandemic.
Health secretary Matt Hancock has commissioned a study into the disproportionate death rates and promised to make its findings public, but campaigners believe more urgency is needed.
People from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds are more likely to suffer from health inequalities, and more likely to work in the NHS, but their high death rate among doctors is causing increasing concern.
Lawrence said: “I am proud to take up this role at a critical moment for our country. The coronavirus pandemic has brought society together, but it has also exposed the gulf in living standards that still blights our communities.
“Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities have long been disadvantaged by the social and economic injustice which still exists in our country. There is a clear and tragic pattern emerging of the pandemic’s impact on those communities which must be better understood.”
Starmer said: “Doreen Lawrence has spent almost three decades campaigning against injustice. I have seen first-hand her drive and determination, and was proud to stand beside her in fighting for justice for Stephen.
“In the face of this national emergency, Labour will continue to work constructively with the government. That includes shining a light on issues where it is clear more detailed understanding is needed.
“It is extremely concerning to see the disproportionate toll coronavirus is taking on our BAME communities. We cannot afford to treat this as an issue to investigate once the crisis is over. We must address it now.”
Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow women and equalities secretary, said the “early signs” suggested BAME communities and healthcare workers were disproportionately bearing the brunt of coronavirus.
“Across our frontline are huge numbers of BAME doctors, nurses, bus drivers and other BAME key workers. Every day they put themselves in harm’s way to save and support the lives of others. We must do everything to protect them, their families and communities who have been hit hardest by the virus.”
Figures from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre released last week showed that 34.5% of patients in intensive care for Covid-19 were from BAME backgrounds.
According to the most recent census data, the proportion of people in the wider proportion from BAME background is 14%.
BAME workers represent 44% of the NHS workforce, but account for about two thirds of the NHS staff known to have died with the virus. Every one of the 15 doctors reported to have died so far is from an ethnic minority.
Paying tribute to Dr Rasiah, known to his friends as Vish, Sarah-Jane Marsh, chief executive of the Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Vish was an amazing doctor, leader, colleague and friend, passionate about the care of babies and their families.
“Losing him in such a cruel and unfair way will be too much to bear for many of us, in particular anyone involved in neonatal care, and of course his beautiful wife and daughter.
“As our tears flow, we must always remember the values that Vish stood for, and hold his vision, courage and compassion in our hearts. God bless you Vish, and may you rest in peace.”