Black Britain’s vulnerability to coronavirus has been a decade in the making


The UK currently has one of the highest coronavirus (Covid-19) death tolls in the world. And the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have revealed that people from an ethnic minority background have had higher per-capita deaths than the rest of the UK population. Even when accounting for differences in age, sex and geography, the death rate for people of Black African heritage was 3.5 times higher than for white British people; and the death rate for people of Black Caribbean heritage was 1.7 times higher.

It’s clear as we observe the various coronavirus responses around the world that the pandemic has ripped open and exposed the underbelly of inequality that affects the most marginalised and vulnerable people in society. While there have been a number of causes identified, it would come as no surprise to many that a decade of austerity would have played some part in exacerbating racism and inequality which has contributed to such disproportionate deaths.

A decade of austerity

Occupation, poverty and underlying health issues have been identified as key factors contributing to high death rates among the Black population. In a UN report on the UK government in 2018, UN special rapporteur on racism Prof Tendayi Achume said that people’s ethnicity was one of the factors which “continue to determine the life chances and wellbeing of people in Britain in ways that are unacceptable and in many cases, unlawful”.

Research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission estimates that, by 2022, Black households would have seen a 5% drop in income due to the effects of austerity. The Runnymede trust calculated in 2017, meanwhile, that Black and Asian people from the lowest fifth of incomes were set to experience the “biggest average drop in living standards”. Furthermore, 40% of Black African and Caribbean households in the same year were living in poverty compared to white British households. Ethnic minority people were more likely to be living in overcrowded homes, which is an easy way to facilitate the spread of pathogens.

People from poorer households, meanwhile, were on average more likely to die earlier than from those from richer households long before the pandemic emerged. Data from the ONS has shown that, in England and Wales, the most deprived areas had twice the coronavirus death rate than the least deprived. Black people in the UK are found to be 56% more likely than the national average to be in the “persistent low income” category. Black Africans are also more likely to be employed in key worker roles and 20% of Black African women are employed in health and social care roles.

Ethnic minorities are also much more likely to be working in insecure employment such as temporary and zero-hour contract work. ONS figures have similarly shown that men in “low skilled” jobs were four times more likely to die from the coronavirus than men in professional jobs, and ethnic minorities are overrepresented in “low skilled” occupations.

Health and austerity

It has been noted that many patients that have died also had pre-existing health problems such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, heart and circulatory diseases. These health issues are prevalent in the Black community, but they are often disassociated from social and economic inequalities that austerity has exacerbated. The most recent Health Equity in England report, led by academic Michael Marmot, found (using life expectancy as an index of health) the increase in life expectancy had “slowed dramatically” since 2010. This was attributed largely to austerity. Among women in the most deprived areas, life expectancy had fallen while the time people spent in poor health had increased since 2010.

And according to the British Heart Foundation:

Before the outbreak of Covid-19, ethnic minority populations were already more likely to suffer ill health, including heart and circulatory diseases and their risk factors such as high blood pressure and diabetes, and from a younger age. Much of this is linked to social and economic inequalities rather than genetics.

In short, it’s difficult to argue that a decade of austerity could not have had any impact on the health, wellbeing and quality of life for Britain’s Black communities. The current pandemic has simply acted as the perfect storm to exploit the poverty, exposure and conditions that many Black people in Britain have been subjected to over the last decade.

Featured image via NIAID-RML

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