Where's the data on BAME deaths?

Where's the data on BAME deaths?

Where's the data on BAME deaths?

by Sarabajaya Kumar

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Since Boris Johnson’s return to Downing Street, the government’s narrative that coronavirus doesn’t discriminate continues. Anyone can contract Covid-19, from shop workers and bus drivers to the prime minister. So we must “stay home, protect the NHS, save lives”.

But while this is undoubtedly life-saving advice, recent analysis suggests that Covid-19 in fact disproportionately impacts people of colour. As a woman of colour in the ‘high risk’ category myself, I share the concerns of BAME communities around the UK - not only for myself but for the many BAME key workers whose jobs leave them vulnerable to exposure and potentially premature death.

Yesterday, the NHS issued welcome guidance to NHS healthcare providers, highlighting the evidence and recommending that arrangements should be made to protect staff assessed to be at potentially greater risk from the virus. But the key workers we applaud each week not only include NHS staff, but also care workers, refuse collectors, postal workers, retail staff and many others, many of whom are from BAME communities. If they are at greater risk, we urgently need to understand why, and steps must be taken to protect them.

Following concerns from the Chair of The British Medical Association, it was announced in early April that a review into the apparently disproportionate impact of coronavirus on BAME communities would be commissioned by Chief Medical Officer Professor Whitty. Shortly afterwards, however, Whitty stated that at present the link between ethnicity and Covid-19 is less clear than the links to age, sex and underlying conditions.

Intrigued by this response - despite concerns about high levels of morbidity and mortality among BAME communities emerging not just in the UK but in countries including Sweden, Spain and the US - I began to investigate further. The results of my research explained Whitty’s caution.

Although analysis by the Guardian found that areas with high ethnic minority populations in England and Wales tended to have higher mortality rates, I could not find mortality or morbidity statistics for different ethnic groups in relation to Covid-19. Nor could I find disaggregated data about patients’ age, sex, underlying conditions and ethnicity. Apparently, recording the ethnicity of hospital patients is not mandatory. Ethnicity is also not recorded on death certificates. So we don’t know the full extent to which Covid-19 is affecting people of colour, either in hospital settings or in the community. 

The data our society chooses to collect is a reflection of what it considers important. It is unfortunate and somewhat predictable, therefore, that this data does not exist. But it is of critical importance that this data is now recorded, and that this is done as a matter of urgency.

As the government undertakes a review, it must investigate not only the extent of the links between Covid-19 and ethnicity, but also whether all communities within the catch-all category of ‘BAME’ are experiencing disproportionate impacts. If links exist, the government must fund independent research into these health inequalities, studying not just biological factors but also systemic issues arising from existing social, political, cultural, economic, environmental and psycho-social inequalities. Research on institutional racism, housing, employment, and access to fresh food and clean, safe environments should also be included, as all of these factors contribute to health inequality between the ethnic majority and minority populations.

In the meantime, steps should be taken to protect all BAME key workers and the BAME population more generally, as has rightly been done with other sections of the population who are potentially more vulnerable to this disease.

As we think about how we are going to emerge from lockdown, the vision of ‘health for all’ in our post pandemic society is a compelling one. If we are to embrace this vision, the health of people of colour must no longer be overlooked.

Sarabajaya Kumar is a Senior Teaching Fellow at UCL and a Women's Equality Party GLA 2021 candidate. 

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