Almost every country is in lockdown, people are dying, mourning loved ones, fighting for their lives, livelihoods and survival. We are told that the virus does not discriminate but covid-19 is indelibly linked to race and racism.
From unwelcome migrants to fallen heroes
The issue of race is relevant both in terms of how COVID-19 is tackled by governments and the narratives that shape public discourse and perceptions.
In terms of the latter, in the UK we watched closely as NHS workers were rightfully declared the country’s heroes for risking their lives in under-staffed and under-resourced hospitals without PPE.
Initially, photos of health workers that adorned the pages of newspapers and featured in TV news reports did not appear to be an accurate reflection of the demographic make-up of the NHS.
According to government data, as at March 2019, over 1.2 million people were employed by NHS Trusts and more than 20% are people of colour : Asian staff (10.0%), Black staff (6.1%), staff from the Other ethnic group (2.3%), staff with Mixed ethnicity (1.7%) and staff from the Chinese ethnic group (0.6%) – and 12% are non-British nationals.
The COVID-19 pandemic should not be viewed as race-neutral because survival and mortality rates are shaped by existing inequalities that are linked to race and racism in health provision in the UK, USA and elsewhere; housing, employment and the criminal justice system.
This means that COVID-19 will both accentuate and accelerate social, cultural and economic inequalities that will be borne out by demographic data on mortality rates. In a short space of time the US has become the epicentre of the covid-19 pandemic with more than 337,000 cases as recorded by JHU. A live map published in NY Times show the highest number of cases and deaths occurring in New York.
However, some states have released demographic data which shows that African Americans are contracting covid-19 at alarmingly high rates in Michigan – where Black people make up 12% of the population but 40% of coronavirus deaths, Illinois, Milwaukee and elsewhere.
An article in the Lancet published on 1 April notes that “COVID-19 policy responses have disproportionately affected people of colour and migrants— people who are over-represented in lower socioeconomic groups, have limited health-care access, or work in precarious jobs…
“Ethnic minority groups are also at greater risk because of comorbidities—for example, high rates of hypertension in Black populations and diabetes in south Asians… Acts of discrimination occur within social, political, and historical contexts. Political leaders have misappropriated the COVID-19 crisis to reinforce racial discrimination, doubling down, for example, on border policies and conflating public health restrictions with anti-migrant rhetoric. Matteo Salvini, former Deputy Prime Minister of Italy, wrongly linked COVID-19 to African asylum seekers, calling for border closures”.
COVID-19 serves as a painful reminder of racial inequity and the lower value placed on the lives of people of colour, who are often made scapegoats and targets of xenophobia, like the current wave of anti-Asian racism, of concern to the United Nations.
Only last week, Jean-Paul Mira, the head of the intensive care unit at the Cochin hospital in Paris suggested that vaccines for the coronavirus should be tested on Africans: “should we not do this study in Africa where there are no masks, treatment or intensive care, a little bit like it’s done, by the way, for certain AIDS studies or with prostitutes?”
*On April 11, the Washington Post reported racism against people of African descent in Guanzgzhou China, where “Some Africans in the commercial hub have reported being evicted or discriminated against amid coronavirus fears. And a U.S. Embassy security alert on Saturday said that “police ordered bars and restaurants not to serve clients who appear to be of African origin,” and local officials have launched mandatory testing and self-quarantine for “anyone with ‘African contacts.’”
COVID-19 and the inequity it exposes serves as a reminder of why it continues to be of major significance to tackle racial inequality in higher education, as the ideologies, attitudes and behaviours that feed racism and discrimination “are channelled through and within higher education – [so] we hope that by tackling racial inequality in academia we also combat racial inequality in the wider society” (Gabriel and Tate, 2017:148).
As we mark seven years since our inception, Black British Academics remains committed to the cause, and while we grapple with the challenges that covid-19 presents in our personal and professional lives, we are continuing our important work.
Gabriel, D., & Tate, S.A. (eds), (2017). Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of Women of Colour Surviving and Thriving in British Academia. London: Trentham Books.