Campaigners want an independent probe into the socio-economic issues that led to minorities being more vulnerable to Covid-19.
Elma Cavalida was 49 years old and worked as a maternity support worker at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow. She moved to the UK 10 years ago from Manila, with hopes of being able to help support her family back home.
In late February this year, Elma was diagnosed with breast cancer, and was told to prepare for a year and a half of chemotherapy that was likely to save her life. Despite that, she continued working until her treatment started on March 26. Her family recounts that one day in late March, she came back home with a fever and symptoms consistent with coronavirus.
Chemotherapy is known to weaken the immune system, and the NHS considers people who are going through chemotherapy as being at high risk from the virus.
So why was Elma still working, and for the same public body that was administering her treatment?
Campaigners are hoping to answer this and other questions as they call for an independent public inquiry into the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on people of black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, and their voices are growing louder.
An open letter asking Prime Minister Boris Johnson to launch the inquiry had gathered more than 300 signatories by mid-May, including artists, academics and leaders from the country's main BAME charities and community organisations. London's Mayor Sadiq Khan added his name to the list this weekend.
“It is shocking that Londoners of different ethnicities are being impacted by COVID-19 in such disproportionate ways. It has exposed the major inequalities in our society and simply cannot be ignored,” Khan said. “A public inquiry is crucial to ensure that communities are properly involved and to help build trust and confidence in its findings.”
Data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that Newham in East London was the area hardest-hit by coronavirus in England and Wales. At the last population census in 2011, only 29 percent of it residents identified as white British.
But a recent ONS analysis shows that death rates for black people in Britain remain significantly higher even after taking into account factors like age, geographic area, existing health conditions and deprivation levels.
The Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre's latest figures show that 34 percent of patients critically ill with confirmed Covid-19 are non-white, despite minorities accounting for around 19 percent of the UK's population.
The government has already commissioned a data-led review due to be published at the end of May by Public Health England and the NHS. Its aims is to examine health records to give an insight into why certain groups appear to be more affected by coronavirus than others.
But the coalition behind the calls for an inquiry says the government's review does not go far enough, and want other factors to be probed – including the treatment of BAME staff by their employers, exposure in occupations deemed by the government as essential, the level of public health and social care funding in the worst-hit areas, and the impact of emergency powers on minorities.
“We are hearing [about] the impact of social inequalities that already existed prior to the virus,” Harun Khan, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, who endorsed the letter, told TRT World. “Health inequalities, deprivation in terms of living standards, income. All of these factors need to be taken into consideration.”
As the Institute for Fiscal Studies points out, the fact that ethnic minorities are younger on average should make them less vulnerable, but that is not the case.
After accounting for the role of age and geography, the IFS found the differences to be even more pronounced than they first appear. People of Bangladeshi origin count twice the number of hospital fatalities than white Britons, Pakistani deaths are nearly 3 times as high, and black Africans are dying at 3.7 times the rate.
The Institute said that existing health risks – such as the prevalence of high blood pressure in people of Afro-Caribbean descent, or diabetes in South Asians – can account for some of the difference, combined with a higher risk of exposure in frontline roles and social inequality, with minorities more likely to be negatively impacted by the economic fallout of the crisis.
“We have also seen the BMA [British Medical Association] concerned about medical practitioners who over a period of time have raised concerns about discrimination. They're not speaking out and saying they don't want to take on [a frontline] role because they're worried about bullying and harrassment,” Khan added.
The BMA, the main professional association and trade union for doctors in the UK, found in a survey about protective equipment that BAME doctors were more affected by shortages.
The death of 47-year-old Belly Mujinga, a rail ticket office worker who was spat on in the face while at work by a man who claimed to have coronavirus, sparked outrage when it made headlines last week. Mujinga, who was a sports journalist in the Democratic Republic of Congo before seeking refuge in the UK, had a pre-existing respiratory condition and trade unions as well as commentators have argued she should have been shielding at home.
Among frontline workers, Filipino healthcare staff have been disproportionately affected: out of more than 150 healthcare workers who have died after contracting the virus in the UK, at least 25 have been from the Philippines, according to a count by the Kanlungan Filipino Consortium, a coalition of Filipino community organisations across the country. That number includes doctors, nurses as well as hospital staff such as porters.
“We're asking why employers, including the NHS, have not been carrying out risk assessments to shield vulnerable employees,” Susan Cueva, a Kanlungan trustee and a signatory of the letter, told TRT World.
Cueva said that since the crisis began, she has seen tens of domestic workers, which represent a large slice of the workforce in the community, losing their jobs and sometimes their homes – either arbitrarily evicted by their employer or no longer able to pay rent. Many are undocumented and do not qualify for government help.
“There's some homeless people coming to us because they have been rejected or pushed out by their employer,” Cueva said. “We're trying to find places for people to stay but it is not easy because [many Filipinos] already live in overcrowded accommodation. We really have a lot of people now in that situation.”