British society needs to be reshaped in a more egalitarian manner that doesn't set up minorities as lambs to the slaughter.
"This virus doesn't discriminate," was the conclusion of government minister Michael Gove following the news that Covid-19 had reached deep into the halls of power in the UK, striking down Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself.
Of course, Gove's sentiments are accurate on the surface – viruses, in terms of raw biology, don't 'care' about your ethnicity, postcode, social status or bank balance.
But the truth is that Covid-19 does discriminate. It exposes and preys upon the cultural, economic and political discrimination within a society with devastating effect.
Data released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the central statistics authority for the British government, demonstrates that Covid-19 is disproportionately ravaging black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities in England and Wales.
The hardest hit are black Britons, who are more than four times more likely to die from the disease than white people, with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis almost twice as likely to die compared to the white majority.
Entire families and social groups within these demographics have been ravaged by the illness, while despite only making up 14 percent of the population, 35 percent of those in critical care are from an ethnic minority background.
It's incontrovertibly true that these ethnic minorities are more likely to die of or suffer severely from Covid-19 because of the overt confluence of racism and poverty in the UK, which is usually described as a cycle, but, in the context of this pandemic, ought to be considered more as a net in which minorities are fatally tangled.
An even better real-life analogy comes in the form of the Grenfell Tower fire of 2017.
Nobody would claim that fire discriminates, but the fact that the overwhelming majority of the 72 people who perished in this dilapidated, criminally-neglected death trap were low-income minorities speaks to the widespread intersection of discrimination on social and ethnic grounds. It was the prevailing politics of neoliberalism and austerity that allowed this tragedy to occur with such fatal ferocity.
Nothing about it was 'natural' – the circumstances surrounding the deaths reflected an austerity-ravaged, anti-egalitarian, institutionally racist England.
The Covid-19 wildfire spreading among deprived minorities ought to be viewed according to the same interplay of racism, classism and prevailing anti-egalitarian politics.
Imagining, as the British government does, that the virus 'doesn't discriminate' is a grotesque warping of the truth of the origin of the pandemic in the UK.
It attributes a more egalitarian 'nature' to a not-quite-living microscopic pathogen than it does to a solid decade of Tory governments – including the current one – and the broken society that their ideological mission has wrought.
A disaster foretold
It was clear as far back as January that Covid-19 is a virus that wreaks havoc on people with pre-existing health conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and obesity – all of these 'lifestyle' illnesses can occur in far higher rates among the poorest in Britain.
Just last week, the ONS released a detailed region-by-region breakdown of how the most deprived areas of England and Wales were faring worse than more affluent areas.
Due to deeply ingrained racial discrimination in the interconnected areas of employment, education, housing, criminal justice and living standards, ethnic minorities – particularly Britons of Afro-Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage – ought to be considered the deprived of the deprived.
Poverty illnesses, such as those mentioned above, are found in staggeringly higher numbers within the ethnic minority demographics worst hit by Covid-19.
Before Covid-19 gets the chance to exploit these sociodemographic inequalities in health, first, you must, of course, be exposed to the virus. And many minority Britons are forced to live in environments where highly infectious disease can thrive, such as overcrowded and cramped living conditions.
According to the English Housing Survey, while only 2 percent of white households in England were overcrowded, it was 30 percent of Bangladeshi households, 16 percent of Pakistani households and 12 percent of black households. These minorities are also overrepresented in jobs that involve close contact with the public.
Add into this the decade of austerity – including huge cuts to hospital wards, staff and resources – that has left health services in the most deprived areas of England often teetering on the brink of collapse during regular flu seasons and you have the perfect conditions for Covid-19 to become a deadly wildfire for the UK in general and underprivileged communities in particular.
And it's the spirit of austerity, and more widely the spirit of neoliberal laissez-faireism, that has allowed the virus to hit the UK so hard.
As I write this, the UK death toll from Covid-19 stands at 31,930 - the worst in Europe and second-worst in the world after the US, but the real figure is thought to be at least double that.
In terms of death ratio, it could be the worst-hit country in the world.
Though British nationalists and government apologists will desperately attempt to wriggle out of this catastrophic reality, the fact is that it was avoidable.
Austerity had meant that the UK's pandemic stockpiles, of much-needed PPE and testing kits, had been depleted or allowed to go out of date. To this day, they're still scrambling to gain adequate stocks, a delay that has no doubt led to the deaths of more than 150 healthcare workers, two-thirds of which are black or South Asian.
Under the British government's initial lunatic strategy of allowing the virus to infect at least 60 percent of the population to gain naturalised herd immunity, an untold number of people were infected.
The biopolitical nuances – including the disproportionate devastation on ethnic and socioeconomic grounds – of a novel virus hitting a population weren't even considered.
In what has been termed the week of shame, over 250,000 people were allowed to gather at the Cheltenham Festival, as well as Champions League football matches and massive rock concerts.
As countries across Europe and the world were going into lockdown to save lives, Johnson was babbling on TV attempting to justify his 'do nothing' approach, warning that the virus was 'going to spread further' and 'many more families are going to lose loved ones'.
When the British government first imposed the lockdown, the right-wing media, faced with such existential uncertainties, were mostly supportive.
But since it became clear that the virus was largely not ravaging privileged white Anglo-Saxons, the U-turn within the same media has been dramatic, with the lockdown depicted as something akin to George Orwell's 1984 – a gross overreaction to a virus.
Now that it's clear that the white majority – and particularly the wealthiest white people within that majority – are less at risk, they can go back to claiming the economic devastation of a lockdown will be 'worse than the disease'.
Even Johnson, as the UK became the worst affected state in Europe, characterised his government's response to the virus as an 'apparent success'.
The lifting of the lockdown provides a potential new terrain of horror. This is a Brexiteer government hellbent on 'getting Brexit done' and sinking the UK further down into an ideological chasm that allowed Covid-19 to decimate it worse than any other European state.
How Covid-19 is ferociously attacking ethnic minorities ought to lead to an immediate, mass recognition that society must be radically reshaped in a more egalitarian manner, as opposed to a dreaded return to the 'normality' that set up minorities as lambs to the slaughter.
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