Long Reads

Coronavirus: why are black men and women more likely to die with Covid-19?

Black women and men are four times more likely to die after contracting Covid-19 than those of white ethnicity, according to new research. Stylist deputy digital editor Jazmin Kopotsha is struggling to process the devastating but, sadly, not surprising effect the pandemic is having on her community. 

A disproportionate number of people from ethnic minority groups are dying because of coronavirus. The latest ONS data reveals that black men and women and four times as likely to die after contracting Covid-19 than their white counterparts. 

’Four times more likely’ is an overwhelming and absurd number to sit with. But the shock from the numbers isn’t quite enough to suppress the niggling feeling that this would always be the case. Society isn’t equal, so why would the spread of a virus be? 

‘BAME’, the acronym that serves to describe ‘black, Asian and minority ethnic’ groups in the UK, has appeared across headlines a lot recently. This tends to happen more often in depressing news than it does in uplifting reports - only 4% of children’s book heroes are BAME, BAME millennials are at greater risk of unstable employment, BAME offenders are more likely than others to be jailed for drug offences, and so on. 

These figures and these stories are an unpleasant, aggressive reminder of what life is like for ethnic minorities in the UK; poor representation, inequalities at work, higher risk of jail time. 

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The numbers will slowly chip away at my psyche behind the scenes while I continue to navigate familiar day to day racial inequalities in situ. Instead of the ‘shudder and shake it off’ routine that I’ve spent years perfecting (read: relying on) in the face of stats like these, I’ve not been able to brush off the news that coronavirus is having a disproportionate impact on minority communities like mine.

I’ll joke about the inevitability of the situation before allowing the gravity of what’s happening to settle on my chest. “Of course, coronavirus is hitting us hardest!” Insert an eye roll here for extra effect. “What’s one more set of figures to reinforce the feeling that I’m more of a statistic than a welcomed, contributing member of society?”

It’s a lot. Wipe the enthusiastic sarcasm, teasing instinct and buried disgust from my face and, actually, it’s all a bit too much. 

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The ONS research found that, as well as the high vulnerability among the black community, people of Bangladeshi and Pakistani, Indian, and mixed ethnicities are also at a significantly higher risk of death. Research from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre found that 34% of critically ill coronavirus patients are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. 

The stats are even more alarming when you consider that, according to data from the latest census, just 14% of the population in England and Wales are from BAME backgrounds. It doesn’t add up. 

Analysis by the Guardian found that, of 53 NHS staff known to have died, 68% were from BAME communities. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan called for the government to collect and publish data on coronavirus cases and ethnicity. A review into the disparity in ethnic minority deaths lead by the NHS and Public Health England is now underway.

As painfully necessary as these measures are though, throwing a metaphorical plaster on a gash in someone’s arm isn’t going to fix it. It’s not even going to stop the bleeding, not really. The research so far explains that “the difference between ethnic groups in COVID-19 mortality is partly a result of socio-economic disadvantage and other circumstances, but a remaining part of the difference has not yet been explained.” 

The promise of further investigation by the government will momentarily distract my fear and hopefully alert more concentrated attention to an overwhelming problem that requires systematic effort. But the damage is already deeper than we’re able to fix in the obscure timeline of a global pandemic.

The scales have long been out of balance and the fact that they remain so right now is not remotely surprising. The extent that communities who have long been dismissed, discounted and disregarded are being affected by one of the most terrifying global crisis in generations, however, is agonising.

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