SATURDAY ESSAY: No more hiding the truth about Covid

Covid-19 is not an equal opportunities disease: NAZIR AFZAL says a politically correct refusal to face facts that minority ethnic communities’ genetics and lifestyle make them more vulnerable would be a shameful betrayal

Were it not for coronavirus, the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia would be teeming with humanity.

Every year, around two million Muslims gather there to mark the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage that began this week, with millions more joining in prayers from around the world.

But this year, as Covid-19 continues to spread its malignancy, an eerie stillness has descended on the site.

In place of a vast throng, just 1,000 worshippers — all Saudi Arabian residents — have been allowed to attend, under strict observance of social distancing rules.

The government’s sweeping, partial lockdown across the north has made Eid celebrations feel even more different this year. Pictured: Muslims gathering on the street after friday prayers on a street in Blackburn, Lancashire

The sense of isolation embodied by the minimalist version of the Hajj is mirrored here in Britain, where Muslims are preparing for the festival of Eid this weekend.

It is normally a time for celebration and reflection, but it was always going to be different this year — even before the Government’s announcement of a sweeping, partial lockdown across large swathes of Northern England, including Greater Manchester, East Lancashire and parts of West Yorkshire.

Of the four million plus people affected, many are Muslims, since Northern towns contain some of the largest South Asian populations in the country.

Although mosques will be open, the numbers of worshippers will be limited and communal gatherings will be banned.

Even private meetings in homes will, I suspect, be restrained affairs, with limited hugs and handshakes. 

And under the hastily re-imposed rules announced late on Thursday, households will not be allowed to mix, even if socially distanced in private gardens.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has denied the lockdown has anything to do with Eid and the risk of transmission posed by even small groups of people gathering to celebrate. Indeed, he may have felt it would be incendiary to say so.

But the move has already attracted widespread criticism from those who feel the Muslim community is being unfairly targeted.

Members of the public in Spinney Hill Park in Leicester, where localised coronavirus lockdown restrictions have been in place since June 29

Some community leaders accuse ministers of ‘an abuse of power’ and having ‘no regard for British Muslims’. I disagree. 

The Government’s justification for the dramatic move is to prevent a second total lockdown because the rate of infections is soaring in these areas.

But why are infection rates soaring? I think we need some honesty in this debate: some plain speaking from ministers, doctors and scientists about the genetic and lifestyle risks that make some communities more vulnerable, together with a renewed effort to better target public health measures by officials who may fear they will be accused of stigmatising certain groups if they do so.

Let’s look at the statistics: Compared to the national average of 7.2 cases per 100,000 people, the rate in Blackburn, for example, has climbed to 85.3 cases for every 100,000, while in Oldham it stands at 53.1 and Bradford 44.9.

People shopping in Oldham, the town in Greater Manchester has seen cases of coronavirus rise in the area

In Leicester, a partial lockdown had to be reintroduced last month after evidence of a resurgence in the virus there.

Things have improved, but even with the return of these tough rules, Leicester — one of the most diverse cities in England — still has an infection rate of 57.7 cases per 100,000 people today, more than eight times the national average.

This disparity reflects a vital truth that too many figures in authority do not want to face because of politically correct scruples and fears about accusations of prejudice.

The fact is that conurbations like Leicester, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire have been badly hit by the pandemic because their large minority ethnic populations are more susceptible than white populations.

We might like to strive for equality in our modern, multi-racial British society, but I am afraid Covid-19 is not an ‘equal-opportunities’ disease.

Its impact is uneven, but it is hitting South Asians particularly hard.

One survey of 35,000 patients showed that South Asians are 20 per cent more likely to die in hospital than white people, while another showed ethnic minorities are four times more likely to test positive for Covid-19 than white people. 

Hiding from that reality does no one any favours, least of all the most vulnerable.

Ignoring dangers is always counter-productive, as I know from my own experience as the Crown Prosecutor for North West England, when I had to battle against the institutionalised determination of the police, the media and local authorities to cover-up of the abuse of white girls by predatory, mainly South Asian, gangs in my locality.

These are the infection rates in the north-west, which have got the Government worried, but some have claimed the rates in some of the lockdown boroughs are still ‘very low’ as British Muslims slammed the lockdown in Eid

It was a reluctance bred of a desire not to undermine the narrative of multi-cultural success, but, by weakening the integrity of the justice system, it succeeded only in harming both the victims and the Asian communities. 

The same misplaced racial sensitivities have inhibited the fight against knife crime, county-line drug gangs, and brutal, misogynistic practices like female genital mutilation.

The advent of coronavirus is no time for squeamishness or hesitation. If we are to counter this brutal scourge, we must deal in the facts, not wishful thinking. 

The infection rates among South Asians should be a call to action, not a cue for concealment.

I myself know the personal cost of this disease as I lost my own dear brother in April.

Akhtar Mahmood (left) Mohammed Ashraf Tahir Nushahi (right), from Bradford, have spoken out as the Government was blasted for imposing a new lockdown in Manchester, east Lancashire and West Yorkshire at the start of Eid

A very fit 70-year old, he was a distinguished community leader who acted as an interpreter for the Home Office.

When he developed Covid-19 symptoms, he was taken to hospital, but the NHS was so over-stretched that he was sent home a few hours later after a test. The results took eight days to arrive. By then it was too late.

What made my grief all the deeper was that, because of the lockdown, our family could not mourn him properly. The funeral was brief, the numbers restricted.

On the very day that my family was preparing for that funeral, the Prime Minister’s senior aide Dominic Cummings was breaching lockdown with his trip to Barnard Castle in County Durham, supposedly to test his eyesight.

Apart from the outrageous hypocrisy, there is no doubt that Cummings’ actions diminished public respect for the lockdown, thereby heightening infection rates. 

So I fully understand the sorrow coronavirus brings and how South Asian communities have been hit disproportionately. But if we are to change the pattern, we have to face up to the factors that have led to this disparity. Concerns about ‘stereotyping’ communities are far outweighed by genuine public health needs.

One reason for the higher rates among South Asians could be genetic. I am no medical expert, but it is indisputable that there are biological differences between certain groups in Britain, reflected in the higher incidence of diabetes among black and minority ethnic people which increases the mortality rate of Covid-19. 

Addressing studies which highlighted the greater deadliness of the coronavirus towards minorities, Professor Ewen Harrison of Edinburgh University recently told the BBC that ‘the South Asian population in hospital looks completely different to the white population. They are 12 years younger on average — that’s a massive difference. They tend not to have dementia, obesity or lung disease, but very high levels of diabetes.’

Worshippers observe social distancing at the Bradford Central Mosque on the first day of Eid

More important than these possible genetic differences are health inequalities, bred of lower pay, poorer housing, and larger households. Research shows that ethnic minorities are seven times more likely to live in overcrowded accommodation, with several generations often under one roof.

The upside of such households is that Asians tend to use care homes and hospices less. The downside is that the cramped conditions help to spread contagion more easily.

It is no coincidence that the Northern towns now targeted for a renewed lockdown are full of deprived neighbourhoods, packed with minorities living in run-down terraces or concrete tower blocks.

In the same vein, the trend of infections could have been worsened by Asian shopping practices, based on a tendency to use local, often overcrowded premises with ethnic products rather than larger and more open supermarkets.

People wearing face masks have their temperatures checked before being allowed to go into Manchester Central Mosque to worship this morning as the city and much of the north-west was locked down

It is also the case that, before the clampdown on global travel at the end of March, Asians were arriving in large numbers here from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Without any proper checks at airports, that will inevitably have pushed up infection rates.

The nature of work in these areas is a vital consideration, too. First of all, black and minority ethnic people make up at least 20 per cent of the NHS workforce, putting them right in the front-line of risks of infection.

They were in particular danger at the coronavirus peak in late March and April, when so much was unknown about the virus and management and supplies of protective gear were inadequate.

The burdens were most acute on doctors, nurses and healthcare assistants, in whose ranks ethnic minorities feature even more heavily. It is a remarkable fact that by the end of May, 94 per cent of doctors who had died with Covid were from an ethnic minority background.

Worshippers observe social distancing as they arrive at the Bradford Grand Mosque in Bradford, West Yorkshire, today – but some religious leaders claimed it was wrong to announce the lockdown with so little notice

However even away from the NHS, the occupations of British Asians tend to make them more vulnerable. Unlike middle-class professionals who like to extol the joys of working from home, aided by Zoom technology, many Asians have jobs that involve direct contact with the public, like retailers, taxi-drivers or takeaway employees.

Alternatively, there are also large numbers of Asians working in warehouses or factories, often in cramped conditions where social distancing is impossible. 

That is true of Leicester as we have learned in recent weeks, with its array of garment workshops, where badly-paid staff — frequently paid below the minimum wage — operate cheek-by-jowl.

It is no wonder that the poorly-regulated fashion industry has been a breeding ground for the virus. Nor do those on zero hours contracts or dependent on daily pay packets have any choice but to accept work, no matter what the risks. The generosity of the Government’s furlough scheme applies only to those in stable employment, not to the precariat in the twilight economy.


Precautions in place at the Toller Lane mosque, Bradford where leaders are stressing the seriousness of lockdown restrictions

There are also cultural issues such as language. As Thursday’s partial lockdown announcement demonstrated, the Government’s communication throughout the crisis has been complex and often contradictory.

It has been hard enough to understand the message even when English is your first language, so how much more difficult must it be for those with a poor grasp of English?

The same applies to track-and-trace mobile technology, where it would be impossible to use the app — despite stern official injunctions — without a sophisticated knowledge of English.

And any Asian trying to seek help with translation from a friend or neighbour is likely, by that very action, to end up physically breaching social distancing rules.

Contrary to some of the worst anti-immigrant rhetoric, I believe the vast majority of Asians have generally been respectful of lockdown rules. Social distancing has been observed, including by most mosques. But communities must be honest and admit that there are times when it is difficult to follow all the rules.

We South Asians often try to reinvent the village of our roots in our British surroundings, so that a household frequently has neighbours who are relatives. In practice, this can promote a feeling of complacency about lockdown, where the attitude is ‘well, we can pop next door. It’s not really a breach. After all, they’re family’.

The consequences of such behaviour should be made more explicit in public health messages for these communities.

Asians, like most of the UK population, have been remarkable for their stoicism in this extraordinary period. Speaking on the eve of Eid, Shadim Hussain of the Bradford Foundation Trust, said: ‘The message has got through. By and large I think there is a clear recognition that it is Eid at home this year.’

But, given the grim death toll of recent months, the event will have a special poignancy this weekend — not least for me and my family.

My mother died on Thursday. She had lived through war, partition, disease, death and disaster but now her passing will be just a footnote in a spring and summer of excess deaths.

She was my inspiration and my greatest fan, who came with me to Buckingham Palace when I got my OBE from the Queen. My mother loved the UK. She regarded it as her greatest achievement that she was able to bring up her children here and give us opportunities not available elsewhere.

I know what her view of this crisis would have been — that we need to face up to the truth about the scale of the Covid-19 problem in Asian communities and take action.

To search for answers is not scapegoating, it is humane.

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