Race, Scotland and Covid-19

It was interesting to see Troy Deeney, the Watford English Premier League football captain, explain why he wouldn’t be going back into work.  He said: “My problem was in the meeting, I asked very simple questions. “For black, Asian and mixed ethnicities [BAME], they’re four times more likely to get the illness, they’re twice as likely […]

It was interesting to see Troy Deeney, the Watford English Premier League football captain, explain why he wouldn’t be going back into work. 

He said: “My problem was in the meeting, I asked very simple questions.

“For black, Asian and mixed ethnicities [BAME], they’re four times more likely to get the illness, they’re twice as likely to have long lasting illnesses – is there anything extra, additional screening, heart stuff to see if people have got problems with that? ‘No’. OK, well I feel that should be addressed.

“I can’t get a haircut until mid-July but I can go and get in a box with 19 people and go and jump for a header and nobody could answer the questions, not because they didn’t want to, just because they don’t know the information.

“So I said if you don’t know the information, why would I put myself at risk?”

Deeney has a five months old son with breathing difficulties.

“It only takes one person to get infected within the group and I don’t want to be bringing that home,” he explained.

As it turns out, more than one person at Watford is infected with Covid-19, so Deeney was very wise to avoid the workplace. The Premier League has tapped the private testing market to systematically test players and staff. And Deeney, after being able to have meetings and question league officials, has decided not to go in, and been told by the club that they don’t have a problem with that. But how many BAME workers in the UK are in the same position as Deeney, where they can get tested, ask questions of their employer, and ultimately opt-out of returning to work without punishment or loss of pay? Very very few, yet very many will have the exact same concerns as Deeney. 

In Scotland, we don’t have published data on the impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities like in England and Wales. Labour MSP Anas Sarwar has called for such data to be published, and pointed to a 2015 study in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, which found: “Substantial differences in the rates of lower respiratory tract infections amongst different ethnic groups in Scotland were found. Pakistani men and women had particularly high rates of lower respiratory tract infection hospitalisation. The reasons behind the high rates of lower respiratory tract infection in the Pakistani community are now required.” 

It’s not clear if any action was taken following the 2015 study. There has also been a link made between having dark skin and lower levels of Vitamin D, leading to weaker immune systems. But there are also socio-economic factors which could also help explain a higher death rate amongst Scottish BAME groups. The Equality and Human Rights Commission in Scotland found in 2016 that BAME people are twice as likely to be in poverty and four times as likely to live in overcrowded conditions as the population as a whole. We know that poverty and overcrowding generate higher infection rates and weaken ability to recover. A disproportionate per centage of workers in health & social care are also BAME, and therefore on the front-line of Covid-19.

An inquiry has been launched in England as to why BAME people are being disproportionately affected by Covid-19, but it’s not unreasonable to ask why special measures are not being introduced now to support BAME people given the evidence we already have, even if we do not fully understand the exact causes. 4.2 times the rate of death is not a small difference.

A different type of Public Inquiry was launched by the Scottish Government yesterday, into the death of Sheku Bayoh, who died in 2015 after officers used CS gas, pepper spray, batons and leg & arm restraints as they arrested him in Kirkcaldy. Bayoh’s family felt betrayed by the decision of the Fatal Accident Inquiry last year, which decided not to prosecute any of the police officers involved. This Public Inquiry is unprecedented in that it will examine not just Bayoh’s death but also whether the officers involved “were affected by his actual or perceived race and to make recommendations to address any findings in that regard”. These issues were not investigated by the Lord Advocate in the FAI investigation.

The family’s lawyer, Aamer Anwar, himself subject to a brutal racist attack by police officers in his youth while studying at Glasgow University, said that the family “hope this inquiry will robustly search for the truth and hold power to account.”

Issues of race are no less important in public health as in police violence. Just as we must get to the bottom of the factors behind Bayoh’s death, we should get to the bottom of why BAME people are dying in greater numbers. Ultimately though, it is about the will to do something about the structural factors which drive racial inequality and racism, so that these tragedies do not continue to repeat themselves over and over again.

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