Covid Considerations: Did Covid-19 Mind the Gap?

| Lourdes Colclough

This is the latest blog in our ‘Covid Considerations’ series exploring what opportunities for change there might be, told from the personal perspectives of people working alongside communities, no holds barred. This blog is written by Lourdes Colclough.

I am from the BAME (Black and Asian Minority Ethnic) community – I hope I am using the most recent, politically correct term, it’s exhausting keeping up.  My family heritage is from Goa in India, however I was born in Nairobi in Kenya and arrived in Walthamstow in East London aged four in 1973 with my recently widowed mother and two-year-old brother.  My mother found work immediately as a secretary and has always worked, eventually buying her own home. Fast forward 45+ years and the UK is where I call home.

I have a background in counselling and psychotherapy but have spent over 20 years working within community development which is where I have seen real impact and change in people and communities. From projects like a Food Co-op I set up at St Hilda’s East Community Centre working with the Boundary Estate in Bethnal Green which is now one of the largest in London, to a Bereavement Project I led at St Joseph’s Hospice which was based on the Compassionate Communities model and won the National Council of Palliative Care’s Bereavement Project of the Year because of the skilled work of volunteers. More recently, I have been leading Macmillan Cancer Support’s London Cancer Community – a response to the Mind the Gap: Cancer Inequalities in London – Macmillan Cancer Support report.

I am on furlough, a luxury for some. I am on full pay and can keep safe at home. I am secretly enjoying exercising once a day, having time for myself and cooking from a Dishoom recipe book.  My experience of Covid-19 hasn’t been too difficult apart from my daughter being a nurse at the Royal London Hospital which has meant I hear first-hand about the harrowing issues and risks faced by frontline medical staff and the colleagues they have lost.

There are many things we still don’t know about Covid-19, but what we do know for sure is where you were born, the colour of your skin, where you live and your occupation will affect your experience of this pandemic.

People from BAME groups make up 14% of the UK population yet 33% are actively ill Covid-19 patients in hospitals. The reasons for this are multiple including the numbers of BAME healthcare workers on the frontline – 40% doctors, 20% nurses and 67% of health and social care workers. This combined with these groups often living in overcrowded housing, on low incomes and with other social determinants of health has meant anyone from a BAME community, who lives in an area like Newham rather than Kensington, is three times more likely to contract Covid-19. This is shocking enough. However, if you have any other underlying health issue like cancer, your chances of surviving Covid-19 are lower still than your white counterpart living in an affluent area. The media are no longer calling this pandemic the ‘great leveller’ as the statistics are proving the opposite with evidence clearly illustrating if you are afro-Caribbean you are three times more likely to die of Covid-19.

I have been privileged to work with The Selby Community Trust in Tottenham, a dynamic community centre with community organisers in one of the most multi-cultural and deprived areas in London. I spoke to Paul Butler, the Chief Executive, from Jamaican dissent, he told me he has already lost a number of people from his family due to Covid-19. The most heart-breaking story being a relative who wanted her body flown back to Jamaica, this happened, and the lockdown was introduced so no family could fly over for the funeral. The personal impact for him had been immense and added to this the Centre has had to close due to the pandemic. With 80% of its income derived from renting out its space, their essential income has disappeared overnight together with projects it provided with local people.  Paul is worried about the impact on the local community and staff.  At present, the only project it can still provide is a food hub, which issued 92 food parcels on 21st April and 1,676 in the last 6 days.

Food poverty has been a growing problem in the UK for the last few years in large part due to universal credit. The UK is one of the worst performing nations in Europe with 19% of children under 15 living with an adult who is food insecure. The onset of the pandemic, loss of jobs, businesses and school closures, with the provision of at least one meal, has triggered an increase in food poverty and food banks. 

Alongside these depressing statistics Covid-19 has created an entrepreneurial community success story, with a swift, adaptable and creative community response to issues like food poverty. Areas like Canning Town have several new food banks springing up and serving the community. Food banks provide practical and emotional support and a real grass roots solution. However, it’s worth remembering they seldom provide fresh fruit or vegetables and they are always charity or community led with no state funding.

The UK went into the pandemic an unequal society and is coming out with too many deaths from the BAME and low-income community, however something else seems to have shifted – our values have altered. Celebrities are no longer worshipped; in fact their pampered lives seem irrelevant. We’re clapping our NHS and key workers; we thank the people who sell us food and appreciate our postal workers. It feels like a well needed change is coming, the reset button has been pushed. Nigel Farage has been catapulted to the margins and communities have sprung into action. However, to ensure this pandemic doesn’t create a wider more permanent gap in health inequalities, we can never recover from, we need to hold our government to account. We need to remember those who died because the pandemic seeped into the gaps of the unequal world they lived in and make sure when we get back to our new normal the people who kept us alive are remembered and the communities they come from are valued and given the salaries and social status they deserve.

Follow Lourdes on Twitter @LourdesCCo

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