Irene Henderson – Coronavirus and Race

Hello, I’m Irene Henderson, Race Diversity Champion at the Tavistock. I just wanted to make a few brief observational comments about Coronavirus and race. It is really interesting to note how many people have very entrenched views around this pandemic, including how the virus came about and who is responsible, especially bearing in mind that so little is actually known about the virus, its actual origins and its eventual lasting legacy on us all as individuals, but also the wider society.

Who is this pandemic affecting the most?

The current ever changing statistics clearly suggest an increased prevalence of Coronavirus related deaths in the black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) community, with the Guardian Newspaper this week quoting “that people from minority groups appear to be over-represented among the coronavirus deaths, by as much as 27%” (Source: The Guardian 22nd April 2020, 8pm). A very worrying trend if accurate, with no obvious answers as to why the BAME community are so disproportionately affected in this way.

There are of course many possible reasons for the virus to be affecting these specific communities such as:

  1. Professionals on the frontline of Coronavirus in hospitals and other care settings, doctors, nurses and the entire supporting staff teams
  2. Higher percentage of BAME staff in public facing and service industries such as bus & rail transport systems
  3. More intergenerational extended families living together in BAME community
  4. People proximity – higher percentage of BAME people in cities and these are more densely populated areas
  5. Some cases will undoubtedly be due to poor housing or other forms of social deprivation

BAME people are heavily represented in most areas of public service and healthcare, so perhaps it is not so surprising when a health crisis hits, this community is firmly placed in the frontline.

It is encouraging however, to hear that the government is planning research in this area.

Has this pandemic increased the airing of racist views and how will this impact on healthcare staff? 

I would argue that it has, as many healthcare workers are from minority Asian communities. It seems Coronavirus is the new Brexit, fear fuelling racism. 

There have also been many recent reports of racist attacks on people who others assume to be Chinese and therefore ‘responsible for this pandemic’, including the widely reported attack on a young Singapore national on 24th February, who was physically attacked and beaten up by a group of men, on Oxford Street, Central London in broad day light. A very sad state of affairs.  (Source: BBC and online 4 March 2020)

The media too must take care with its language when reporting on this crisis.  More than ever, people need to remember how very powerful and potentially dangerous their words can be and that their words have the power to help or hinder. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) advised those in positions of power or influence, against using divisive or clumsy language especially when on the world stage, and still we have seen very derogatory difficult language used by some world leaders, which is extremely unhelpful and can set the tone to enable open racism. 

When this language goes unchallenged at international level, it can filter down and set the scene for what is played out in our work places, on public transport, in shops and throughout the few remaining social interactions permitted.

So what can we do when we encounter racism?

I think the task remains the same – Don’t be silent – call it out. Record and report all incidents of racism wherever you encounter them. A brave but necessary path.

We can try and think about how we are treating other people. I noticed when I was catching the last rescue flight home from Spain in early March, how quickly things change. The usual local staff smiles enjoyed by holiday makers were replaced by hard stares as we became the potential carriers of a living viral infection, who were therefore no longer welcome. A natural but sad reaction – maybe in itself not obvious racism, but connected to the same roots that stem from fear.

Early years teachers are to be encouraged to teach children empathy for all, intended to reduce the growth of racist views – a big ask really considering children are only in school for a very short while, and most of their social conditioning will be done in the formative years at home. And in adult work settings too, showing and encouraging empathy can still educate.

Here at the Trust there are numerous ways you can register a concern around racism, including:

  1. Speaking to your line manager or HR
  2. Speaking to the Trust Speak Up Guardian or Race Diversity Champion
  3. Seek help from the staff confidential counselling service
  4. Keep checking the NCL In Mind project for updates and information

Out in the community, there are numerous resources available online including Citizens Advice and in extreme cases it is essential to report incidents of racism to the police.

Of course seeking information online has its own issues. During these unprecedented times social media has played an amazing role in enabling people to keep in touch with friends, family and the outside world generally.  However, online anonymity can also enable a platform or dangerous tool for those previously without a voice, to get their hate fuelled speak publicised. 

Try not to expose yourself to this and do not respond to trolls or negative comments.

It is important to check your posts before sharing – know who and what you are promoting.

The old adage remains, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all!

The Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted how much society depends on our healthcare system and those who provide it and this is an opportunity to ensure the services we have now recognised to be vital to the core of our society’s wellbeing, are well supported going forward. 

I would also hope that the contributions of BAME citizens within the healthcare and public service sectors are acknowledged and reflected equally when covered in the media offering the nations’ thanks.

It is more than ok to be afraid, it is only natural for us to be afraid, but it is not ok for us to be racist! The virus does not discriminate and neither should we.

Thank you.

Irene Henderson is the Clinical Governance & Quality Manager and Race Diversity Champion at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust. Irene shares some observations about where race and racism seem to have featured in the unfolding story of COVID-19, and some ideas about what any of us, whether from a BAME background or not, can do to challenge assumptions and practices about race when we see them.