Lies, Damn Lies and Bloody Great Whoppers

The actor David Harewood recently presented a documentary on BBC One, simply called Why is Covid Killing People of Colour? It is fascinating viewing, although the revelations it produces are things we tend to know already[1]. It is illuminating, all the same, to see the facts and figures collected together. The picture that emerges is undeniably one of profound inequity between racial groups.

It is more difficult to explain why this should be the case, in a society that claims to believe in equality and to protect the rights of the individual, and where many members of marginalised groups transcend the barriers placed in their way, although many more do not. Facts and figures are meaningless without a hypothesis that explains them. 

A good example of the problem is the statistic, mentioned in the documentary, that 95% of Doctors who have died of Covid-19 have been from racial minority backgrounds! This is appalling and difficult to explain (impossible to explain away.) A virus is unable to make choices, but what racist decisions could government or NHS leaders have made, in what circumstances, that would lead to such an enormous difference?

The epidemiologist on the programme suggested a couple of factors. The first is that “front-facing” doctors, those actually dealing with the infected patients, are more junior and more likely to be from racial minority groups; those in managerial roles who don’t come into contact with Covid patients, are more likely to be white. I guess this may be more pronounced among the older doctors, who are more vulnerable to severe reactions: it takes time to be promoted up to managerial level, so if manager-doctors are more likely to be white, a higher proportion of older junior doctors will be from minority groups, right?

Racial minority healthcare workers also seem more reluctant to demand adequate protective equipment, presumably because they believe the request would tell against them, in some way. 

There are many more factors that need to be considered in addition to these, though – how big is the data set? Urban hot spots, where Covid 19 spread particularly rapidly, are densely populated. They also tend to be the areas with higher proportion of racial minority inhabitants. Do they also have higher proportions of racial minority doctors? Were they doubly exposed because the communities they lived in were particularly vulnerable (due to population density, etc.) Is there any truth to the suggestion that darker skin blocks the production of vitamin D from sunlight, which builds resistance to Covid? Men appear more vulnerable than women. Are racial minority doctors more likely to be male?

In discussing all the contributory factors, we realise how impossibly varied individual experiences must be, and how permeable the categories of the underprivileged, so that no one person can guarantee that they will experience privilege or under-privilege.

This must demonstrate the fallacy of attributing guilt and complicity to individuals, instead of to structures. We need urgently to address inequality in our society, especially when it is literally a life and death issue, but not by singling people out and destroying them. We all make assumptions and generalise all the time, and when these are pernicious, they need to be challenged, but your peers are not evil criminal geniuses sitting in their mountain lairs, laughing MWAHAHA! 

Attacking and trying to crush them will only alienate people. Creating division is segregation is racism. You are becoming a servant of the demon.

We need to transcend our justified resentments. We need to reach out to each other. (Well, maybe not the English Nationalist Skinheads…)

[1] I’m sure he does too, but the producers need him to pretend to be surprised. He does this brilliantly: he’s an actor!

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