I’m confusing myself, now!

Meanwhile, death rates from Covid-19 are much higher among people of colour than among people defined as white. (almost 3 times higher among Males of African background[1], in England and Wales.) However, it seems highly unlikely that doctors, nurses and paramedics are making openly racist decisions based on their patients’ skin colour. After all, many healthcare professionals come from ethnic minority backgrounds, themselves, and the astonishing myth that black people have a higher pain threshold seems (thankfully) to be a uniquely American phenomenon, possibly originating in attempts to justify slavery.

As with the childbirth mortality rates, I think it helps to remember that most people, including most people of colour, survive Covid-19. Across huge data sets (67,000,000 people in the U.K.) slight tendencies in population groups get gathered together and combined in smaller data subsets made up, by definition, of those who have, by ill luck, fallen foul of those slight tendencies. (150,000 deaths from, or with, Covid-19.) 

Several phenomena may make populations of colour slightly more susceptible than the total population. Many of these factors probably stem from the circumstances that led to minority groups arriving in Britain. Unlike America, British citizens of colour are not the descendants of slaves. They are often the children of economic migrants who came to this country to take less desirable jobs, and live in less desirable areas, because those were the ones available. These jobs tend to be in cities, so ethnic minority groups often live in more crowded districts, with (possibly) fewer GPs per head of population, doing more “front-facing”[2] jobs. All of these factors (slightly) increase their chances of catching Covid-19. 

Meanwhile, the sort of opportunities made available to economic migrants may force them to cluster in poorer paid jobs and thus occupy cheaper more crowded housing, and multi-generational households. Relative poverty leads to relatively poorer health and diet, leading to underlying conditions that may make them more susceptible to Covid-19 complications. There have also been suggestions that lower levels of vitamin D in dark-skinned people living in less sunny countries, and the susceptibility of those with sickle-cell conditions to blood clots, may be contributing factors to Covid-19 mortality rates.

These are massive generalisations, of course: slight tendencies in whole populations. Millions of people of colour do not fit any of these characteristics. And, anyway, each of these factors only slightly increases a person’s chances of catching Covid-19 and/or suffering severe effects from the disease. They may combine to give a person a markedly higher risk. However, these statistics only make sense when looking at groups and at hypothetical futures. In the present, an individual person either catches Covid-19 or they don’t. People who catch it either die or they don’t. 

It’s only when you cream off, and study, the subset of those who have died, ignoring the vast majority who don’t catch it, or who do but survive, that an inequality becomes apparent. This group is highly unlucky by definition. Increased risk doesn’t guarantee a negative outcome, but in these cases it has. A factor that rarely, and slightly, increases vulnerability to Covid-19 suddenly gains horrible significance. Something that most people shrug off, or dodge, with such ease that they are unaware of it, is now a contributing factor in a death, and thus a racial disadvantage. But only if you die. 

So, if you analyse the figures by ethnicity, you will find a disproportionately higher number of minority deaths. This may still be a small number, just higher than you’d expect given the smaller size of the population.

However, the same would be true if you categorise deaths by income or by BMI or gender or whether sufferers have asthma. It is still a highly unlucky person who is killed by Covid-19. So, a person of colour contracting the disease can be reasonably confident that they won’t be carried off by it. This is exactly the same experience as their white brothers and sisters.

I think. 

A disproportionate number of deaths is a serious matter, and, again by definition, an example of inequality and thus injustice. It is imperative that, as a society, we seek out the causes, and redress the balance.

But anger, especially directed at individuals, is likely to be unjustified in its turn. No single person or even single group of people, have done this to you. That’s the point about systemic racism: it’s in the system, not in the gift of one decision maker.

Yet anger and blame are what we are being encouraged to indulge in. In a recent documentary, on BBC 1 (Why Is Covid Killing People Of Colour? 02/03/’21), one bereaved relative (of colour) says, in bewilderment, “It’s difficult to know who to blame…”

Of course, this is because no-one is directly to blame. But it’s clear that many people are going to try and find a target…


[1] According to the Office of National Statistics

[2] Jobs where they come face to face with a lot of infected people: doctors, nurses, care-workers, waiting staff, etc.

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