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Pride and Prejudice in a pandemic

By Cllr Asma Begum:


The recent report published by Public Health England confirmed what I feared but we’d all suspected – that Coronavirus was disproportionality affecting our Black and Ethnic Minority population. The statistic which jumped out at me was that the Bangladeshi community have twice the risk of death than those who are White British. This news report was of course sat between stories about the tragic death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. It seemed that the news was telling me that whatever my community or other minority communities achieved we would still be defined by the colour of our skin.

As a proud British Bangladeshi and Deputy Mayor in Tower Hamlets which is home to Banglatown and Brick Lane and a borough where Bangladeshi is the largest ethnic group, knowing that we might be more suspectable simply because of the colour of our skin makes me anxious for my family, friends and residents. It also makes me really angry as the government is dragging its heels. The PHE report was toothless and didn’t contain anything in the way of solutions. Like the Black Lives Matter protestors I feel a sense of fury at the injustice caused due to our society still discriminating due to people’s backgrounds. I don’t feel the government is making tackling this a priority and it’s letting down our BAME communities.

Of course we know more than most in the East End that health inequalities are not new. Studies have shown as you travel along tube lines in London life expectancy varies widely and we are a city of great wealth and great poverty. The underlying causes are complex ranging from overcrowding and poor quality housing, food poverty and diet.

As the killing of George Floyd told us what we already knew about police brutality in America Coronavirus has highlighted the same about our health outcomes in the UK. The two stories seem to have crystallised the unfairness of what’s been going on for some time, but has previously been accepted. This has opened up wounds of racism and inequalities in communities across the world. I can only hope that they will be catalysts for bigger changes towards creating a much fairer society for my children to grow up in.

Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, Jon Ashworth hit the nail on the head when he said that ‘Coronavirus thrives on inequalities’. A decade of austerity meant progress on health inequalities nationally was going backwards and our public services had been cut to the bone. Locally we’d made the argument against austerity and I believe had our political priorities right, we had maintained a local ‘safety net’ and stood firm to protect this despite budget pressures so we had a council tax reduction scheme, crisis loans and Tackling Poverty Fund in place before Coronavirus hit.

I’m also proud that as a local authority we have been at the forefront of the response to the pandemic. From making sure public health messages get out to all our diverse communities by translating them, providing emergency food and getting rough sleepers off the streets we’ve been on the sides of our residents.

Our elected Mayor John Biggs gets how personal this is not just for me but the residents of Tower Hamlets. He wrote to the Prime Minister demanding action. This week we met with Queen Mary University looking at the latest statistics on the impact of Coronavirus locally and seeing what we could learn from these and what other actions we can take as a council.

Equality is a continuous fight for us all. It should not be about your skin colour or where you live to determine your life chance, how are treated,  that should make you more likely to be stopped and searched or more likely to die if you catch Coronavirus because of your background.  We have to act, we have to change, we have to do better. People in positions of change need to raise their voices and demand better. The government shouldn’t be dragging its heels on taking action. When people are losing loved ones they can’t wait for more reports without recommendations.

Writer Cllr Asma Begum.Deputy Mayor Lodon Borough of   Tower Hamlets