Puru Miah is a Labour Councillor in Tower Hamlets, East London. You can follow Puru on Twitter @th_puru.
The latest ONS figures show that Bangladeshis are 3.5 times more likely to die from coronavirus. But what the numbers don’t reveal is the human impact of these numbers. Victims of inequality and racism, COVID-19 is hitting the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities hardest of all.
This year Ramadan in Tower Hamlets, East London, is a somber affair. Not only are the 50 odd mosques in the London Borough empty, but gone are the merry communal gatherings to break the fast every evening. A subdued atmosphere reinforced with the knowledge that the Muslim community is suffering from many coronavirus deaths. Higher than the indigenous white community, but why?
Data collected and analysed show that the coronavirus is hitting hardest those at the bottom of society: working class families on low income; those in precarious employment; ethnic minority communities; all the key unfortunate identifiers of being a Muslim in 21st century Britain. It has brought into stark contrast the decade long effects of austerity, increasing poverty and the hostile environment towards migrants. All rising indicators marching to the ever-louder mood music of Islamophobia.
Council estates in East London now resemble overcrowded prisons. No gardens, no second homes in the countryside, just chronic multi-generational overcrowding. Living in these conditions, 24 hours a day, is resulting in mental stress with ever-increasing domestic tensions. At least in a prison one can expect three square meals a day, but that is now fast becoming a luxury for an ever-increasing number.
A majority of households on these estates have wages that need to be topped up by benefits. Wage-earners in these inner-city households have part-time or zero-hour contracts in retail, leisure, hospitality and transport sectors, all of which are now shut down. In between these estates, are swathes of private rented accommodation, where unscrupulous landlords and agents are implementing their very own version of the shock doctrine, exploiting tenants for profit.
Countless times I and others have had to intervene, reading the riot act to landlords and agents. Further to this, there is the hostile environment for migrant workers, a multi-dimensional application of “separate but equal” – separate in terms of remuneration and no recourse to public funds and services, but equal in terms of economic output. This has resulted in many migrants being left destitute and at greater risk of infection.
Muslim and BAME deaths
Looking at a map of Tower Hamlets, the clusters of coronavirus victims in the East End bathe in the open wounds of politically-created deprivation. An observation verified by statistics.
The IFS analysis report on the Coronavirus, “Are some ethnic groups more vulnerable to COVID-19 than others?,” states: “After stripping out the role of age and geography, Bangladeshi hospital fatalities are twice those of the white British group, Pakistani deaths are 2.9 times as high and black African deaths 3.7 times as high. The Indian, black Caribbean and ‘other white’ ethnic groups also have excess fatalities, with the white Irish group the only one to have fewer fatalities than white British.”
In neighbouring Newham things are even starker – it has recorded the worst mortality rate in England and Wales, 144.3 deaths per 100,000 people. This has translated in one instance with 27 deaths on one street alone. The borough’s deprivation and diversity make it particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Our medical evidence reminds us that people with pre-existing health conditions are most at risk and health inequality analysis demonstrates why, but it is the trenches being dug in East London, in Muslim cemeteries, to accommodate the increasing number of dead that captures more than material essence of what is going on here.
They are victims of a double epidemic – one, a hidden epidemic that has lasted for over a decade, of poverty, discrimination and rising inequality. The other a short one, in the full glare of the media, the war against a protein waged by our valiant rulers.
We have heard it all before and plenty of times, British exceptionalism and stoicism in the face of a foreign invading virus; but little about an isolated, indifferent and incompetent ruling establishment.
A consequence of the splendid isolation of decision-makers from reality is the appointment of Trevor Philips by Public Health England to an inquiry to look into these high numbers amongst the Muslim and ethnic minority communities. This is despite concerns raised by the Muslim Council of Britain at his appointment and a critical video published by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims, yet Phillips was deemed the appropriate author to help write the public reasoning for such high COVID-19 deaths in the Muslim community.
Such actions leads one to conclude that when a hard copy of the official history is written a sanitised version will be published, where one kind of epidemic will be recorded and reinforced, the others less so.
The national flag used first as a blindfold and then as a ceremonial shroud to bury the dead. Patriotism will be weaponised to cover up government failure, and our own sense of innate pride will be mouldered to justify it. Medals will be given out, heroes will be made, statues erected and victory declared. A national spirit will be invoked, a fitting goodbye, aided by the mesmerising effect of pomp and circumstance afforded by the monarchy. It will all be reduced to a number, to be buried away in some official archive, all non-inevitable deaths in the cause of “COVID Nationalism.”
Away from the flag-waving ceremonies, when this health crisis ends, mosques throughout the country will quietly open their doors. When the call to prayer is sounded, and as worshippers shuffle to stand in line, this time there will be gaps in the rows, faces missing from this regular communal activity. Each a victim with a story, a loving parent, a compassionate sibling, a dutiful child.
Not forgotten, but forever a part of the congregation, living within the collective memory of their community.
“Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes
“Because of those who love with heart and soul,
“There is no separation.”