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Housing, Inequality and Covid-19

Systemic and institutionalised racism targeting black and ethnic minority and migrant communities has created a spider web of discrimination in all factions of society. Consequently, these groups experience more socio-economic inequalities and poverty resulting in deprivation of housing, health, employment and over-representation in the criminal justice system, to name a few.

While the focus has been on how Vitamin-D deficiencies have caused such a high mortality rate as a consequence of COVID-19, the data suggests that the real culprit is social inequality. The Covid-19 pandemic, which is causing high mortality and infection rates amongst minority groups, despite these groups making up 15% of the population in the UK, can be compared to the disadvantages present within the housing sector. The interconnectedness between the two helps us recognise that racism is not isolated and is created by stereotypes that perpetuate a lack of empathy for the lives of people of colour. Once this is understood, we can consciously begin to break down blurred lines of equality from the top down that creates vertical solidarity between the political class and understand the needs of BAME groups.

The Covid-19 Disparities Report published by the UK government in June 2020 concluded that the virus disproportionately affected people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups. The Intensive Care National Audit and Disparities in the risk and outcomes from COVID-19 40 Research Centre (ICNARC) found that Black and Asian patients were over-represented among those critically ill with confirmed COVID-19. People who self-identified as Bangladeshi were more at risk, with twice the risk of death compared to people of white British ethnicity. People of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and other Asian, Caribbean and Other Black Ethnicity had between 10-50% higher risk of death compared to those who self-identified as White British. Black males were 4.2 times more likely to die from a COVID-19 related death than White males.

Although there may be no specific research that correlates Covid-19 deaths with housing, it is important to consider the impact of living conditions when self-isolation and social distancing are the prescribed methods to protect yourself and others from infection. The Covid-19 Disparities Report 2020, suggested that the higher mortality rates amongst minority groups and susceptibility to the virus is a consequence of living conditions. Overcrowding within the home makes it difficult to maintain social distancing or quarantine when someone in the household is infected. As viruses tend to spread quicker in small places, families may not have a spare bedroom or be able to maintain distance and consequently transmission is quickly facilitated. I have personally heard of stories in which more than one household member has tragically died as a result of contracting the virus from someone else within the household.

The Public Health Regional Director for London, Kevin Fenton, highlighted in his report, ‘Beyond the data: Understanding the impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities’ that more consideration needs to be given to the housing challenges faced by BAME communities and highlighted the importance of factoring in socio-economic, occupational, cultural and structural factors (including racism, discrimination and stigma) which have impacted COVID-19 outcomes.

A government study found that between 2014-2017, 679,000 of 23 million households in England were overcrowded. Overcrowding was most experienced by Bangladeshi (30%) and then Pakistani (16%), Black African (15%) and Arab (15%) households. Only 2% of White British households experienced overcrowding and White British households were less likely to experience overcrowding across all socio-economic groups. Furthermore, in 2010 the Race Equality Foundation found that Black and minority ethnic households are more likely than white households to be living in overcrowded conditions and this is particularly the case for Bangladeshi and Black African households and that overcrowding is likely to impact health.

These statistics demonstrate the connection between overcrowding and health inequalities that has been brought to the fore by Covid-19. There is a common denominator of overcrowding and high infection/mortality rates among people of Bangladeshi backgrounds. Is this connection merely coincidental?

Moreover, although statistics on underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, high cholesterol and heart problems that are experienced more by certain BAME groups have been used to explore why BAME groups are more likely to become critically ill or die as result of Covid-19, there is a relationship between overcrowding and transmission which must also be considered when implementing new measures and guidance to protect the most vulnerable. Overcrowding and multi-generational living is sparked by socio-economic inequality in the first place and should not be disregarded in attempts to locate the causality of higher death rates among various BAME groups. During the Covid-19 pandemic, a classist approach to social distancing failed to consider long standing research that noted overcrowding in BAME homes.

An unrealistic one size fits all approach favouring predominantly White British middle class standards of living, was applied across the board placing black and minority ethnic households at greater risk, because it ignored the housing deprivation experienced by these groups. Had the guidance been more considerate of the wide range of (housing) deprivation that exists amongst society before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, perhaps there would have been an urge to impose a stricter lockdown before 23 March 2020 to avoid the travesty that unfolded post-23 March amongst the BAME population.

Suggestions that underlying health conditions are to blame for high mortality rates amongst BAME groups fail to paint the full picture when it comes to racism within the health sector. Studies such as the ‘Ethnic inequalities in health: the impact of racism’ have found that people from minority ethnic groups experience poor treatment due to negative attitudes of others regarding their character or abilities which have shown to affect health in a variety of ways. These health conditions are experienced at a higher rate than white counterparts as a consequence of institutionalised racism, which is not limited to patients but also experienced by NHS staff as suggested in February 2020. This feeds into the spider web of discrimination that racism creates and as J Blofeld puts it racist experiences have a ‘corrosive and cumulative effect’.

When approaching housing, class and race we are reminded of the necropolitics of the Grenfell Tragedy. The disregard of the intersectionality between deprivation experienced in housing and poverty by working class black and ethnic minority people by the government during the Covid-19 pandemic is reminiscent of the disdain that caused the loss of life in the Grenfell Tower.

The Grenfell Tragedy 2017, was an example of socio-economic deprivation in action. The poor in society are forced to live in tower blocks not fit for purpose, in fact unsafe for human habitation. Whereas the lives of residents living in luxury flats next door were valued greater. Private corporations who turned a blind eye to the use of combustible materials should be held criminal to a government with strict health and safety regulations years before the tragedy unfolded. The disparities between the rich and poor and overlooks the rights and needs of BAME, migrant and working class people, who have continuously sacrificed their very lives for the betterment of society. Statistics show that BAME staff account for 60% of frontline healthcare worker deaths due to coronavirus.

For minority groups, it is not just about fighting a pandemic or living in suitable accommodation, it is constantly battling marginalisation and proving that their lives are worthy too, in housing, health, education, and criminal justice and so on. It is important, now more than ever, to consciously break down barriers to equality in the UK in the context of Covid-19 and beyond.