openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Why are a third of UK COVID-19 patients ethnic minority?

People of colour are being hit disproportionately by this crisis. Why?

Sunny cropped.jpg
Sunny Hundal
11 April 2020
Dr Amged El-Hawrani and Dr Adil El Tayar, the first medics to die of COVID-19

Here’s a startling statistic: around 35% of critically-ill Coronavirus patients in Britain are of ethnic-minority background, even though we comprise just 14% of the population.

This research by the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre (ICU) is the first of its kind in the world. Should it set off alarm-bells? Am I more susceptible to Covid-19 as someone of South-Asian background? Are my parents? Should we be worried?

Or is this down to racism? Are minorities being discriminated against in the NHS? It's easy to jump to such conclusions but I think that would misrepresent what’s going on here.

For a start, Covid-19 has a strong geographical bias towards big cities. It spreads in packed areas far more easily than in spaced out rural areas. BAME Britons are much more likely to live in London and the West Midlands - the two biggest hot spots - than white Britons. That makes a huge difference. But the data also shows the proportion of critically-ill black patients is *double* that of Asians, so geography alone cannot explain the stark differences.

South Asians are more likely to have diabetes and heart disease - which makes us more vulnerable to Covid-19. This should be a reminder we need to eat healthier and change our habits too. Furthermore, we are more likely to live in large, multi-generational households and more likely to go to packed-out places of worship. That makes it easier for the virus to spread around.

Socio-economic factors play a part too: poorer people live in more densely packed households and generally have poorer health. Poverty exacerbates the racial divides.

But Matt Singh pointed out something interesting: since non-white Britons are statistically much younger than whites, the disparity is even bigger than topline numbers show. The nationwide proportion of non-white Britons over the age of 50 is half that of white Britons. As a younger population there should be less of us in Covid-19 critical care, but that’s not the case.

Which brings me to my final point. I suspect a key reason why non-white Britons are over-represented in Covid-19 critical care is because we are more likely to be working in ‘key’ frontline work.

Bus drivers, train operators, cleaners, supermarket workers — all the people we are relying on to run society while we self-isolate — are overwhelmingly from ethnic minority backgrounds.

43% of senior NHS doctors and 47% of junior doctors were of Black or Asian backgrounds as of March last year. The numbers are higher in positions like cleaning staff.

The Telegraph is maintaining an updated list of NHS workers who have died from Covid-19. 15 of the 21 dead listed right now are non-white.

Ethnic-minority Britons are at the forefront of keeping our country running. We should be proud of that fact, even though we are paying the price. Remind this to anyone the next time they rail against immigrants.

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