Blog

COVID-19 and the BAME impact – confirmation not revelation

Mike Clancy · 3 June 2020

The publication of Public Health England’s report into the risks of COVID-19 for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities stands in stark contrast to slogans that “we are all in this together”.

For us as a union, it highlights the importance of ensuring we are a voice for our BAME members. For BAME workers, it has simply underlined a lived experience.

The report describes the greater susceptibility and therefore risks that COVID-19 presents to BAME people and confirms what has been tragically observed in medical, care and transport situations. This has rightly driven calls for greater action to help protect and ensure the safety of BAME workers in the NHS and essential work, as well as those preparing for a return to work.

But this also speaks to a bigger issue that we see playing out in the United States. Black lives matter.  And it is an indictment of civic progress that we have to see fellow citizens mistreated or disadvantaged.

As a trade union we have rightly condemned the brutality that has happened in America and shown solidarity with unions supporting peaceful protests over there.

The PHE report has already been criticised for falling short on its conclusions, but what it does underline is that BAME people have additional risk factors that must be considered and addressed as we all assess risk.

Here are the things we are doing as a union:

  • Ensuring the BAME issues, and those of other groups of workers at risk, are raised by reps in undertaking assessments for a return to work.
  • Alongside the Mayor of London, health groups and many other unions we have called for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to undertake a public inquiry into the structural and institutional impacts facing BAME communities.
  • Looking at how we can support our own BAME networks to ensure that the voices of BAME workers are present in our activities.

This needs to be seen as part of a broader debate about BAME and socio-economic disadvantage.

It requires the government to move from slogans full of concern to real action to reduce and then eliminate discrimination on the basis of race. It means agencies such as the EHRC taking a visible role in calling out the issues and building civil society commitment to change.

It means leaving behind the toxic debates about the “value” of immigration and it means unions being prepared to look at themselves whilst they also advocate for change in society.

The mood I want Prospect and Bectu to embrace is one where we are not going to tolerate discrimination and where we are going to make change happen.

I have always been guided by listening directly to members, so whilst we will write the letters and do the assessments I want us to reach out to our BAME members and find out what they are feeling, what makes them apprehensive and what they want from their union. I want us to conduct a wide-ranging survey and conversation with our BAME members so we really know what they are thinking and what they want. Let’s not assume we know.

We have a rich history of driving positive changes through our workspaces, often in difficult circumstances. Our work on the Theatre Diversity Action Plan – led by BAME members in our Bectu sector – is setting new standards on race equality and diversity in the arts. This is what unions should be doing. But we need to do more – to change our union, our industries and our country.

We are about to face an economic meltdown. Once furlough is adjusted jobs will go. There is every chance that without determined action the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the health of BAME people will be repeated as the economy opens for some and closes in a different way for millions. Our work is just beginning.

  • Mike Clancy is general secretary of Prospect