One of the questions I’ve been asked most during the pandemic is what it feels like to be on the COVID frontline. My answer is that it’s terrifying.
As a young, Black doctor I am more likely to catch the virus, die from it, work on the frontline fighting it and be arrested under laws introduced to control it. For those of us at the intersection of these factors, something as simple as getting up and going to work now feels like a life or death decision.
Look around lockdown London at the people still working and you will notice that they are overwhelmingly Black and Asian. In my A&E department, the vast majority of nurses, cleaners and support staff are black. Official data reflects this too: in London, people of colour represent roughly half of all food production, health and social care and transportation workers.
This country was built by and runs on the labour of Black and brown bodies and in a time of national crisis, this is even more apparent. Black people are driving our buses, packing our shopping, collecting our rubbish and caring for our loved ones. Black people are keeping the country alive. So why isn’t the country doing the same for us?
Black people are the most likely group to be diagnosed with COVID. Black people are four times more likely to die from COVID than their white counterparts. Within medical and media circles, there was an early knee-jerk reaction to explain away the racial disparity in COVID deaths as a purely scientific problem. I sat in my office and listened while genetics, blood pressure medication and vitamin D levels were all touted as possible explanations, all of which had little to no credible evidence behind them. It felt like everyone was too scared to face up to the fact that this country was failing its citizens.
The delayed government report into COVID inequality was quick to vaguely reference “socio-economic factors” to explain away the differences. It is undoubtably true that deprivation is a key factor and Black and brown people are overrepresented in deprived areas. But why then were 94 percent of doctors that died in the first month of lockdown Black and brown? Surely our socio-economic status, health education and access to intervention would help protect us?
We have known about this disparity for months. Black and brown healthcare workers have been raising their concerns this whole time. It comes down to a simple fact: we are scared of catching a virus that has been proven more likely to kill us. Last week, three months into lockdown and over two months after NHS England called for individual risk assessments for all healthcare staff, a survey found that 65 percent of doctors who responded had still not been risk assessed. Last week, my hospital sent out the assessments via email, though we’re yet to hear back about any adjustments or actions being taken to protect vulnerable workers. When the hospital’s booking site for antibody tests was set up, it crashed for two days. People are so anxious to get tested that the servers can’t support the requests.
While it feels that on a national level our concerns aren’t being heard, people are taking action more locally. Where I work, the Black and Minority Ethnicity Staff Network has set up peer-to-peer sessions to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on people of colour working at the hospital. The network also organised a hospital-wide kneel, in a show of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and in memory of George Floyd and Belly Mujinga. In the same week, however, a consultant told me in front of 15 white colleagues that racism does not exist in the UK and that “blacks and whites” are treated equally here.
When I was pulled over on my way to a ten-hour shift in A&E this month, I was not surprised. It is not the first time I have been stopped by the police. Nor, I am very much aware, will it be the last. I was more surprised by the fact that my mumbled joke about making a trip to Durham didn’t go down as well as it did on Twitter.
Police figures show that black people are twice as likely to be handed out fines and almost 50 percent more likely to be arrested under COVID lockdown regulations. My experience is not unique. A school support worker was handcuffed and questioned by police while his car was searched, and an ambulance worker was detained and searched for drugs a few days later. Both men were Black.
This pandemic has laid bare the deep-rooted racial inequality that runs to the core of this country. Black and brown people are working, catching COVID, being stopped and harassed by police and dying at a disproportionate rate. So, when you ask me what it feels like on the COVID frontline, this is what I mean when I say it’s terrifying.