Earlier this month a study published by Lancet Public Health surveyed almost 1.4 million adults (over 55 years of age) and found new insights into why people of Black and South Asian origin have a greater risk of death from Covid than white people.
Dr Ruth Watkinson, who led the study, suggests that “It is going to be really important that, as we move beyond the pandemic, we don’t start to look away again, and that we put health equality and equity right at the heart of any efforts to build back better.”
“We saw that, consistent with other findings, people from many ethnic minority groups are more likely to have certain long-term health problems, and a greater number of them,” said Watkinson. “But on top of that we saw these different layers of disadvantage building up, so people from some ethnic minority groups are also more likely to report that they had a poor experience when they went to their GP practice.”
Given the way Covid has disproportionately affected people from Black and South Asian backgrounds, and the fact that a high number of key works are also from Black and Asian backgrounds, would it then make sense to prioritise those people to get the vaccine?
BME people are not a homogenous group and should never be treated as such – there is no one solution that fits all. However, as evidence shows BME adults have been disproportionately affected by coronavirus, making up only 12% of the population but experiencing higher rates of death and infection. How a healthy society works is that those who are vulnerable are cared for and protected – and as we have seen during this pandemic, BME communities have continuously sacrificed and put their own lives on the line multiple times for the good of the country. Furthermore, different socioeconomic factors such as the level of wealth and occupation has put BME people at risk. So why has this country, who many BME people have given so much to, not decided to care for and protect them in the way that it should?
There has been a heavy news focus on the fact that there is less uptake of the vaccine across BME communities, and yet, whilst this is helpful, it also keeps the focus on BME people’s actions. The Government has a responsibility to not only educate, but to provide what at-risk people need!
They must address why BME adults were not on the priority list for the COVID-19 vaccine – a vaccine that has been praised by the Government as being the key to our current pandemic. Some may argue that basing priority on ethnic background discrimination by some, but positive discrimination and differentiation is not a bad thing – that is how you separate those who are at risk. BME people have remained as an afterthought of the Government. Extensive studies are carried out, findings are published, and the facts remain the same. Yet BME communities have to continuously justify why they should be protected. It is time for action.
We are no stranger to studies around racism in the NHS. The study above highlights what most people already knew. We know for example that Black women are more likely to die during childbirth than any other race, and this has less to do with genetics and more with how much Black women are believed when they come to their GPs with complaints etc.
There is a huge distrust between people of colour in the UK and the government. Partially this has been exacerbated by the fraught history of eugenics, sterilisation and colonisation of African and South Asian countries.
We are already receiving reports to suggest that the hesitancy of the vaccine is more than 70% amongst Black people, which is nearly three times higher than vaccine hesitantly rates amongst white people.
Liam Smeeth, a clinical epidemiology professor at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, when asked about the study around vaccine hesitancy said: “These are preliminary findings but they do suggest worrying patterns, and they are particularly worrying because the groups that are getting lower coverage are those most at risk of bad outcomes,.”
While it is important to be aware of vaccine hesitancy rates, Black and South Asian people cannot be blamed for being cautious. They will not and should not be forced to be guinea pigs. While they should be prioritised for having the vaccine, they should not be berated for not taking it.
I’m afraid that a policy to prioritise vaccine for BAME people would result in more distrust and lead to victim blaming if people don’t take the vaccine.