A-Z

Covid-19 in the community

Racism

In this section, we explore uneven effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on people with different ethnic identities. Topic in this section include:

  • People facing direct racist abuse
  • How ethnic minorities were represented in the news during the pandemic
  • The pandemic revealing existing ethnic inequalities
  • The impact of racism during the pandemic

 

 

Shirin and Mohammed said that BME people were being blamed for spreading Covid.

Shirin and Mohammed said that BME people were being blamed for spreading Covid.

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You remember they were really saying that black and minority Asian, but black and Asian and minority ethnic people are more at risk from Covid. What did you make sense of that then?
 
Shirin: I thought that was very negative. I don’t know why they had to say that in the news because you know like people.
 
Mohammed: Really scared and afraid.
 
Shirin: Not so afraid, it’s about you giving the wrong impression to other communities that we are more affected that shouldn’t be highlighted. That should be hidden agenda, confidential, isn’t it.
 
Mohammed: Yes, this was exaggerated. They’re not telling the true picture. Blaming the BME people. But Covid does not choose who is going to catch the disease [laughs].
 
Shirin: It’s for everybody. You can get it, anybody. It’s not like BME.
 

 


 
Right from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, it seemed that it was affecting some groups of people worse than others. In the UK, people from Black, Asian and other ethnic minority groups have faced a greater burden of illness and death from covid (compared to White people) (1).
 
Many of our participants felt upset when they heard daily news stories of people who looked like them becoming seriously unwell, or dying in large numbers. Irene was disappointed by scientists and the government ‘scaremongering people’ every day, and felt that repeatedly hearing about daily infection and death rates was ‘not good for anybody’s mental health’. Several of our ethnic minority participants also noticed a rise in race-based discrimination during the pandemic.

 
People facing direct racist abuse

At the start of Covid-19 pandemic, many East Asian people in the UK faced multiple direct assaults based on their appearance (2). A few people we spoke to said this was because of the virus being labelled in the media, and by international figures like Donald Trump, as a ‘Chinese virus’. Sunita recalled her East Asian friends being called the ‘Wuhan clan’, and felt it was ‘like people are becoming more paranoid and fanatical and they just want to be angry at anyone’. Emma’s GP, who is Chinese, confided in her about being ‘scared and worried’ that someone might say ‘China virus’ to her. Lyn, a Malaysian mental health support worker, remembers multiple racist and threatening attacks directed at her.
 

 

Lyn had two alarming experiences of racist abuse at the start of the pandemic.

Lyn had two alarming experiences of racist abuse at the start of the pandemic.

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Well, when we first heard of the pandemic from China, Wuhan, it was explosion all over the world and it does not help being an Asian person, especially even though you are not from China. You are from Malaysia, as I told you I am a Malaysian, and how it affects the South East Asian community is because of the labelling because, as you can see on television, the media, where Donald Trump says, “Oh, the Chinese virus.” You know, and this affect a lot of people, which is South East Asian, because some people, they can’t tell between a Korean, Malaysian, Chinese, Indonesian, Filipinos, Vietnamese. To some people, all of us looks the same to be Chinese. So this has affected when comes to daily life because I have experienced two xenophobic attacks before I fell ill in April. And one of them was when I was coming up from shopping and this man just walk up to me and say, “Hey, you know you Asian virus. You should not be here. You people are barbaric. You eat bats. You eat dogs.” And I said, “I’m not going to engage with you because please leave me alone.” And he came right in front my face like that, so close, so close that I can feel his breath and I just say, “Sir, just leave me alone.” And, basically, I just took a dash but he kept following me and I, basically, just ran for my life because no matter how big a man is, you will feel the power is stronger than you I am not in a position to challenge him because I am a woman and I live alone. I don’t have many friends nearby in England and most of my friends are living up in Chester, in Wales and that is not helpful. So the second time was when I finished my shift, I was back then working in a mental health rehabilitation centre. I just finished a twelve and a half hour shift supporting person with mental illness and, on my way home, I was sitting in front carriage and this man came up to me and he, basically, he said, “You are not allowed in here. You have to get off the train.” I was shocked because I had done nothing. “You need to get off. You cannot be in the same train with me.” And, luckily, another gentleman was just sitting the opposite side from me and he came up and said, “Sir, you’ve got to move back. You’ve got to leave her alone.”


 
Over time, these racist encounters spread to other ethnic minority groups as well, such as Black and South Asian people (2). Doreen, a Black woman, felt that anti-Black racism had increased during the pandemic and believed ‘the virus has made some people very hateful’.  Ayny, a hijab-wearing, Muslim woman, recalled the summer of 2020, when the rules allowed a daily outing for exercise: she noticed an ‘obvious transition in people’s body language’ where people crossed the road on seeing her family walking in the park.
 
 

Doreen was racially abused when she went to a shop wearing a mask with an African print.

Doreen was racially abused when she went to a shop wearing a mask with an African print.

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They are a lot of people, and if I’m being honest, became very hateful. I left the house in my mask which was an African print mask, just to go about five minutes from my house to my local Tesco. And people in the car shouted nasty name at me because my daughter got on the bus and walking, and people are shouting names, and that was because of the colour of the mask. The pattern of the mask is an African mask, and we’re shouted names at. “Go back to where you come from with your mask.” What has that got to do with the virus what has that got to do with, why have people suddenly became so nasty?

 
How ethnic minorities were represented in the news during the pandemic

Some people we spoke to felt that international and national leaders and scientists, and news media reinforced the connection between Covid and non-White ethnicity.

 

Shaista described how images connected particular groups with disease spread.

Shaista described how images connected particular groups with disease spread.

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The narrative, the dominant narrative around Covid is laced in racism and bigotry. I defy anyone to tell me otherwise, the evidence is all there. As a journalist, I’m someone that analyses a lot of information and there has been many a time in the past fifteen months when I’ve watched news, when I’ve picked up a newspaper and when there is a particular focus on very racial diversity, like Leicester for example, or Birmingham for example. Frequently what we see is images of a mosque, a masjid in the background and women from a South Asian background. You can identify them from their clothing, a traditional shalwar kameez of a certain age walking along the street and these are the images that are pasted over the voice over of a journalist and the same goes for newspapers. They use this image over and over again. There was also some images on the BBC website of women in hijabs and then references to Covid and they were taken to task by a media pressure group about that. So, these images and this terminology and the connection between Covid is not happening accidently.


 
Jessica, a White respiratory doctor, felt ‘irritated’ when people started making ‘inferences about genetic causes’ to explain the high death rates among ethnic minorities. Public health experts explained it by observing that ethnic minorities are more likely to have underlying health conditions, live in poorly-ventilated, multi-generational households and work in jobs that made them more likely to catch Covid [see 'Risk from exposure']. However, as Irene explains below, rather than acknowledging and addressing these ‘horrendous inequalities’ ethnic minority people faced in society, it contributed towards blaming ethnic minorities for spreading covid.
 
 

Emma felt the media showed black people as spreading disease.

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Emma felt the media showed black people as spreading disease.

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I think part of the problem the way this pandemic so-called had been handled in terms of public service notices, and in terms of information given to the public and the adverts on the TV always showed black people. It was a black nurse who was spreading Covid and hadn’t washed his hands or something. And then were young black males on bicycles walking down the street who were going to give Covid to their grandmother who was dying. You know, that kind of thing was very, and nobody said anything. Nobody made any mention of the fact that, you know, there were black people in the front line in the hospitals dying of Covid, who hadn’t been, you know, behaving badly or doing what they shouldn’t be doing, decent workers. But the narrative was black nurses were spreading Covid and at the bus stop and so forth people would abuse us and say things like, you know, that it’s these blacks who are spreading the Covid, you know. And you could see where they got that idea from. You know, you could tell that they had been watching the TV and they’ve seen these adverts and the NHS didn’t stay, you know, we should stop this.

 

Irene felt frustrated by the way Black people were portrayed in the media.

Irene felt frustrated by the way Black people were portrayed in the media.

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Being somebody from the black community to suffer horrendous inequalities and covid just highlighted how bad it was but it wasn’t to do with the fact that we were making, we were at risk of, we were doing risky behaviours, it was part of the bigger agenda of our health inequalities. And the Government have had an opportunity to address it and they haven’t really addressed it so again we were kind of like, I just find this Government so corrupt but again, they were just using information just trying to twist it. Whereas they weren’t dealing with the proper issues, which was about that the, you know, the poor, you know, they were likely to be working in and having poor incomes. They were living in, you know, multi-occupancies because there were two bedroom family, housing six or seven people, you know. It wasn’t through choice. It’s, you know, and nothing has been done about that.

 
The pandemic revealing existing ethnic inequalities

Similar to Irene, many people we spoke with believed that the pandemic had simply revealed existing deep, structural and social inequalities present in British society. Being denied the same opportunities as White people, over several generations, has meant that many ethnic minority people work and live in difficult circumstances. They feel their voice matters less than their White colleagues and co-workers. (1)
 

 

Miura was not surprised that Black women like her were facing more risk of Covid because she ‘already knew’, from personal experience, how racism forced them into risky work.

Miura was not surprised that Black women like her were facing more risk of Covid because she ‘already knew’, from personal experience, how racism forced them into risky work.

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The only reason I see for me getting the Covid was because of my job.
 
Your occupation, yeah.
 
Yeah and you know that majority of black people although they might have a high education level, of academic skills they are doing a job that doesn’t necessarily really reflect their skill and majority of those jobs are carers. You know, or cleaner and these were key jobs. These jobs would not stop during pandemic so they had to go to their work, they had no other option. I couldn’t say ok, I am not going to my work, for who, who would pay for my meal? You know. I had to go. And a lot of black and brown people you know are in that sort of category and obviously they will be more affected like by the pandemic because they don’t have other option, they need to continue with their work so that’s just another facet of inequality But this just show you how unequal you know like some of the groups are compared to others I would say.
 
And when that news came out, did it hit you at a personal level? Did it make you worry for yourself or was it, was it again mainly worrying for the community, you know for the black community?
 
I would say both, I would say both but in some extent I am already used to our inequality like I know about it. I don’t even have to hear you know some other people saying, oh dah, dah, dah, dah because it’s something I know already. So it’s not like dramatically taken like, because I know that people are like me are disproportionally, you know like compared to other groups so that doesn’t really, you know raise any trigger. But obviously I was worried about the whole community and now people as well as about myself too although I say ok, I think I will survive. I think it is not my time yet to die [laughs].
 
Yeah.
 
Yeah, so it’s sad.

 

 

Shirin describes the experience of being an Asian patient.

Shirin describes the experience of being an Asian patient.

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Do you feel like if you are a white person, in the same situation, you know, your husband going to hospital, everybody feeling frightened about what’s happening, the care you received would be different?
 

I think it will be. ‘Cause I’ve seen it with the white people how they do it. I’ve seen all this.
 
Can you, can you elaborate and how does it, how is it different?
 
How is it different, for example, when it’s a white person, you see the way they talk to them. You see the way they talk to them. The language tone they use. The things you use and when you’re an Asian person, they just want to do everything quick, quick, quick. Throw you out the door. You are done. That’s it. I understand, but not everybody can.
 
In the care home because I know one of my managers and I said, “Oh God, look at the way.” If it’s, if it’s the white client and they got something straight away called the ambulance, okay and the way they described it. When the Asian person then they say, “He’s always moaning about this. He’s always doing this. He’s got nothing.” I said, “How do you know he hasn’t got a pain?”, and she said, “Oh, Shirin you should stop talking. You’re a kitchen assistant. You go back to your job.”

 

 
The impact of racism during the pandemic

Stories of discriminatory treatment of ethnic minority individuals, in healthcare and in public, is traumatising for entire communities, without the need to experience it personally (1). Sonal felt unable to trust the NHS because of two separate incidents where Asian people she knew had not received timely medical care, and later died. Sunita said the stories of racist attacks in public places made her feel ‘a lot more unsafe’ even when she was with her husband. How race-based discrimination was portrayed and handled in public also left a deep impression.
 

 

June recalls when Belly Mujinga, a transport worker, died of Covid following a racist attack.

June recalls when Belly Mujinga, a transport worker, died of Covid following a racist attack.

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Like how was that for you as a black woman and you were just getting this news cycle 24/7 like what did you like make of that at the time?

I think the biggest well the, I was gonna say, the biggest impact was, it was the start of us being a station rail worker, Belly Mujinga. I just think that the way in which the State and her employers have treated her story and her experience is disgusting. You know, the fact that they initially didn’t wanna do anything, the fact that the guy was interviewed and he was let go, you know. What he did was a, was a criminal act and whether and, and it seems to me there was it was too early to dismiss the fact that that they, they were not gonna go any further with the investigations. What investigations did they do to establish that he was in the clear? And I think I read recently that they’re gonna do an autopsy on her and I hope to God they do. And I hope to God that it does show, as much as it can do categorically one way or the other whether he was at fault or not. And then he should be imprisoned, ‘cos he’s, he’s killed someone, taken their life when they were doing their job. He’s deprived a family of their mother, aunt, sister, whatever.

 

Shirin explains how people internalise negative stories about their communities.

Shirin explains how people internalise negative stories about their communities.

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I think Covid really affected our community and that’s where people are hiding and they are saying we are poison, if you go near people, they are sick. We are very affected. We are the one whose gonna spread the germs around, you know. So, obviously, that’s how they, media and the public are portraying the community. If you had never dealt with BME people, never communicated. You hear this is the news, what do you hear? You hear the negative things. Negative things goes into your head. As soon as you see a BME, a black person on the street, you want to go away from them. They are the most affected person that’s it. If you go near them, that’s it, you’re killed, next day.


 
Racism in the UK has a long history, and ethnic minority people are painfully aware of this (1). Ethnic minority participants described their fears about becoming sick, or needing hospital care [see Fears about going to hospital], or how they felt about the covid vaccine [see Vaccination]. They were often concerned that they would not be treated well, because of their appearance. However, the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic made race-based inequalities so clear and visible to everybody can be an opportunity to improve things.
 
 

A respiratory doctor, Jessica sees the effect of racism on health.

A respiratory doctor, Jessica sees the effect of racism on health.

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And I'm very irritated during, you know, the first wave where people started making inferences about genetic causes, and that was absolutely classic with the medical and scientific community, who have not understood the sociological impact of racism and the impact of racism on health. And how racism manifests not just in the way people access healthcare, or their interactions within healthcare once they get unwell, but the entirety of their lives up until that point. And it's been one of the good things to have come out the pandemic. Look, we are at least seeing people talk about this more, acknowledge it more and finally hope we do something about it.


 
As Jessica observes, Covid-19 did bring the conversation about racism in the UK into the mainstream.
 
1.Further information about ethnic inequalities and Covid risk
Public Health England. (2020). Beyond the data: Understanding the impact of COVID‐19 on
BAME groups.
 
Runnymede Trust (2021) Ethnic inequalities in Covid-19 mortality: a consequence of persistent racism.
 
2.Further information about hate crimes against East Asians
Schumann, S., & Moore, Y. (2021). Timing is Everything: The COVID-19 Outbreak as a Trigger Event for Sinophobic Hate Crimes in the United Kingdom. CrimRxiv.
 
 

 

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