Remembering how Black people helped to build the NHS
The NHS, from its beginning, has relied on the committed efforts of workers from all over the world. 1948, the year that it was founded, was the same year that several hundred African-Caribbean people arrived in the UK on HMT Empire Windrush. Many, along with those who came on future ships, became vital NHS staff. Today’s health service employs a significant number of Black people; data from March 2020 revealed this figure to be around 6.5% of the hospital workforce. (In comparison, around 3% of the total UK population are Black African, Black Caribbean, or Black British).
Remembering the impact of Covid-19
However, March 2020 of course saw Covid-19 spread through the UK, along with worrying reports about its impact. People from ethnic minority groups were found to be almost three times more likely to catch the virus, and five times more likely to suffer severe outcomes — including death.
Tragically, the contributions of Black people to public-facing services such as healthcare and transport has been a key reason for exposure risk being higher; additional factors include travelling more frequently by bus and train, increased chance of having certain pre-existing health conditions, and social disparities. There is little evidence to support the idea of genetic reasons making someone more likely to get Covid.
Lockdown measures also hit Black and Asian households hard, influenced by social inequalities that existed before the pandemic:
Black men were 50% more likely than White British men to lose their jobs, or be furloughed, because of restrictions.
People from minority backgrounds are more likely to already be living in poverty.
Fewer children from Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Black backgrounds could access remote education during school closures, compared to their White peers.
Black people are four times less likely to have outdoor space at home.
Many with English language difficulties were excluded from public health communication about the virus, as well as about support and financial help available. Where there was awareness of these barriers, it seems that measures to address them may have focused on South Asian languages, with less provision for those from African backgrounds.
Black and Asian people are more likely than White people to live in overcrowded homes, including in households with people from different generations.
Stress brought by these is thought to have contributed to increased mental health issues among Black and Asian individuals during the lockdowns.
Although some research suggests that White people are more likely to develop Long Covid than people of other ethnicities, other factors elevate Black peoples’ risk. For example, another UK study a showed higher likelihood of long-term symptoms in those who were in poorer health before the pandemic, or who lived in areas experiencing deprivation. Sadly, these factors are relevant to many people in Black communities.
Listening to Black communities
Poor understanding of these unique needs, inequalities, and barriers to getting support creates a “lack of cultural competence” across services. This has made it hard for people to get the help that they needed to avoid serious, sometimes fatal, health consequences.
Whilst there is great reason to celebrate the hard work of Black NHS employees past and present, statistics still show an overrepresentation of White people in most senior roles. In a recent survey of UK residents of Black ethnicity, 65% of respondents had experienced racial prejudice or discrimination from health professionals. Many participants reported feeling unseen, unheard, or that their concerns were not incorporated into treatment plans. As highlighted in the Runnymede Trust’s Ethnic inequalities in COVID-19 mortality report, addressing health inequalities means addressing structural racism.
Time for Change: Action not Words
October marks UK Black History Month, and the theme for 2022 is Time for Change: Action not Words. BHM magazine and website editor, Catherine Ross says: