David Harewood an actor (whose work I’m unfamiliar with) recently presented a BBC 1 documentary about mental health. His story about being black and being sectioned when he was aged 23, Psychosis and Me, asked questions of society. He found black men like him were more likely to be seen as a threat and sectioned and given higher doses of anti-psychotic medication. Here he has a larger stage to show that Black Lives Matter, when, of course, for the Tory government and society at large they clearly don’t.
Kenan Malik, for example, quotes from a paper recently published by the Policy Institute at King’s College, London, Unequal Britain, and public attitudes to inequality. In it they find around 13% stated ‘most black people don’t have the motivation or willpower to pull themselves up out of poverty.’ This fits in with a larger class narrative of other people, black people, being responsible for spikes in Covid-19. A failure of morality framed around individual shortcomings, which was favoured by nearly half of those in the study. A Victorian response to the feckless poor was a call for them to learn life-lessons from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management in the twenty-first century. Of blaming the poor for being poor. Of blaming Covid victims of bringing it all on themselves.
The report suggests conclusion ‘there is no appetite for change’ is mirrored by an exchange between Harewood and black MP (her skin colour is important) Kemi Badenoch, the government’s minister for equalities. He wants to know why she has dismissed the idea racism might have played a role in putting black and minority ethnic communities at risk from Covid-19.
‘Come on David, you and I both know that things are getting better’, she said.
The Tory government response to reports of structural racism endemic to society is to wheel out MPs like Badenoch, and Priti Patel, or even the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak as exemplars of meritocracy. The no colour bar. The no class bar. That all we need to do as individuals is try harder and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. There’s no structural problems. No institutionalised racism. Grenfell Tower, of course, stands as an indictment against such government propaganda that seeks to name and shame and neuter power, take it out of politics, and shut down debate about inequality and racism.
Harewood visits Tamira, whose father was one of the first members of NHS staff to die from Covid-19. She tells us how not enough was done to protect him at work. He lacked protective equipment, but felt unable to complain. Senior-management posts are, of course, predominantly white for historical, racist reasons. And 95% of those medical doctors killed by the Covid-19 are not white. Those facing the viral onslaught are people of colour.
Harewood’s experience as a young man is mirrored by researcher Dr Jenny Douglas investigating people of colours experience of the NHS during and after childbirth. Her research found black women are five times more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth than their white cohort. Women she interviewed felt their concerns were not heard by health professionals. And black women were given less medication during childbirth on the assumption black women were somehow able to bare more pain than white women.
American professor Arline Geronimus suggests living with racism has a physiological impact on the body. Constant stress and the expectation that people of colour will be attacked verbally or physically produce cortisone which dampens the immune response. Black patients age faster and suffer from poor health much earlier – a process she calls ‘weathering‘. Black patients’ chronological age does not match their physiological age. Their kidneys and hearts, for example, look as if they belong to a much older patient. And, of course, they die younger.
Harewood meets Andrew Grieve, an air quality expert from Kings College London, who states air pollution can harm every organ in your body, including the placenta. He shows a map of how this is related to income in London. The greater your exposure to air pollution the lower your income.
Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, for example, lost her nine-year-old daughter Ella in 2013 to a fatal asthma attack. Ella’s most severe attacks coincided with local spikes in (mainly traffic) pollution. Simply, poor black people live beside busy roads. And in America hot spots which showed where temperatures were highest mapped out where black people lived. Places so hot it was difficult to get a breath.
Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah campaigned to get air pollution listed as a cause of her daughter’s death. In a landmark ruling in December 2020, the coroner found in her favour, the first time ever that air quality has been acknowledged as a cause of death in the UK. Local authorities now have a duty of care to do something. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Dr Marina Soltan, a respiratory doctor, whose research shows that patients with chronic conditions such as hypertension or kidney disease are nearly twice as likely to die from Covid-19, and that many patients with these conditions come from deprived areas.
Dr Guddi Singh, a paediatric doctor and health expert, who reveals that what happened in Brent is mirrored across the country, where nearly 65 per cent of the local population are black, Asian or from other minority ethnic groups, but the borough had in March 2019 the highest Covid-19 mortality rate in the country. Harewood as a black man is nearly three times more likely to die from Covid-19 that those classified as white. Dr Singh explains that a significant risk factor is the job key workers do. They risk their lives, exposing themselves to the virus to keep the country running. People may clap them, but they’ll not promote them, or offer a pay rise.
The documentary used empirical data to establish what we already know, IPPR and the Runnymede Trust recently estimated almost 60,000 more deaths involving coronavirus could have occurred in England and Wales if white people faced the same risk as black communities.
It found 35,000 more white people could have died if the risk was the same as for the south Asian population.
Investigating claims that there’s something lacking in people of colour that make them more susceptible than white cohorts to the Covid-19 virus. It’s not us, it’s them argument with racist undertones, that regularly crop up in relation to intelligence. The tendency of 70% of Afro-Americans, for example, to be Vitamin D deficient, which is mirrored in the United Kingdom.
This argument was countered in two ways. Going through the charade of Harewood being tested, which showed he was a bit Vitamin D deficient. And Harewood being told that levels of Covid in Africa tend to be less than in whiter Western nations.
Harewood had an obligation to speak out, and he did so, but given the tools to challenge a government minister’s waffling- quite simply- he folded. The working-class cringe is still alive and people of colour should wince when watching.