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Why do British Bangladeshis have some of the worst Covid outcomes in the UK?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 9 July 2021

geralt / Pixabay

Victoria Redclift and Kusha Anand.

As the Government lifts the remaining Covid restrictions, many scientists, politicians and commentators fear that this latest phase of the pandemic will again bring greater risk to those with insecure and public-facing jobs. Many of these people are from ethnic minorities, and our recent research helps explain why they have been disproportionately affected throughout the past 18 months. It suggests that racial discrimination in employment has played a part.

The pandemic has drawn our attention to pre-existing inequalities. In the Covid-19 crisis, ethnic inequalities show up in two fundamental ways: first, through exposure to infection, and second, through the impact of lockdown on income.

At the same time, the consequences of the crisis are not uniform across minority ethnic groups. Understanding why these variations exist is imperative for thinking about the role policy can play in tackling inequalities. According to Public Health England, the people most at risk of dying of Covid have been of Bangladeshi ethnicity. They have been twice as likely to die as white British people and, if treated in hospital, only half as likely to survive. British Bangladeshis over 60 are 60% more likely than their white counterparts to have a long-term health condition that makes them particularly vulnerable to infection.

Data from our recently-completed research highlights the effect of long-term structural inequality in areas like the labour market, which we believe has contributed to these Covid-19 outcomes. Funded by the ESRC and Leverhulme to investigate the relationship between the local and transnational citizenship experiences of Bangladesh-origin Muslims in London, Luton and Birmingham, our research found that discrimination in the labour market was particularly pronounced among visible Muslims. This discrimination has had a significant impact on intergenerational social mobility.

The study, conducted between 2015 and 2020, included in-depth semi-structured interviews with British Bangladeshis in the form of same-sex parent/child pairings. We also conducted oral history interviews and civil society interviews in each location, producing some 75 interviews with 120 people, complemented by ethnographic observation.

Many interviewees described difficulties in accessing jobs and in seeking promotion. As a result, Bangladesh-origin Muslims are concentrated in public-facing jobs, either in the unskilled service sector or as ‘essential’ or ‘key’ workers. Unable to work from home, they are at greater risk of exposure to infection. This risk could increase as social distancing and mask-wearing decrease.

Moreover, there is some evidence to suggest that racism can lead to ethnic minorities being placed in more dangerous frontline roles. A recent study has shown that racism persists in the NHS, and too little attention has been paid to this in our understanding of Covid-19 outcomes. Labour market discrimination and limited social mobility (alongside cultural factors but just as important) result in higher rates of multigenerational household occupancy, increasing the risk and exposure of individual household members further.

What can be done to reduce discrimination in the labour market? Based on our research, employers should collect data on applications, interviews and offers, and – for existing employees – on promotion, retention and pay. Policies should address racial and religious discrimination by looking at pay and promotion gaps and by mandating name-blind CVs for applicants. We need to have a much better understanding of how discrimination blocks access to particular sectors of the labour market, but also how discrimination holds people back once they’re employed.

To complicate things, our data suggests that health messages are not getting through. Among a significant proportion of the British Bangldeshi community there is a mistrust of the Government, which stems from policies towards Muslims since 9/11, including the controversial Prevent policy, as well as the perception that public authorities have failed to address the socio-economic disadvantages faced by the community. Many of our respondents also reported poor experiences when visiting GPs. Some adult children in our sample reported the feeling that their parents were not taken seriously in healthcare settings due to language barriers. We believe this mistrust may also impede communication of public health messages.

SAGE itself has suggested that ‘structural and institutional racism and discrimination’ is partly to blame for vaccine scepticism among BAME communities. We argue that some of the policies that have contributed to this mistrust must be examined – not only the systemic racism in the provision of healthcare, but also a broad range of policies that foster resentment.

In particular, the independent review of Prevent must finally deliver its recommendations. Our data suggests that the statutory duty imposed on public bodies to report concerns of extremism fosters discrimination against people of Muslim faith, generates mistrust among the Muslim community, stifles learning in educational environments, and is altogether counterproductive. As one interviewee put it, “Whenever we talk about PREVENT, we’re talking about Muslims, not about any other kind of radicalised group, like Britain First for example”.

Meanwhile ‘hostile environment’ immigration policies have exacerbated anti-Muslim feeling and created a climate of fear among Bangladesh-origin Muslims who are not migrants.

Finally, our findings demonstrate that charitable organisations provide invaluable resources to elderly members of the British Bangladeshi community, filling a gap created by a lack of funding at the local level, particularly in areas such as adult education and English classes. Much of this support has been lost since the start of the pandemic. Our research suggests that its absence, together with loss of income, leaves people extremely vulnerable.

The long-term effects of the current pandemic will be borne by the British Bangladeshi community for many years. There is a pressing need to tackle the structural inequalities at their heart. And abandoning all restrictions must not mean abandoning all support.

From ‘Transnational Practices in Local Settings: Experiences of Citizenship among Bangladesh-origin Muslims in London and Birmingham’. Funded by the ESRC (ES/N000986/2), and ‘From Brick Lane to Little Bangladesh: Experiences of Citizenship  among Bangladesh-origin Muslims in London and LA’ (PLP-2014-221), based at University College London.


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