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Marking the second anniversary of lockdown: Jabeer Butt OBE

How to mark the second anniversary of the March 23 2020 Government announcement that the country would go into lockdown?  Perhaps by remembering the many family, friends and colleagues who passed as a result of a COVID infection.  But many of these people are remembered every day because of the daily reminders of people we will no longer see on a training course, or at the weekend, or when visiting family.  As importantly, with the COVID infection rate now rising and more news of serious ill health and deaths, it seems the grim realities of COVID are with us for some time yet.

One way we would have wanted to mark this anniversary is by a clear signal that Government has learned the lessons from the pandemic and its disproportionate impact on Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities and is taking steps to ensure that this does not happen again.  Sadly, evidence that this is the case is hard to find. 

Inclusive Britain, the Government’s response to the Commission on Ethnic and Race Disparities, commits Government to better understand the disproportionate impact on these communities. But its language of “disparities” repeats the now-familiar attempt to explain disproportionate impact in terms of individual behaviours and/or pre-existing conditions, rather structural factors such as racism.   The consultation on the terms of reference of the Government’s COVID Inquiry appears to provide some hope that we may be able to influence its focus and evidence-gathering.  However, even the most optimistic timetable would mean that any lessons and subsequent actions are years away.

There are lessons that should be being acted on now.  Whilst we were hearing of deaths and being told that those who were responsible for Muslim and Jewish funerals were being overwhelmed in places like London and Birmingham, it was the publication in April 2020 of the ICNARC analysis of who was occupying ICU beds broken down by ethnicity that began to provide the hard data on disproportionality.  Yet the Care Quality Commission was not able to provide any data on the deaths in care homes by ethnicity until July 2020, and that was only after setting up a new form to complete.  These and a myriad of other examples highlight the importance of having ethnicity data, yet in health and elsewhere, the infrastructure remains weak, with questions of accuracy and completeness still being raised. 

This may seem a particularly dry point to raise, but I suspect in the end it will be these sorts of weaknesses in infrastructure that will be highlighted as undermining the collective action that was taken. Collective action that undoubtedly made a difference, but also failed to stop the disproportionate impact of the pandemic.  So perhaps, to mark the second anniversary, what we need to do is to commit ourselves to shout about the changes that need to be implemented now.  Perhaps this is one way to remember those we have lost.

Jabeer Butt OBE is the CEO of the Race Equality Foundation.