Rocio Cifuentes, Chief Executive of EYST Wales, reflects on the implications of the Coronavirus for BAME people in Wales
It has become customary in recent weeks to sign off emails with ‘I hope you are safe and well in these strange times’. The truth is that for those of us who can relatively simply transfer our work to being home- and computer-based, then yes, most of us can stay safe and well. Our biggest challenge might be juggling work and childcare or home-education, or maintaining family harmony. The greatest risk we will take will be perhaps a weekly supermarket shop, or talking a walk in a park.
Since the pandemic broke out, and lockdown measures were imposed, the majority of EYST staff started working from home, maintaining contact with clients via phone, email and an ever-growing number of online platforms. Some of our services have also been re-focused, and we are increasingly connected (virtually) to the excellent network of community response services which has sprung up to ensure that foodbanks can sill operate, that people can access advice in different languages, and that children and parents are supported to continue their education at home.
In this new reality, it has been heartening to see the efforts of community groups and individuals coming together to do what they can to get food and support to the most vulnerable members of the community.
Covid-19 is no great leveller
Yet we are the privileged ones. Contrary to public messaging, we are really not all in it together and Covid-19 is no great leveller. Both the virus itself and the measures taken to contain the threat are having disproportionate negative impacts on BAME people and look set to escalate and exacerbate inequality.
Very sadly BAME people represent one third of those hospitalised so far from the virus across the UK Is this because they are weaker, less immune , not following social distancing orders, or somehow lack the ‘fighting spirit’ which we’ve heard about? No, it is because, as they represent a higher proportion of our lowest paid workers – our shelf-stackers, our bus-drivers, our food packers, delivery drivers and NHS workers, they are more exposed to the risk of catching the virus. They are also in the most precarious employment conditions, on insecure contracts, being pressured to work, often in places which do not respect the 2 metre distancing rule, and without adequate PPE. It has never been more obvious that without these people taking such risks, we would not have food and we would not have health care. Our lives literally depend on their efforts, their sacrifices and their bravery.
BAME communities are more exposed to risks
The children of these key workers are equally exposed to risk, attending repurposed schools as childcare providers, and living with the stress their parents are going through on a daily basis. BAME children now facing predicted grades fear that unconscious bias from teachers will affect their grades and therefore their prospects in life. Those still trying to get an education have to do so in cramped living conditions, with poor access to laptops and broadband, and without the luxury of parents who can support their children linguistically, financially to achieve their potential.
Key workers, like BAME people are predominantly not well paid, and have significantly poorer housing. Think about how your own family would cope during this lockdown without at least one laptop in the house for your children to work on, without good broadband, and without a garden? Even one of those hardships seems too much to bear.
When key workers live with their own vulnerable parents, as BAME families are more likely to, both the risk and the stress multiply. Add to that higher levels of existing health conditions such as diabetes, mental ill health and barriers to accessing health information and support due to language barriers and now digital exclusion.
All of this paints an overwhelmingly bleak picture for those who are already the most disadvantaged in society, and exposes the stark divide between the privileged stay at home classes and those forced, unprotected onto the frontline.
At the very least, public recognition of the sacrifices and the disproportionate burden being carried by people from BAME, Migrant and Working Class backgrounds in sustaining our privileged lives would be welcomed. And not only recognition, but also pay, protection and perhaps some kind of settlement or compensation. While the Hostile Environment policy is seemingly on hold, this is the time to start asking these questions and securing some commitments from our public and political representatives. After all, this is in all our interests.