COVID-19 BAME Inquiry could be a turning point for health inequalities. We cannot let it be undermined
By Natasha Dhumma, Head of Policy & Campaigns, NAT
On Friday it was revealed that Trevor Phillips had been appointed to a key role in the Government’s inquiry into BAME deaths as a result of COVID-19. The urgency of this inquiry cannot be questioned considering the disproportionate suffering of people of colour from the pandemic; black people constitute 3.4% of the population in England yet account for 6.4% of the deaths so far, and almost three quarters of healthcare workers losing their lives on the front line were BAME.
This situation did not emerge in a vacuum, COVID-19 merely illuminates and exacerbates existing health, social and economic inequalities. It is these same inequalities that fuel racial disparities in HIV, where black African communities are over-represented in new diagnoses and late diagnosis in particular, but also across sexual health, mental health, diabetes and some forms of cancer. The Marmot Review 10 Years On, a report published earlier this year that looked at the progress made on health inequalities, warned that they have widened over the last decade, with those living in deprived areas hit the hardest by decreasing life expectancy and increasing periods of ill health. We therefore welcome this focused review of COVID-19 as an opportunity to tackle the broader injustices rampant across public health impacting the groups we work with.
Trust, confidence and involvement of BAME communities in this inquiry, that are also key populations in the fight against HIV, is of utmost importance if its process and findings are to have any legitimacy and instigate the sea change so desperately needed to eradicate entrenched inequality. Unfortunately Mr Phillips has earnt very little trust and confidence among those it most needs to engage. He has routinely disregarded the very real structural and underlying issues producing racism, favouring instead a ‘deficit model’ that lays blame on BAME groups, and his comments that Muslims see the world “differently from the rest of us”, are some of the reasons he is widely considered to hold Islamophobic and racist views. Just last month Mr Phillips was suspended from the Labour Party following allegations of Islamophobia. If credibility is central to the success of this inquiry, his position is clearly untenable.
Since this announcement we have seen 100 leading black British women criticise his appointment, it was branded as “wholly inappropriate” by the Muslim Council of Britain and former Conservative Party chair Sayeeda Warsi and Lord Woolley have together warned that the review will now struggle to be “taken seriously”. That Mr Phillips can raise alarm bells from across the political spectrum is testament to how ill-suited he is. The Government has repeatedly urged us not to “play politics” with COVID-19 but it is difficult to interpret this move as anything else.
PHE responded to the controversy by saying they need to “move fast to understand why and what can be done about this”. We wholeheartedly agree. But this inquiry is too important to risk undermining it from the outset. If conducted properly and with sensitivity, it will enable not only lessons to be learnt but grieving communities to heal. We therefore urge PHE to withdraw Trevor Phillips’ appointment and collaborate with leading BAME healthcare workers, academics and community advocates to identify the expertise needed to take this vital work forwards. Considering the urgency with which so many voiced their concerns we do not doubt a credible resolution can be found swiftly.