When health chiefs announced this week that Blackburn, Lancashire, was in danger of a renewed coronavirus lockdown Zaffer Khan knew the city’s Asian residents would be in the firing line.
The head of the One Voice Blackburn community organisation was born in the town and has learned well to read its mood.
“We’ve had a sea of media coming here, and many are trying to pick holes in the local mosques,” he told Socialist Worker, referring to the way some insist prayer meetings are how the virus has spread.
Recent coronavirus testing put Blackburn on high alert after infection rates jumped from 29.5 to 41 cases per 100,000.
In nearby Pendle the numbers rose from 14.2 to 67.8 over the same period.
But in reality, a legacy of structural racism lies behind Blackburn’s spike in Covid-19 cases.
Unlike in Leicester, health authorities haven’t been able to identify where the virus has been widely spread at workplaces.
This makes it highly likely that the critical factor is the cramped living conditions that many Asian people are forced to live in.
A ramped up testing regime in the region may also be exposing levels of Covid-19 that remain undetected in other towns.
The figures are significantly lower than Leicester, which dramatically went back into lockdown earlier this month.
But Pendle and Blackburn now rank second and third on the table of areas with high infection rates.
Transmission of the virus seems to be through “community spread”, with young people under 19 being among the most likely age group to be infected.
Testing since the beginning of the month found an additional 114 cases, of which 97 were people of a South Asian background.
And it is that fact that has triggered a racist response.
Many have been quick to charge that Asians prefer to live in multi-generational housing and that’s why the virus is spreading.
But Zaffer says a lot of assertions are based on stereotypes.
“The Asian community here is diverse. Some people live multi-generational houses, but others are quite middle class and live in houses in Beardwood, Hammock and Mellor,” he said.
“You can’t just lump everyone together.”
No one chooses to live in houses with too many people, but for many poverty dictates.
Over decades Asian people, and many others, have fought to have their housing needs recognised, but for far too long local authorities and housing associations ignored them.
Now, nearly 12 percent of people in Blackburn live in houses of over five people, while the average across the north west of England is less than 6.5 percent. “People here are trying their best to stick to the coronavirus rules, and I can say the Muslim community has been impeccable in doing so,” says Zaffer.
“But we’ve had so many mixed messages from the government. And that’s why the mood here is quite angry—the blame for what’s happening should lie with central government.”
Barred from decent homes and forced into ghettos
For many Asian people living in Blackburn, poverty and racism dictates quality of housing.
In the 1960s and 70s it was common to for Asians to be told that there was no room for “people like you” in private boarding houses.
Many councils bowed to prejudice and restricted Asians to particular parts of town, and reserved the most modern housing for white families.
These pressures forced many Asian workers to club together to buy small houses in the cheapest parts of town.
Often they lived many to a room.
Sometimes workers alternated their beds depending on their working shift patterns.
Racists then described this way of living as “squalid”, as if it were a willing choice that desperate migrants had made.
As communities became settled and savings accumulated, families from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh joined the men who had gone on ahead to Britain.
As a result, housing demand grew still further.
But the pressure to keep Asians in a ghetto persisted.
For instance, estate agents refused to show perspective buyers houses in “white areas”.
Local councils worried about allowing an Asian family to live on a white estate.
Against the background of racist attacks that were sickeningly familiar in the 1970s and 80s, many decided to stay in Asian-dominated areas for their own safety.
The patterns of dangerous overcrowding we see today or not the result of “cultural choice”.
They come from generations of systemic racism.
Suffering from overcrowding
Government rules say that a house is overcrowded if two people of different sexes over the age of ten have to share a bedroom.
Nationally, around 2 percent of “white British” people are classified as living in overcrowded housing.
But 7 percent of people who describe themselves as “Indian” are overcrowded, as are 16 percent of “Pakistanis” and a staggering 30 percent of “Bangladeshis”.
In households with an income of between £400 and £499 a week, some 2 percent of whites are overcrowded while 14 percent of Asian households are.
Don’t listen to Tory bluster
Boris Johnson was quick to shift the blame for the lockdown in Leicester earlier this month, saying there were “problems getting people to understand” what to do.
It was a nod and a wink to racists who claim Asians can’t speak English.
Home secretary Priti Patel then chimed in, suggesting that “cultural sensitivity” had prevented authorities taking action against sweatshop factories that remained open.
Blaming the victim is the classic Tory strategy to divert attention away from its own shoddy record.
Some boroughs are hit worse
Research by Inside Housing magazine shows there is a strong correlation between overcrowded housing and the areas of Britain worse hit by coronavirus.
The London boroughs of Newham, Brent and Tower Hamlets are among the worst hit by Covid-19 deaths. All three have overcrowding at levels above 15 percent of the population.
They also have large concentrations of people from South Asia.