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Racism, not genetics, explains why Covid-19 hits black and Asian people harder

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Issue 2700
A bus driver in London during the Covid-19 outbreak. Black and Asian workers are more likely to work in jobs that put them at greater risk of contracting coronavirus
A bus driver in London during the Covid-19 outbreak. Black and Asian workers are more likely to work in jobs that put them at greater risk of contracting coronavirus (Pic: PA)

The front page of Socialist Worker last week featured faces of some of the many workers in Britain who have died from coronavirus. Of the eight people pictured, six were black or Asian.

The photos reflect a tragic fact—that black and Asian people are being hit harder by Covid-19 than white people.

The Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre last week found that 35 percent of almost 2,000 patients were “non-white”. That’s nearly three times the proportion in the population as a whole.

Some 14 percent of the most serious cases were Asian, and another 14 percent were African, or African-Caribbean.

How can we explain such disproportionate figures?

Some have pointed to underlying health conditions that particularly affect black and Asian people. They suggest that these factors are unavoidable, or even genetic.

But distorted and racialised patterns of work and poverty are the key drivers of difference.

Many people of working age who died from the virus were health workers, terribly exposed because of the lack of protective equipment and testing.

Hundreds of thousands of people who work in the health service are from black and Asian backgrounds. That includes over 40 percent of specialist doctors in England and more than half of London’s nurses and midwives.

It was reported last week that nine London bus workers had died from the virus. A glance at their names and pictures tells us that many, if not most, were likely black or Asian.

Bus workers are generally poorly paid and, certainly in London, disproportionately staffed by migrants and their offspring. The protection of staff barely features on the bosses’ agenda.

Again, the greater exposure to risk is the key factor in why so many have died. And, if you are black or Asian, you are more likely to work in a high risk job.


Housing presents a similar pattern. Poverty pay and insecure jobs mean that many black and South Asian people live in shared accommodation or multi-generational houses.

That can make self-isolation extremely difficult and helps spread the disease.

Some 30 percent of the British Bangladeshi population live in overcrowded conditions, compared to 2 percent of white British people.

Diseases that make Covid-19 worse are more likely found among black and Asian people. But again it is social conditions that determine how healthy we are likely to be.

For example, British people of South Asian, African or African-Caribbean origin are significantly more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than their European counterparts.

This disease appears to be a significant risk factor for anyone with Covid-19.

But there is little evidence that this is primarily the result of a genetic trait.

People working long hours are less likely to get regular medical check-ups and good advice. They find making time for exercise difficult.

They are more likely to have a cheap and quick diet with unhealthy amounts of trans fat and saturated fats, and grains such as white rice. These are all things to avoid if you’re at risk of diabetes.

The conditions people live and work in also damage immune systems.

Pollution is known to increase the risk of insulin resistance, for instance, which is a significant factor in diabetes.

Commentators love to tell us that coronavirus is a great leveller and that it attacks rich and poor, black and white, indiscriminately.

The truth is that race and class determine to a large degree who gets sick, how sick they get—and whether they recover.

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