By Nazmin Akthar (New Homes & Infrastructure Lawyer & Co-Chair of Muslim Women's Network UK)
For the Bangladeshi community in the UK, hearing the news that people of Bangladeshi ethnicity had around twice the risk of death (page 4) due to Covid than those of White British ethnicity was naturally a cause for fear and concern – for themselves and their loved ones. This is even more so when noting the findings of the Public Health England report which stated that when looking at the working age population (between 20 and 64 years old), people of Bangladeshi ethnicity had an 80% higher risk (page 45) than those of White British ethnicity. And yet it has become more and more apparent that this increased risk has little to do with genetics and everything to do with pre-existing inequalities that had become so ingrained in society that it took a devastating pandemic to highlight just how deep-rooted the issues are.
BAME groups are more likely to work in occupations with a higher risk to Covid19 exposure. Moreover, it would appear that many of these ‘high risk’ jobs also happen to be some of the lowest paid roles
There are a number of reasons for the disparities in outcomes: pre-existing health conditions; mental health issues; and the fact that those from BAME groups are more likely to work in occupations with a higher risk to Covid19 exposure. Moreover, it would appear that many of these ‘high risk’ jobs also happen to be some of the lowest paid roles. It would be worth noting that it was only in 2019 that the Office for National Statistics highlighted that workers of Bangladeshi heritage were being paid the least, and with this the intersectionality of issues come to the fore to highlight just how pre-existing inequalities are increasing Covid19 risks for BAME groups, especially Bangladeshis.
Another very important reason for the increased risks are living conditions. According to Public Health England, Covid19 risks are increased by housing challenges, such as overcrowding. In London 30% of Bangladeshi households (page 21) have more residents than rooms compared with only 2% of white British households. Living in intergenerational households was another reason, as those of working age would leave the home – most probably to go to their low paid jobs – and may then contract and spread the virus to the elders in their household.
Whilst it would be easy to suggest the risks therefore stem from ‘cultural’ factors, it would be useful to note that a further reason highlighted in the Public Health England report was housing insecurity. That is, the lack of secure, long term housing. According to PHE, BAME populations are much less likely to be owner-occupiers of their residence compared to White British populations – meaning more often than not they are renting or living with family or friends. Why is this relevant? Because living in overcrowded, inter-generational households isn’t always because of culture or choice – sometimes it is simply due to lack of affordability.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of this finding is that this has been said again and again for years by charities such as MWNUK in the context of supporting minoritized communities, especially BAME women who are at risk of abuse. It has been made clear that we need more long-term housing - affordable, safe, habitable housing - because otherwise those at risk (particularly women from ethnic minority and minority faith backgrounds) will be continuously forced to choose between being abused and being homeless.
The likes of MWNUK have also consistently talked about the safety and mental health needs of BAME women in the context of housing too. It has been made clear that what is in the local area matters. That convenient routes to schools and shops matter, especially for single parents and those with disabilities. It has always been known that play areas and open spaces (where women and children can safely play, exercise and breathe fresh air) matters. It has always been known that ventilation, adequate sunlight into homes and sound proofing measures to reduce noise are all key to good mental health. Perhaps if enough attention had been given to these points before, the face of this pandemic may well have been very different.
We need to focus, work together, work smarter and look at our use of technology and most importantly - listen to the lived realities of BAME communities, especially BAME Muslim women
Thankfully, a lot of focus is currently being placed on more house building. However, more needs to be done, and soon. There is certainly great commitment all round (in the housing industry and elsewhere) to address the housing challenge. What is critical now is to learn the lessons that the pandemic has been teaching us. We need to focus, work together, work smarter and look at our use of technology and most importantly - listen to the lived realities of BAME communities, especially BAME Muslim women.
If we are to address the needs of BAME communities (especially BAME Muslim women) in a post-Covid world, then we need to address the economic inequalities that such groups find themselves in. That includes addressing pay gaps and also urgently providing more safe, secure, affordable and habitable housing. This will not happen overnight but it can happen a lot sooner with the right commitment and by involving individuals in all their diversities, in decision making when it comes to physical and social infrastructure. In particular, we need BAME women in planning departments, in construction, in estate management, in all fields and at all levels - and there needs to be a collective effort to make that happen now. It is crucial that those adversely affected the most are consulted first and are able to shape the plans; this is the only way to achieve a fit for purpose, post-Covid world.
The blog is an edited version of the talk given by Nazmin Akthar at MWNUK’s AGM on 27thNovember 2020, which focused on addressing the needs of Muslim women post-Covid. Nazmin appeared as one of the panelists and a video of the event can be found on MWN Hub
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