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A wake-up call on inequality

Bridget Byrne

Bridget Byrne

The pandemic shone a light on many forms of inequality and discrimination. As we plan society’s recovery, Bridget Byrne, Director of the Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE), highlights the lessons that must be learned.

One of the lessons of the pandemic is that racism and racial inequality kill. The evidence for this was already there, but the impact of the virus and lockdown has brought the tragic impacts of discrimination into sharper focus and made it even more urgent to address the root causes.

However, amidst this tragedy have been two perhaps unexpected and potentially positive effects of the pandemic. The first is an unprecedented recognition by policymakers, politicians and the media that COVID-19 has hit some groups disproportionately. In the context of the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd in the US, this has led some major institutions to begin the process of reckoning with racism and discrimination.

The second is a change in the public’s understanding of which jobs matter, and who is doing those jobs. As the posters went up in support of NHS and other key workers, the knowledge that those fulfilling the most crucial jobs in our society were often the most poorly paid has hopefully hit home. We have a new respect and gratitude for shopkeepers, nurses and taxi drivers who carried on working despite the risks.

These jobs are disproportionally done by people from racialised backgrounds and this is part of the explanation for their vulnerability to the virus, alongside factors such as housing, insecure employment and other forms of deprivation which increased risk and place a strain on health.

However, if we are to ensure the post-pandemic recovery reflects the need to address ethnic inequalities, we must have a more in-depth understanding of the impact of COVID-19 and lockdown on racialised and religious minorities. There remains a danger that we recognise that ethnicity is a risk factor for severe COVID-19, but then fail to address the underlying causes and wider impact of the pandemic on unequal life chances.

That’s why UK Research and Innovation’s funding for new studies into COVID-19 and ethnic minority groups is particularly welcome. CoDE is conducting a survey of ethnic and religious minority people’s experience of the pandemic and lockdowns so that we can have a clear picture of which ethnic groups have been most severely affected, with particular attention paid to gender, age, religion and region. It will examine people’s experiences of racism, encounters with the police, as well as the impact of the pandemic on employment, finances and mental and physical health.

In other projects, in-depth interviews will be used to examine individual experiences, including of older people, those working in the creative and cultural industries and hospitality sectors, as well as forms of community response to trauma and activism around rights.

The Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020, alongside the recognition of the uneven impact of the pandemic, have given a new urgency to achieving a more just country.

Crucially, we need to understand what the government, the NHS, employers, schools, colleges and universities need to do to make a step change in measures to address discrimination and inequality.

We’ve had a wake-up call on racial discrimination and inequality: we need to fully understand how it works and whom it affects in order to stop it.

Bridget Byrne

Director of CoDE

Take part in the Evidence for Equality National Survey

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