COVID-19 and Discrimination

By: Jasmine Hughes

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been labelled by some to be a "great leveller", hitting all socio-economic groups alike. It is time that this erroneous notion is put to rest.

A recent investigatory article published by Vice and The Detail has revealed that the policing of COVID-19 related offences and the issuing of fines in Northern Ireland has disproportionately affected ethnic minority groups. The issuing of fines has particularly been disproportionate towards black people. Data shows that black people in Northern Ireland were 'fined at a rate up to nine times higher' than white people, with black people receiving 1.84% of all fines — despite only making up 0.2% of the overall population. While 4.21% of fines were issued towards people from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background, black people made up almost half of these.

These statistics bare a glaring similarity to statistics from England and Wales, where analysis of fixed penalty notices (FPNs) revealed that people of colour were issued with FPNs at a rate of 1.6 times higher than white people, at a rate of 4.0 per 10,000 people — compared to the rate of 2.5 per 10,000 for white people. The issuing of FPNs disproportionately impacted young men of a BAME background in particular, who were twice as likely to be fined as white men of the same age. In a statement, the National Police Chiefs' Council Chair Martin Hewitt remarked that 'the analysis is... complex and needs [to] be interpreted carefully', and that caution must be given to the interpretation of disparity rates for local context must be kept in mind (such as taking into consideration 'local demographics'). However, Hewitt also noted the concerning nature of the report — for whilst definitive conclusions cannot be drawn from the disparity rates, it is certainly a possibility that bias and institutional racism has played a role in these figures.

In the case of the disparity in fines issued in Northern Ireland, many have raised the question as to whether the high rate of fines amongst black people comes as a consequence of the policing of the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of last year. The PSNI's approach to policing the protests has since been labelled as 'discriminatory' by the Police Ombudsman, who also noted that trust and confidence in the PSNI amongst BAME communities has been 'severely damaged'.

Although the holding of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in the summer was contrary to the guidelines and rules set out by the executive in regard to the pandemic, the contrast has been drawn between the PSNI's handling of the BLM protests and the Protect Our Monuments protests. Whilst the police had 'encouraged' demonstrators from the Protect Our Monuments protest to 'gather in a COVID-19 compliant manner', when it came to the BLM protests the PSNI had instead 'attempted to persuade organisers... to cancel their events'.

The disproportionate policing of ethnic minority individuals will come as a surprise to few — particularly as the BLM protests focused quite heavily on the institutionally racist nature of police forces around the world. Though we may not be surprised by these statistics, we must pay them attention. It will not do to purport the current pandemic to be some sort of great leveller when individuals are disproportionately impacted by it even on a regulatory level.

The current pandemic has also spurred on a wave of xenophobia. This has been especially present in the United States, where Asian-American hate crime is on the rise. Just a matter of days ago, on 16 March, a mass shooting took place in Atlanta, Georgia; eight people were killed, six of whom were Asian women. Though the shooter has denied racial motivation, many cannot help but note that this crime has taken place before a backdrop of increasing anti-Asian sentiment. Some critics have seen Donald Trump's labelling of COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” to be something of an incendiary device, a spark that ignited the flame of ongoing xenophobia and hate crimes towards Asian-Americans. Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian-American studies at San Francisco State University, stated that Trump's referral to COVID-19 via his array of offensive monikers had 'racialised the virus', and with 'deadly consequences'. For many, the tragic Atlanta shooting is one such deadly consequence. Vivian Truong, an expert in Asian studies, remarked that to let the shooter, Aaron Long, decide for himself whether race is involved is to disregard 'the tacit expressions of racism in the US'. The use of language and the fear generated by the COVID-19 pandemic can have a devastating impact on minorities, specifically individuals of Asian background. It is important that, as a society, we are all to remain mindful of this.

Individuals of a BAME background have also been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic on an even more literal level. A report by Public Health England found that the risk of dying from COVID-19 was higher amongst ethnic minorities. Death rates from COVID-19 were the highest amongst Black and Asian ethnic groups when compared to White ethnic groups — which is the opposite of what is typically seen in previous years, where the all-cause mortality rates in Asian and Black ethnic groups have been lower. The report found that people of Bangladeshi ethnicity had around twice the risk of death when compared to White people, whilst other BAME individuals had between 10-50% higher risk of death. The report acknowledges that the analysis of the effect of COVID-19 on different ethnic groups does not take into consideration the matter of occupation — something that it regards as 'an important shortcoming', for occupation is a significant factor in the likelihood of contracting COVID-19 and 'we know that some key occupations have a high proportion of workers from BAME groups'.

Furthermore, when considering the relationship between ethnicity and COVID-19, other factors that should be considered, such as the fact that: (i) many BAME people are more likely to live in urban areas, (ii) BAME people are more likely to live in deprived areas, and (iii) also tend to have jobs that expose them to a greater risk of contracting COVID-19.

In a further report on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BAME people, Public Health England suggested that 'historic racism and poorer experiences of healthcare' may serve as a barrier preventing people from seeking or accessing healthcare. Furthermore, racial discrimination plays a significant role in affecting people's life chances — which may be a reason behind the number of BAME people living in deprived areas or having high-risk jobs. In this sense, there is a distinct relationship between racial discrimination and disproportionate COVID death rates within minority ethnic groups.

Where hatred, discrimination, and disproportionate policing exists, one cannot consider all groups to be equally affected by the coronavirus pandemic. To claim that COVID is a "great leveller" is to push a false and harmful narrative that effectively sweeps under the carpet worrying patterns of discrimination.