How has Covid-19 affected racial inequalities in the UK?
Black and minority ethnic (BME) residents of the UK have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic in two distinct ways. First, they have suffered worse health outcomes, with people of colour both more likely to contract the virus and less likely to survive it than white people. Public Health England has highlighted how pre-existing inequalities, including the impact of racism and discrimination, have contributed to these unequal health outcomes. BME people are also more likely to work in frontline, 'key worker' roles where they have been more exposed to the virus.
Second, long-standing economic inequalities between white and BME Britons, a product of structural and historical factors, have been exacerbated by the effects of the economic downturn. People from ethnic minority groups have been more likely to lose their jobs and to experience problem debt as a result of Covid-19. Ethnic minority households on average have far less wealth than white households with which to weather economic hardship.
Curating evidence from a broad coalition of organisations, the Runnymede Trust has reviewed the state of race and racism in England. Its report argues that racism is systemic. Disparities facing BME groups in England exist across the areas of health, housing, the criminal justice system, education, employment, immigration and political participation.
Ten years after his landmark review of health inequalities in 2010, Professor Sir Michael Marmot has examined the progress made in the subsequent decade. He finds that people can expect to spend more of their lives in poor health; improvements to life expectancy have stalled, and declined for the poorest 10% of women; and the health gap has grown between wealthy and deprived areas. The report includes an analysis of the link between health and racial inequalities.
Research by IPPR and the Runnymede Trust suggests that the ‘second wave’ of the virus disproportionately affected people of colour in a way that cannot be explained by genetics or co-morbidities, suggesting that this inequality results from 'structural and institutional racism'.
Prioritising racial justice in the economy
An argument widely made by those seeking to address racial inequalities is that policy is typically made without any assessment of the impact on different ethnic groups, and therefore without specific plans to counter racial inequality. This was a particular criticism of the UK government in relation to Covid-19, given the disproportionate vulnerability of BME groups. Equality impact assessments of policy when it is being made are now widely advocated.
There are now widespread calls for mandatory ethnic pay gap reporting for larger firms, in the same way as gender pay gap reporting.
Research on tackling racial inequalities shows the importance of mandated targets and positive action within equality law, the de-biasing of recruitment and progression processes, mentoring and leadership programmes, diversity and unconscious bias training, and the adoption of explicitly anti-racist and action-oriented approaches to organisational culture. Adoption of the ‘Rooney rule’, under which at least one BME candidate is required to be shortlisted for job vacancies (originally introduced in the US National Football League) is often advocated.
By using social value criteria in procurement processes (requiring high quality practices from suppliers and contractors), governments and public bodies can mandate action on racial equality, including on low pay. Overall, however, more fundamental economic change is likely to be needed if the legacy of historic and structural discrimination is to be eliminated.
The Runnymede Trust’s The Colour of Money report provides an overview of racial inequalities in the economy, including in wealth, vulnerability to poverty, and employment. It argues that tackling racial inequalities requires measures to address low pay, poverty and poor housing in general alongside specific measures to tackle racial discrimination, particularly in the labour market. Ultimately structural economic change is needed to counter the longstanding effects of historical racism.
The report of the Intersecting Inequalities project and the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report on the impact of tax, minimum wage and welfare reforms since 2010 both found austerity-related policies to have disproportionately impacted ethnic minority women and disabled people. They argue that policy needs specifically to be assessed for its impact on disadvantaged and discriminated-against groups, including the cumulative impact of policy over time.
The TUC, CBI and Equality and Human Rights Commission have issued a joint call for the government to introduce mandatory ethnic pay gap reporting, arguing that this would transform understanding of race inequality at work and drive action to tackle it in companies and government. Professor Susan Milner at the University of Bath argues that mandatory reporting is both necessary and feasible.
The Wales Centre for Public Policy has reviewed research on policies to tackle racial inequalities in the economy. They show the need for active workplace measures to counter discrimination and encourage anti-racist organisational cultures, and at an overall policy level for governments to engage in sustained action targeting institutions, workplaces and individuals, with effective implementation mechanisms, visible support from leaders, and better data collection.
Migration and economic justice
People born outside the UK make up an estimated 14% of the UK’s population, or 9.5 million people, and just over half of BME residents of the UK were born overseas. Tackling racial inequality is therefore closely connected to improving the economic position of migrants to the UK. Discriminatory practices can particularly affect migrants, and public attitudes to immigration have impacts on the wider BME community.
Covid-19 has highlighted both the positive contribution migrants make to society and the challenges they face. Migrants are disproportionately likely to work in 'key worker' jobs. Notably, around 20% of care workers are foreign nationals, the majority from outside the EU. Many of these roles are low paid.
Migrants often have restricted access to public services and financial support. Many effectively pay twice for NHS care, required to pay an NHS surcharge as well as their taxes. They face significant barriers to care despite their disproportionate contribution to the UK's health and care systems.
In its report Access Denied: The Human Impact of the Hostile Environment IPPR provides a survey of the impact of the UK’s approach to migration on wider racial discrimination, housing, health, and vulnerability to violence.
The Women’s Budget Group analyses the effects of the pandemic on migrants and call for the end of the 'no recourse to public funds' policy, which prevents many migrants from accessing social security benefits.
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) has examined the lives of undocumented people in the UK and proposed a range of reforms that could break the cycle of insecure immigration status.
IPPR’s Marley Morris and Shreya Nanda published a report calling for reform to the system of charging migrants for healthcare. The report highlights the adverse impacts of the NHS charging system and draws on best practice from other European countries that have fairer systems for residents without immigration status.
The House of Commons Library has published data on UK asylum applications. In 2020, there were around 6 asylum applications for every 10,000 people living in the UK, compared with 11 across the EU. Polly Toynbee in the Guardian sets out the wider picture.