Early on in the pandemic, it was found that people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds are at a greater risk of dying from COVID-19.
An Office for National Statistics (ONS) report from last summer, for example, found that the COVID mortality rate was highest among males of black ethnic background – at 256 deaths per 100,000 population. The comparative figure among white males was 87 deaths per 100,000.
Many of the factors behind this disparity are due to social conditions and structural racism. BAME people are more likely to work in frontline roles, with a higher exposure to the virus; are more likely to rely on public transport; and are more likely to live in cramped accommodation.
At the same time, in a recent survey commissioned by SAGE (the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), up to 72% of black people said that they were unlikely to go and get vaccinated.
This raises an important question: Why are those most at risk from the virus also those most likely to avoid the vaccine?
According to SAGE themselves, the answer for this vaccine sceptism amongst BAME communities lies with “structural and institutional racism and discrimination”, along with a long history of unethical medical research when it comes to black and ethnic minority groups.
One of the first places to look for an explanation to this question might be with the various conspiracy theories that are circulating around COVID-19.
These theories are extremely wide-ranging: from rumours that the virus was manufactured by the US military or Chinese government; to suggestions that the mass vaccination programme is really a secret plot by Bill Gates to inject us all with microchips.
What these ideas all rely upon, however, is a general distrust towards the authorities and the establishment – whether this be the business elites or traditional politicians.
While these theories themselves are mostly divorced from reality, this instinctive distrust is not completely unwarranted. After all, the establishment clearly does not represent ordinary people, and has consistently put profits before lives throughout the pandemic.
“How do we know this vaccine isn't yet another blunder from the government in a long list of blunders,” stated Tru Powell, a black man in Birmingham, interviewed on Good Morning Britain.
.@Tru_Powell explains why he's nervous about the vaccine.— Good Morning Britain (@GMB) January 22, 2021
He says the govt's handling of the pandemic has had an impact as he asks 'how do we know this vaccine isn't another blunder'?
Tru, who says he's not an anti-vaxer, adds 'there's not enough data to support certain areas.' pic.twitter.com/xSjkRHuBJP
From initially pursuing a failed ‘herd immunity’ strategy; to recklessly lifting restrictions; to handing out vital contracts to their chums and cronies; to their endless mixed and contradictory messaging: the Tories have done everything possible to undermine the public’s trust over the last year.
So how can you blame anyone for refusing to believe the government now on the question of vaccines or anything else?
Furthermore, when ethnic minority communities hear out-of-touch politicians speaking on the news, who is it that they are always scapegoating and demonising for the spread of coronavirus?
Last summer, for example, Craig Whittaker, the Conservative MP for Calder Valley in West Yorkshire, went on LBC radio to announce that: “What I have seen in my constituency is that there are sections of the community that are not taking the pandemic seriously.”
As stricter lockdown rules are announced for parts of northern England, Conservative MP Craig Whittaker told LBC: "It is the BAME communities that are not taking this seriously enough."@ianpaynesport | @CWhittaker_MPhttps://t.co/Ci7oBQg9JU— LBC (@LBC) July 31, 2020
"If you look at the areas where we've seen rises and cases,” the Tory MP continued “the vast majority—but not by any stretch of the imagination all areas—it is the BAME communities that are not taking this seriously enough.”
Here we see the ruling class’ tried-and-tested method of divide and rule: split the working class by blaming minorities for society’s ills.
Of course, this is a much cheaper solution for the Tories when it comes to distracting from their catastrophic mismanagement of the pandemic, which has now led to well over 100,000 (mostly avoidable) COVID deaths.
After watching this chaos unfold, and then being scapegoated for this disaster, we can understand why so many in BAME communities are unwilling to believe that the authorities have their medical interests at heart.
At the same time, there is a documented history of racial inequality when it comes to healthcare, including in Britain. Black women, in particular, commonly experience neglectful treatment in hospitals.
In a report on maternal mortality in the UK from 2019, for example, researchers at Oxford University found that Asian women were twice as likely to die compared to white women. Black women, meanwhile, were five times more likely to die in pregnancy.
Racial bias surrounding perceived pain thresholds is an important factor behind the callous treatment of black mothers. This means that – regardless of educational level – a distrust towards medical practitioners prevails within BAME communities.
This is despite the fact that hospitals are staffed overwhelmingly by minorities. Nevertheless, these institutions are viewed as an environment where black people’s lives do not matter.
Grenfell and Windrush
Of course, it is not just in healthcare that BAME people in Britain feel excluded from society.
Recent news about the removal of the dangerous cladding that remains on tower blocks across the UK is a tragic reminder of the Grenfell disaster. Most of those who perished in the fire, or who lost everything in the flames, were black and minority ethnic people. They were all poor, in a predominantly wealthy area of London.
On top of this, Theresa May, the Tory prime minister at the time, refused to meet victims in the community, at the scene of the disaster. And even to this day, BAME people are more likely to live in social housing with unsafe cladding.
The Windrush scandal also furthered distrust within black communities towards the state. This involved the forced deportation of predominantly black working-class citizens, who came to Britain after being invited from around the Commonwealth.
To many black people, this ‘hostile environment’ created by the Tories is further proof that: “It does not matter how long you have been here, the state does not serve you. You are expendable in the eyes of the elites, and do not matter.”
Uncertainty and chaos
Added to this long history of racism and social exclusion comes the uncertainty and chaos surrounding COVID vaccines. Recently, for example, a number of question marks have been raised about the efficacy of the AstraZeneca jab – the main one being deployed in Britain.
Newly developed vaccines have been rushed through to production, often with little publicly-available information about the trials and regulation involved. Notably, ethnic minorities have been underrepresented in recent clinical trials in the UK for COVID-19 vaccines, fuelling doubts about their safety and effectiveness amongst BAME people.
Again, who can blame people for not trusting medicines produced by Big Pharma giants, who clearly care more about making profits than saving lives?
People in general do not trust the vaccines because – whether consciously or not – they do not trust capitalism and its representatives to have their interests in mind. And it should come as no surprise that the most vulnerable and oppressed layers of society, such as working-class BAME communities, are the ones most affected by this mood of mistrust.
Public health vs private profit
To turn the tide, we need to take the economy out of the capitalists’ hands, and produce medicines in the interests of public health, not private profit.
The major pharmaceutical firms must be nationalised, with research and development placed firmly under democratic workers’ control, in order to generate public confidence through proper oversight and full transparency.
Run in this way, there would be no need for patenting, trade secrets, and withholding of data, which are all designed to boost profits, whilst throttling science.
Only by putting the working class in control of society can we begin to undo the centuries-long distrust that has built up in certain communities. This means uniting workers and youth together in the fight for socialism.