‘Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’ from the Perspective of a Woman of Colour

by: , October 5, 2020

© Photo by Retha Ferguson from Pexels

In the spring of 2020, the UK government identified an increased level of risk of contracting COVID-19 among the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnicity (BAME) community. Why is this the case? While the BAME community face a range of social determinants that contribute to an enhanced level of risk, at the time of the government’s announcement, neither had any BAME-centric studies actually been undertaken, nor had specific investigations into the BAME experience of COVID-19.

Undoubtedly, the main topic of discussion within the news and other media since the early months of 2020 has been coronavirus, or specifically, COVID-19. By mid-May, the disease claimed well over a quarter of a million lives, infected millions, and triggered socio-economic infringements, the like and scale of which exceed those of the Second World War.

Here, from the perspective of a woman of ethnicity, I explore the impact of COVID-19 in the UK, paying particular attention to the advertising campaign launched by the UK government to stop the spread of the virus. How and why has the BAME community been impacted? How have I been affected? And, how have I reacted? Which of my characteristics or attributes come to the fore? The fact that I am a woman? That I am a woman of colour? Or, perhaps that I am a mother?

To give a comprehensive answer to these questions, first I must discuss the advertising campaign.

COVID-19 is an aggressively infectious disease that affects the respiratory system. With a suspected origin in Wuhan, China, the level of transmission has grown into a pandemic. When it reached Britain, and a national emergency was declared on 11 March 2020, the government soon developed an advertising campaign that directly deployed fear. The slogan and its publicity were designed to alter the behaviour of the public, namely to enforce social distancing and to ensure protection of the NHS.

The first of such advertisements I saw was the 24th March 2020 ‘Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’ (Mullenlowe 2020). While its message was clear—stay at home, only go out for medicine and basic necessities, and work from home if you can—the advert itself didn’t resonate with me. Although its meaning was stark, its delivery became the point of contention, which alienated me from the content. The person behind the message was Chris Witty, the UK’s Chief Medical Advisor, a professional with considerable gravitas and medical expertise. Perhaps that was the reason for my hesitation and doubt: the message came from someone of such knowledge that he seemed divorced from the masses; though more likely, it was the communication from a middle-aged Caucasian male comfortably positioned within the ABC1 category of the NRS Social Grades.(NRS.co.uk). Therein rises the lack of relatability I have experienced as a Black woman.

My separatist response was neither simply a direct reaction to Chris Witty himself nor unique among the BAME community. As Charity So White notes: ‘BAME people often face discrimination with getting health care treatment; there is an intersection between race, poverty and disability’. They add that ‘compound to having experienced racism, self-isolation interlinks with feelings of oppression, which further catalyses mental health impacts on BAME people’, [and] ‘the closure of cultural spaces such as churches, or community centres increases the level of social isolation, which is already heightened among BAME people, particularly the elderly'(2020).

This suggests that the communication by one figurehead, rather than a diverse collective of influential parliamentarians, medical professionals and community pillars innately became an obstacle to the reception. The delivery by Chris Witty alone created a metonym resonant with white, middle-class heteronormative families.

Given the delivery, and subsequent closure of many venues held dear among much of the BAME community, Charity So White also noted a likeliness that this had been construed as congruent with historic oppression faced by the BAME community.

However, this was but one tenet within the overall messaging of the campaign. It is vital to consider that the message was often further impracticable for a wealth of the BAME community. As recorded by the Runnymede Trust (2020), the social determinants faced by the BAME community typically increase the likelihood of working within precarious, low paid, public-facing work, that for which furloughing was not an option. Coupled with a significantly higher likelihood of living in overcrowded, multi-generational households, self-isolation became untenable.

It is also noteworthy that in fact, by mid-May the London Borough of Brent had the highest rate of infections and COVID-19 related deaths (Raffray 2020). It is the most densely BAME populated borough in London—not only the location home to the highest rate of infection of BAME people but more importantly, the area with the highest rate of the virus infection overall (Butcher & Massey 2020). Moreover, BAME people are 400% more likely to contract COVID-19. Some 40% of the NHS staff in London are BAME, despite making up only 13% of the population, a clear over-representation in the NHS, particularly in roles of a lower grade and salary. Transport for London boasts a similar over-representation. To contextualise, every one of the first ten doctors who have died from COVID-19 and contracted the virus while tending to patients already infected, were of BAME origin. Half of all the nurses who have been killed by the virus thus far were also BAME (Marsh 2020).

Looking back to the campaign, and its reception, simply put, compliance with ‘Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’ was not an option for many within the BAME community, whilst, just like me, many more simply didn’t relate to the message. When imagery promoting the NHS and adhering to the government guidance was presented to the general public, it had been whitewashed (Adebayo 2020) with an entirely white cast of clinicians, nurses and other NHS staff. This reinforced the disconnection between the campaign and the BAME audience later, triggering a #stopthewhitewash campaign across Twitter.

Perceptibly, the message, which was delivered by a white male and pertained to an NHS depicted as run entirely by white people, failed to  consider sensitively the difficulty in accessing the NHS by many BAME people: as their postcodes reflect locations where resources are fewer and stretched farther across more patients. The resultant subliminal messaging could be misconstrued that the campaign targeted primarily white Britain, and there was no acknowledgement of the BAME NHS staff, who make up a considerably large percentage of the NHS workers, and a significant proportion of the professional fatalities thus far. Under other circumstances, this would be an insult, a flagrant dismissal of the support and sacrifice of the BAME community in Britain.

However, there are yet other factors to consider.

BAME communities are 200% more likely to experience severe poverty and face an even higher rate of child poverty. The measures imposed by the government initially led to one of the main meals of the day being missed by many children, no longer accessing free school meals until vouchers were distributed. The cumulative effect of this, seeing poverty rates enhanced, or parents having to continue to work as they could not afford not to, saw a dramatic increase during the first phase of the COVID-19 lockdown, with BAME children reaching out to Childline 900 times (Weale 2020).

The risk of arrest/prosecution for parents not ensuring their children comply with the government impositions created a horrifying grey area. It penalised front-line workers for going to work to provide much-needed services/resources or forced them to stay at home without earning their salary, dramatically reinforcing poverty. Actually, the first person arrested and fined for breach of COVID-19 was a black person, who was not contravening the regulations, but instead delivering a food parcel to a vulnerable person in self-isolation.

Remarkably, despite a 400% increase in susceptibility, partially attributable to social determinants, though the request for BAME-centric research, which was approved by our Prime Minister, there is still no actual research into why BAME people who are significantly more at risk at the time of this pandemic.

The Deputy Director of the Runnymede Trust agreed that the structural inequalities in society place BAME people at significantly greater risk of infection. This correlates with a significant impact from the harsh measures implemented by the government, which do not account for the already reduced circumstances many BAME people experience, with the fallout expected to cause untenable living conditions for many (Haque 2020).

This echoes of the manner in which the BAME community experiences a power imbalance, and how their voice, position and subjectivity is made invisible, caricatured or marginalised so frequently that the NHS portrayals featuring a whitewashed staff made it to mainstream media without anybody challenging this during creation.

BAME celebrities, such as, for example, actor Idris Elba, have spoken out about the vulnerability of all people to COVID-19, having contracted the coronavirus himself. Perturbingly, there has been a trend on social media of tweets and posts purporting that black people have a pathological immunity to the disease (Carras 2020).

Due to this influence, many have not considered the disease to be as potentially life-threatening as it truly is. There is a significant history behind this ill-informed thought pattern. It dates back to the eighteen century when an outbreak of yellow fever in the USA seemingly did not affect the black slaves, later persuaded to work as nurses, caretakers and gravediggers – the advent of the relationship between nursing and black women (Mock 2020).

In conclusion, there are multiple factors at play here. The government campaign did initially fail to resonate; however, the consistent messaging, compounded by daily cabinet briefings outlining the number of deaths increasing by the day, have succeeded in creating significantly more fear than intended. While initial thoughts, feelings, emotions and conspiratorial rumblings detracted from the actual message, the extended period of social distancing, lockdown measures, and widely documented mortality rate among BAME have driven through the miasma of disregard to create a relatively unknown situation. The BAME population now understand we are at considerably increased risk of infection and mortality; however, overwhelmingly the choice available is to stay at home and endure crippling poverty or go to work to provide for a family, and risk infecting several members of an over-populated household. Broken down, one could argue that this message amounts to: either go to work and risk health to be able to support family, or stay at home and endure abject poverty and all the coterminous risks to physical and mental wellbeing. The choice is a bleak one, and until thorough research has been undertaken, with conclusive results, and lateral consideration around the impact these vulnerable families endure, and how to support them through the process, this will continue to reflect in our attitudes. The advertising campaign in and of itself failed to achieve all it set out to do; which is to say that it did not independently reach and influence the whole population’s behaviour. Still, after fortification from extensive news coverage of deaths, infections, and other updates, the government has achieved in creating a sense of fear strong enough to alter one’s behaviour accordingly.

So, in answer to my initial question, as a woman, one of colour, and a mother, well the answer is that no one characteristic comes to the fore. Being female, being BAME, and being a mother all factor into the cumulative concerns I continue to experience. I have a rational fear for my children experiencing COVID-19, but in the longer-term, the pressing question that arises for me is: have lessons been learned from COVID-19? Not only in handling a pandemic or national emergency, but in giving parity to people regardless of their background? Will my children fare well if another such crisis hits our shores? When will consideration be given to the underdogs, those whose opportunities are so severely hampered by the structural inequalities and inadequate social determinants?


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