In this section, we explore uneven effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on people with different ethnic identities. Topic in this section include:
- People facing direct racist abuse
- How ethnic minorities were represented in the news during the pandemic
- The pandemic revealing existing ethnic inequalities
- The impact of racism during the pandemic
Shirin and Mohammed said that BME people were being blamed for spreading Covid.
Right from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, it seemed that it was affecting some groups of people worse than others. In the UK, people from Black, Asian and other ethnic minority groups have faced a greater burden of illness and death from covid (compared to White people) (1).
Many of our participants felt upset when they heard daily news stories of people who looked like them becoming seriously unwell, or dying in large numbers. Irene was disappointed by scientists and the government ‘scaremongering people’ every day, and felt that repeatedly hearing about daily infection and death rates was ‘not good for anybody’s mental health’. Several of our ethnic minority participants also noticed a rise in race-based discrimination during the pandemic.
People facing direct racist abuse
At the start of Covid-19 pandemic, many East Asian people in the UK faced multiple direct assaults based on their appearance (2). A few people we spoke to said this was because of the virus being labelled in the media, and by international figures like Donald Trump, as a ‘Chinese virus’. Sunita recalled her East Asian friends being called the ‘Wuhan clan’, and felt it was ‘like people are becoming more paranoid and fanatical and they just want to be angry at anyone’. Emma’s GP, who is Chinese, confided in her about being ‘scared and worried’ that someone might say ‘China virus’ to her. Lyn, a Malaysian mental health support worker, remembers multiple racist and threatening attacks directed at her.
Lyn had two alarming experiences of racist abuse at the start of the pandemic.
Over time, these racist encounters spread to other ethnic minority groups as well, such as Black and South Asian people (2). Doreen, a Black woman, felt that anti-Black racism had increased during the pandemic and believed ‘the virus has made some people very hateful’. Ayny, a hijab-wearing, Muslim woman, recalled the summer of 2020, when the rules allowed a daily outing for exercise: she noticed an ‘obvious transition in people’s body language’ where people crossed the road on seeing her family walking in the park.
Doreen was racially abused when she went to a shop wearing a mask with an African print.
How ethnic minorities were represented in the news during the pandemic
Some people we spoke to felt that international and national leaders and scientists, and news media reinforced the connection between Covid and non-White ethnicity.
Shaista described how images connected particular groups with disease spread.
Jessica, a White respiratory doctor, felt ‘irritated’ when people started making ‘inferences about genetic causes’ to explain the high death rates among ethnic minorities. Public health experts explained it by observing that ethnic minorities are more likely to have underlying health conditions, live in poorly-ventilated, multi-generational households and work in jobs that made them more likely to catch Covid [see ‘Risk from exposure‘]. However, as Irene explains below, rather than acknowledging and addressing these ‘horrendous inequalities’ ethnic minority people faced in society, it contributed towards blaming ethnic minorities for spreading covid.
Irene felt frustrated by the way Black people were portrayed in the media.
The pandemic revealing existing ethnic inequalities
Similar to Irene, many people we spoke with believed that the pandemic had simply revealed existing deep, structural and social inequalities present in British society. Being denied the same opportunities as White people, over several generations, has meant that many ethnic minority people work and live in difficult circumstances. They feel their voice matters less than their White colleagues and co-workers. (1)
Miura was not surprised that Black women like her were facing more risk of Covid because she ‘already knew’, from personal experience, how racism forced them into risky work.
Shirin describes the experience of being an Asian patient.
The impact of racism during the pandemic
Stories of discriminatory treatment of ethnic minority individuals, in healthcare and in public, is traumatising for entire communities, without the need to experience it personally (1). Sonal felt unable to trust the NHS because of two separate incidents where Asian people she knew had not received timely medical care, and later died. Sunita said the stories of racist attacks in public places made her feel ‘a lot more unsafe’ even when she was with her husband. How race-based discrimination was portrayed and handled in public also left a deep impression.
June recalls when Belly Mujinga, a transport worker, died of Covid following a racist attack.
Shirin explains how people internalise negative stories about their communities.
Racism in the UK has a long history, and ethnic minority people are painfully aware of this (1). Ethnic minority participants described their fears about becoming sick, or needing hospital care [see Fears about going to hospital], or how they felt about the covid vaccine [see Vaccination]. They were often concerned that they would not be treated well, because of their appearance. However, the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic made race-based inequalities so clear and visible to everybody can be an opportunity to improve things.
A respiratory doctor, Jessica sees the effect of racism on health.
As Jessica observes, Covid-19 did bring the conversation about racism in the UK into the mainstream.
1.Further information about ethnic inequalities and Covid risk
Public Health England. (2020). Beyond the data: Understanding the impact of COVID‐19 on
Runnymede Trust (2021) Ethnic inequalities in Covid-19 mortality: a consequence of persistent racism.
2.Further information about hate crimes against East Asians
Schumann, S., & Moore, Y. (2021). Timing is Everything: The COVID-19 Outbreak as a Trigger Event for Sinophobic Hate Crimes in the United Kingdom. CrimRxiv.