There is one thing that we know for sure about COVID-19: it does not discriminate.
This disease cares not if you’re the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Health, the future king of the United Kingdom, a bus driver, nurse, or councillor.
However, systems, policies, infrastructures and governments – national and local – can, by default, discriminate.
With the most profound health and social impact on our nation since World War II, this pandemic has uncomfortably exposed a number of societal flaws – including gross racial inequalities that leave some communities more vulnerable, directly and indirectly, to COVID-19 than others.
Take health itself. Those facing a greater risk if they catch this virus are the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. People from South Asian backgrounds are, for example, six times more likely to have Type 2 diabetes, and those from African and Caribbean backgrounds three times more likely.
Another key issue is that those working in the health and care professions on the medical frontline are disproportionately from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities, particularly in big cities. So, too, are other essential frontline workers, including care workers, bus drivers, shop workers, delivery drivers and minicab drivers.
“This pandemic has exposed societal flaws”
It’s shocking, but perhaps no surprise then, that the first 10 doctors to have died because of COVID-19 have been from BAME communities. But when a London bus company indicated that 10 of its drivers had died as a result of COVID-19 – all BAME – genuine alarms began to sound.
As we deal with this pandemic, the fundamentals of who has been hit hardest must lead to a comprehensive response that confronts those racial inequalities that see certain communities in poverty, with poorer health, higher rates of unemployment, living in overcrowded housing and earning lower salaries – all factors that accumulate to result in the unusually high death rates among BAME communities.
Public health, jobs and housing are all key responsibilities of local government, which is why councillors – and, particularly, BAME councillors – have a crucial role to play during this lockdown, and in the recovery phase post-COVID-19.
Most will no doubt have key local intelligence, particularly within their own communities, that could play a critical role in how we best deal with the challenges that the virus presents. Many will know who the elderly individuals are, who might need extra support with food and medicine, or just someone to talk to. Similarly, how can local authorities use community knowledge to ensure young people who ordinarily have free school meals are still fed, or are linked into online youth services that may keep them off the streets and out of trouble?
Post-coronavirus, BAME councillors, working with their council leadership and organisations such as the LGA, must urgently draw up medium and long-term plans to deal with the ongoing challenges we will face, and the implications for all our communities.
Lastly, looking to the future, councils and the LGA should not relax their work with non-governmental organisations, such as ours, that seek to foster even greater political representation.
If there is to be a silver lining post-coronavirus, it is that we can do things differently. In the weeks and months ahead, representative local democracy will never be more critical.