Ramnik Shah

Ramnik Shah, born in Kenya, practiced law in Nairobi from 1964 to ’74 and then for the next 30 years in England, where since retirement he has been engaged in academic research and writing on migration and diaspora related subjects and general literature. His first book ‘Empire’s Child’ has just been published.

Website: ramnikshah.blogspot.com

London Calling

So a whole year of Covid-19 has passed and we are still mired in the thick of it. This is what I wrote at the outset, in March last year (Issue 1/2020):  ` … these are extraordinary, unsettling and troubling times.  Coronavirus has now become the new global reality and is dominating our public discourse and private conversations`. That has not changed; if anything, it has intensified at all levels.

In the early days, there was talk of `severe restrictions on movement of people` and `curfews, quarantines and lockdowns`. All this has happened, in varying degrees, and is continuing more or less, with intermittent relaxations, wherever you may be located.  At least now we can see a ray of light at the end of the tunnel, because of the rapid development of the Covid-19 vaccine.  How it came about, and is being rolled out nationally and internationally, is another story.  But of course the pandemic has thrown up all kinds of issues, domestically and worldwide.

On the UK home front right now the topic that keeps coming up time and again is the twofold focus on the BAME (Black Asia and Minority Ethnic) phenomenon: first, the pronounced vulnerability of the people so described to catching the virus and, second, why some among them are reluctant to have the Covid-19 vaccine.  On the latter point, what tends to be overlooked is that vaccine scepticism is not confined to them, that it is fairly widespread within the general population not only in Britain but also in countries such as Germany, France, and the USA. 

Also, scant attention is paid in this regard to the fact that such `hesitancy` is fuelled by the extremely aggressive propaganda put out by anti-vaccine campaigners (the anti-vaxxers) on social media platforms, aimed at gullible folk who are easy prey to misinformation about the vaccine.  A recent example of this was when a fake front page of The Times newspaper that claimed that doctors were advising patients not to take the Covid-19 vaccine was posted and circulated on Twitter before it was removed after a complaint by the paper`s owner!

While the pandemic is raging, all kinds of studies have been going on but their reports can only be regarded as provisional. What emerges from them is that the vulnerability of BAME communities to the virus is largely explainable on socio-economic grounds, and that among them black people are at the highest degree of risk, followed by South Asians of Bangladeshi and Pakistani ancestry, and then Indian and Chinese minorities in that order.  There are, however, no clear findings so far on the proximate cause of their susceptibility to the disease, underlying health conditions such as diabetes or smoking related illnesses being discounted as these tend to apply to all demographic groups.

As for socio-economic factors, these usually refer to poverty, bad housing, frontline service jobs or lack of employment, multi-generational families, low levels of education or qualifications and so on. But why BAME and not their socio-economically deprived white counterparts suggests that ethnicity may be the answer, though no definitive conclusions can be drawn at this stage as no account is taken of variations in the personal circumstances of the individuals concerned.

But the reluctance of black Britons in particular has a historical basis, vicariously, because of first, the abusive treatment of slaves in the US who were subjected to medical experiments without their consent and without proper safeguards; and second, the American Tuskegee Study spanning 40 years using black people as guinea pigs without their knowledge; and a third, more recent, use of experimental drugs on Nigerian children in Britain without seeking permission from their parents. That said, while this collective experience of discrimination has clearly left a mark, they cannot remain prisoners of history for ever!

In any case, the fact that there is a significant presence of `people of colour` among high profile medical and scientific experts and national health service professionals generally, all advocating taking the vaccine, must surely mean something? By an extraordinary coincidence, just as I was about to finish this piece, news came through that the President of Ghana has become the first African head of state to publicly receive the coronavirus vaccine, and that he has urged everyone to get inoculated and not to believe conspiracy theories casting doubt on the vaccination programme.

Constant negative references to BAME cohorts in the news on this issue, as indeed in the wider context of their place within British society, are however giving the impression that they are a `problem`, that they are always crying for or deserving of special attention or treatment in terms of their particular needs. 

That may be the public perception, but the reality is more nuanced. Speaking anecdotally, one of the first questions that people like us, with an East African background,  ask or get asked is about having the Covid vaccine: not if but when, and in our experience their take-up rate is definitely well above average. But we do know some people with a Caribbean or other heritage who are vehemently opposed to it.

So it is a mixed picture.  In other respects, generally, the well-off middle-class people have adapted to the restrictions on their movement and social and cultural activities quite well.  But that leaves out large numbers of others who have been hit hard by the impact of the pandemic.  Our mainstream media are full of stories about them all the time. Quite a lot of these relate to people struggling with rent arrears and other financial problems, or being cut off from their aged relatives in care homes and so on.   

We also hear or read about how tough it is for parents, especially single mothers, to cope with the whole business of their children`s home-school learning and leisure activities. Many households lack computers, adequate living space, material and other facilities to cater for their needs. But that apart,  the parents themselves have had to re-learn long forgotten history or literature texts, spelling and grammar, basic mathematical formulae, knowledge of geography and like core subjects, with the help of google and other online sites – though that at least can only enhance their children`s education!

Women however have suffered most under the pandemic.  There has been a marked increase in cases of sexual abuse and domestic violence against them by their partners involving serious injury, even homicide, and other dire consequences. There is some evidence that it applies the other way round also. The grim statistic however is that every three days a British woman is killed (strangled or stabbed) by a man she lives with or by a boyfriend or an ex-partner.  Women seeking to escape their violent fate have traditionally gone to `refuges`, female only spaces, where they feel safe. Under the Equality Act 2010 these were allowed to stay single-sex but are now coming under threat by transgender activists who want them to be open to all, irrespective of biological sex. 

Another area of concern is the growing incidence of mental illness, across all age groups but especially among young people, at a time in their lives when they would normally be bursting with energy and action.  

But it is not all gloom and doom.  There has been a lot of enterprising activity in all areas of life.  Cultural creativity has gone online in music, theatre, performance, literature, cinema and entertainment. The economy may be in the doldrums but entrepreneurial schemes are being planned and some being put into effect all the time, and there is no dearth of socially minded activists involved in local community projects everywhere.  By and large, there is a controlled sense of optimism afoot; how can it be otherwise?

All this is not unique to Britain; Covid-19 has democratised our common global concerns.

Of course we all want the pandemic to disappear, but this is the state of play at the moment.  Let us revisit the scene to see what, if anything, will have changed in a year`s time.  Meanwhile I can only dream about going on a cruise, to get away from it all. 

 

Ramnik Shah

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