Ethnicity must be treated as risk factor in Covid-19, say doctors

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Measures to tackle health inequalities among Black and South Asian ethnic groups fail to address the scale of the issue, two doctors commenting on government plans have said, adding that ethnicity must be factored into policy decision making.

The Race Disparity Unit makes thirteen recommendations in its report, all of which have been accepted by the prime minister.

The report calls for more research and collecting data. For example, it calls for mandatory recording of ethnicity on death certificates, ‘as this is the only way of establishing a complete picture of the impact of the virus on ethnic minorities.’

But Dr Parth Patel, researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and an A&E doctor during the first wave of the pandemic, warned that research alone was not enough: “The government should be acting to address the underlying structures behind ethnic disparities. This means protecting minority ethnic communities so they’re less likely to catch Covid-19, and increasing access to treatment once they have it.”

“Failure to act quickly will lead to thousands of unnecessary deaths during this second wave – this is about public health as much as it’s about racial justice. Inequalities fuel pandemics,” he added.

According to new medical research quoted in the paper, based on analysis of 17 million adults in England, 33.9 per cent of people who were critically ill with confirmed Covid-19 (up to 31 August) were from ethnic minority backgrounds.

33.9 per cent of people who were critically ill with confirmed Covid-19 (up to 31 August) were from ethnic minority backgrounds

The Office for National Statistics also reported in June that black men and black women were more than four times more likely to die from a Covid-19-related death than white ethnicity males and females.

But the RDU stops short of requiring employers to include ethnicity as an independent risk factor when deciding how to protect their employees at work. The RDU says that ‘risk assessments should be applied equally…across the workforce.’

“Singling out all ethnic minority members of staff for additional risk assessments could be stigmatising and could deny them opportunities,” it says.

But, the British Medical Association is calling for "culturally sensitive" risk assessments for employees from BAME backgrounds.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said: “We are deeply concerned that 35 per cent of Intensive Care beds are occupied by BAME patients, and that two times as many ethnic minority people are infected by virus, with ONS figures also continuing to show disproportionate deaths."

He called for more tailored public health messaging that BAME communities trust and have confidence in order to ensure behavioural change.

"We also need clear Government guidance for employers on how to do culturally sensitive risk assessments.

"All workers at increased risk from the virus must be protected. The Government knows that BAME people are more likely to be in key worker roles, increasing their risk of exposure, and they need to act. Our UK population is diverse and the Covid response must recognise this."

Speaking to the BBC, Dr Chris Udenze, a GP, agreed. He said although this was a ‘complicated’ issue, it was important not to dismiss ethnicity.

“Ethnicity is not the only factor but it is definitely one of many factors,” he said. “All the other factors such socioeconomic factors, diabetes etc are important but even if you were able to take these away, there is still a disparity. Ethnicity is still a relevant factor and not paying attention to this will not help communities vulnerable to Covid-19.”

The first quarterly report on progress to address Covid-19 health inequalities


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