London, United Kingdom – In an attempt to protect his bed-bound grandfather from coronavirus, 19-year-old university student Osman and his family wore masks inside their southwest London home.
Xaji, a retired 71-year-old, had arrived in the UK in 2014 to be cared for by his daughter Fadumo, Osman’s mother, in the district of Battersea, which has a large Somali community.
He was paralysed from multiple strokes.
As the coronavirus pandemic spread rapidly in London at the end of March, Fadumo, a professional carer, stopped working out of fear, worried she may infect her ailing father.
But by the first week of July, crushed by financial pressures, she reluctantly returned.
“My mum couldn’t just stay and not go to work,” Osman told Al Jazeera. “She had to take the risk and go back.”
Despite taking every precaution, Xaji began to deteriorate with symptoms of COVID-19 in early July.
Fadumo reported her concerns to the family’s doctor, specifically her father’s breathlessness.
He was admitted to hospital, but died on July 4 with coronavirus.
Across London, the virus has exacted a heavy toll on the Somali community.
A founding father of contemporary Somali music, Ahmed Ismail Hussein Hudeidi, known as the “king of the oud”, died in April at the age of 91.
Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab, a 13-year-old boy from south London, became one of the youngest victims in March; he died alone in hospital.
According to Johns Hopkins University, about 45,000 people have died with coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.
With rising infection rates ushering in a second wave, ethnic minorities in the UK fear they will once again be disproportionally affected.
Black and Asian people are twice as likely to become infected compared with white people, while 60 percent of UK healthcare workers who died from COVID-19 were from ethnic minority backgrounds.
A report published by the Intensive Care National Audit & Research Centre in April found a third of those admitted to intensive care were not white. So far in the second wave, the numbers are similar.
For Ahmed, a 21-year-old economics student from West Yorkshire, the pandemic upended his family; two of his uncles died within six weeks.
Ghusl, the routine Muslim bathing ritual for the deceased as a last rite, has become a surreal experience for many amid the pandemic.
Ahmed was required to wear full PPE during funeral arrangements for both his uncles in April and May.
“You get in this zone of complete fear,” Ahmed told Al Jazeera. “We all took extra precautions where we were duct-taping up the gloves, the PPE, everything. I thought, ‘What if something happens to me?’ I was so paranoid because when I got home, I got rid of my clothes. I was thinking I don’t want anything on me, I’ve seen what it can do to people.”
Osman said he was frustrated with the government’s lack of support in the first wave.
The Somali community, among them taxi-drivers and shopkeepers on the front lines, had little access to information about the virus in Somali.
“At the time, it was only other Somalis doing videos telling people how to take care of themselves and to stay at home,” said Osman.
“A lot of the Somali women in the community are nurses and stuff, my own aunt is a nurse. They were the people at the forefront of the community, making videos, telling people what they could do to stay safe, to stay away from going outside.”
While some believe ethnic minorities have suffered more acutely because they are on the receiving end of structural racism, others argue that underlying health conditions are a cause. But the use of the latter argument, critics said, is at times an example of “scientific racism”.
In June, an official government report exploring the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on ethnic minority groups suggested “historic racism and poorer experiences of healthcare or at work” meant members of these communities were less likely to speak up when they had concerns about PPE, or seek care when needed.
But in its first quarterly report on COVID-19 health inequalities released last week, the government’s newly appointed expert adviser, Dr Raghib Ali, ruled out “structural racism” as a reason for a higher number of deaths among ethnic minorities in the UK.
The report said socioeconomic factors such as “occupational exposure, population density, household composition and pre-existing health conditions” contributed to the higher infection and mortality rates, conceding “a part of the excess risk remains unexplained”.
Some analysts said the government is failing to properly investigate the institutional racism that underpins socioeconomic factors.
Recent joint research by race equality think-tank Runnymede Trust and IPPR, which examined the disparity, found that at least 2,500 Black and South Asian deaths could have been avoided during the first wave.
It also noted that “underlying health conditions” only applied to a small number of ethnic minority victims.
Research officer at the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, Arzoo Ahmed, said the pandemic had highlighted racial injustice at the “individual, institutional, and structural levels of society”.
She told Al Jazeera, “A significant proportion of these groups already face challenges at the intersection of race, poverty, and other socioeconomic inequalities, and have had their struggles exacerbated by COVID-19 and its policies.”
As well making doctors record the ethnic background of COVID-19 victims on death certificates, the government report recommended increasing funding for public health messaging of up to 25 million pounds ($32.5m), a measure Runnymede Trust director Dr Halima Begum described as “nothing short of a scandal”.
“Where’s the support for vulnerable communities?” she asked. “Essentially, all we’ve got is 25 million pounds for some ‘community influencers’ to tell BAME people how to isolate and protect themselves, and two new government advisers on COVID and ethnicity, one of whom said in his first statement on the issue that BAME communities are not vulnerable because of structural racism, but because of socioeconomics.
“Compare that 25 million pounds to the 500 million pounds we saw for the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, the short-term shot in the arm to the UK restaurant industry. We know this government prioritises business survival, but is that all our lives are worth?”
As winter in the UK draws in, concerns are mounting about the effect of long COVID, prolonged symptoms for at least eight weeks, and the emotional toll on mental health.
Sasha Bhat, the head of mental wellbeing for NHS Bradford and Craven in West Yorkshire, said she was particularly concerned for BAME communities who were more likely to be front-line health and social care staff, or in precarious self-employed jobs.
“The emotional impact of the loss of physical senses, social relationships, financial security, loved ones and witnessed and resurfaced trauma cannot be underestimated. Our real and emerging pandemic is the mental health of our nation.”