UK expert: Racism not to blame for minorities’ COVID risk

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LONDON (AP) — A scientist newly appointed as an advisor to the British government has expressed skepticism about focusing on the role of structural racism in the disproportionate effect that the coronavirus has on ethnic minority groups.

“Instead of focusing on ethnicity we need to look at the key underlying risk factors (which are mainly socioeconomic) that are causing their higher death rates — and that will therefore reduce the risk of death in all ethnic groups, including whites,” Dr. Raghib Ali, an epidemiologist at Cambridge University, wrote in the Times.

British officials have in the past few months been looking into why Black people and ethnic minorities have an increased risk of death involving COVID-19. Ali’s comments came as officials said Thursday they plan to make it mandatory for ethnicity to be reported in death certificates in order to establish a more complete picture of the impact of the virus on ethnic minorities.

A government report published Thursday, which Ali contributed to, said that the current evidence “clearly shows that a range of socio-economic and geographical factors” – including individuals’ jobs, how crowded their houses are, and pre-existing health conditions – contribute to the higher infection and death rates for ethnic minorities. But it said “a part of the excess risk remains unexplained for some groups,” such as Black men.

In June, a Public Health England report stated that historic racism and poorer experiences of healthcare may explain why some people from ethnic minorities are less likely to seek care when needed. The public body said data showed that after accounting for factors like age and sex, Black people and other Asian ethnic minorities were at higher risk of dying due to COVID-19 compared to white British people.

But Ali, who’s been appointed the government’s new advisor on COVID-19 and ethnicity, said evidence has since emerged showing that most of the increased risk can be accounted for by factors other than race. Black and Asian people are more likely to live in deprivation, in densely populated urban centers and in multi-generational homes, he said. They are also more likely to suffer from conditions such as obesity and diabetes.

“You have to target the risk factors because ethnicity is basically a proxy for those risk factors,” he said. He added that as more evidence comes to light, “it doesn’t make sense to put all minorities into the same basket” because not everyone from those communities is at higher risk of becoming critically ill or dying.

He also argued that structural racism does not account for data showing that, in general, most ethnic minority groups have better overall health and lower mortality rates.

Presenting the report, Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch also downplayed the issue of race.

“In general, we must move away from seeing COVID-19 as something that affects discrete groups in society and towards helping individuals understand their own particular risk profile as the evidence base grows,” she told lawmakers.

Halima Begum, director of the race equality think tank, called the report disappointing.

“There’s a fundamental lack of understanding of what structural racism is,” she told the BBC.

Chaand Nagpaul, council chair of the doctors’ union British Medical Association, said that amid the debate, people from ethnic minority backgrounds haven’t seen real change in the disproportionate effect of the virus on their lives.

“Today, as we sit amid a second wave of infections, we know that about a third of those admitted to intensive care are not white,” Nagpaul said. “There needs to be more tangible action right now to protect Black, Asian, and minority ethnic people.”

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