The Student
What does a post-pandemic Britain look like for immigrants at the frontlines of coronavirus? 
by Sandhya Narayanan, 22/04/20

Everyone has undeniably been affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Five months into the global pandemic and the end still does not seem in sight. As the deadly disease continues to spread, it is clear that those working in the frontline of tackling the disease are disproportionately at risk of contracting the virus. The pressures of the healthcare system fall onto the doctors and nurses across the world, who work tirelessly to help sustain and treat patients. However, the pressures and uncertainties surrounding the spread of this virus has resulted in healthcare professionals requiring adaptation to the ever-changing demands of this virus. These sacrifices include leaving behind their families, friends and children in order to help others survive. 

In times such as this, it is extremely difficult to watch these individuals go out to work every day and risk being exposed to the virus; seeing key workers fall sick makes this virus seem like a personal attack. Coronavirus has been described by some as ‘indiscriminate’, that it has affected individuals all around the world with equal vigour and force. However, contrary to this, I believe that a global pandemic such as this does discriminate. It discriminates based on your race, your class, your access to healthcare systems as well as your profession.  

The first victim who was part of the healthcare system in the UK was NHS transplant surgeon Adil El Tayar. The 63-year-old Sudanese doctor was volunteering in the A&E department of a Midlands hospital when he contracted the virus. Since then, there has been between 27-65 recorded deaths of NHS staff, a number that is likely to rise over the upcoming weeks. Doctors across the UK have faced a lack of access to protective equipment which is necessary to allow them to continue to save lives. When they make the decision to value the life of their patients over their own, they could pay the ultimate sacrifice. This is a stark reminder of imminent dangers whilst working in the current healthcare system. 

Of these deaths, a large proportion of individuals are those from an immigrant background. Matt Hancock, the UK health secretary and a recent recoveree from the virus, states the following: “I’m particularly struck at the high proportion of people from minority ethnic backgrounds and people who have come to this country to work in the NHS who have died of coronavirus. I find it really upsetting actually.” This quote is insensitive to say the least. In a country in which Brexit seems months ago, it feels almost surreal that those who are now fighting for their lives on the frontline of our healthcare system, are the same individuals who have felt excluded by anti-immigration rhetoric for the last 4 years. “Upsetting” doesn’t quite cover it. In the UK, the National Health Service is sustained by a third of doctors who come from immigrant backgrounds. In fact, the first 10 doctors in the UK who have died after contracting virus were all from BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) backgrounds. 

The anti-immigration stance taken on by UKIP in 2016, is xenophobia that can be seen mirrored by sentiments in the general British public. The rhetoric surrounding “taking back control” of Britain mirrors Trump’s “Make America Great Again” which ultimately won him the presidency; this anti-immigration language is seen as a driving force behind the support for Brexit. More than 70% of people in Britain believe that immigration should be reduced.  There are un-shocking similarities between the way Trump speaks about Mexican immigrants and how ex-UKIP leader Nigel Farage paints immigrants in the UK “stealing British jobs”. Farage has even proposed a law that allows British employers to discriminate against non-British individuals, on the basis of “British jobs for British workers”. 

What does this mean for the UK moving forward? This week saw the release of a video featuring UK residents from BAME backgrounds, many of whom are key workers, coming forward to comment on the hypocrisy this change in narrative creates. Many immigrants in the UK have experienced discrimination based on their race and heritage; there are countless accounts of day-to-day microaggressions faced by British individuals all across the UK. Though isolated incidents of race-related discrimination may suggest that these are stand-alone incidents, statistics prove that this is not the case. Both conscious and unconscious bias and racism has a major effect on how millions of people in Britain are treated. The rise in racism since the Brexit vote is not something to be taken lightly. 

A recent Guardian article published by Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, further highlights the data-driven insights surrounding the disproportionate effects of coronavirus on BAME communities. It is shocking that in the UK a third of coronavirus patients come from BAME backgrounds despite only accounting for 14% of the total population. Similar shocking numbers are mirrored in the US. There could be a number of reasons for this, ranging from socioeconomic disparities in the population, to the fact that those from BAME backgrounds are more likely to be employed in frontline jobs. However uncomfortable this is to recognise, there are socioeconomic and structural barriers which contribute to the disproportionate effect coronavirus has on BAME communities. 

Secondly, it is important to highlight the crucial role which is currently being played by immigrant workers in the UK. Immigrant key workers are not the only individuals at the forefront of this crisis, however, the key role these workers have made in the height of this pandemic should make us question our attitudes to those that come to Britain from countries all around the world. Woven in the British values is one of mutual respect and the tolerance for those of different cultures and religions. Almost overnight, there has been a rapid, transition in Britain’s narrative from immigrants taking “our jobs” to “those fighting on the frontline to save lives”. 

The imminent months following the end of the pandemic are crucial to change the rhetoric surrounding immigration. Whilst the virus continues to take hundreds of lives a day, the height of a crisis also gives us the opportunity to reflect on what we chose to change and learn from, especially within our society. We need to create an environment that fosters a supportive community and doesn’t allow us to slip back into the xenophobic narrative created in recent years. Immigrants in the UK have a vital role within the fabric of how our society functions. The coronavirus outbreak has reframed our language surrounding immigrants in our country for the time-being. Immigrants are not to be used as scapegoats on whom we blame our problems when convenient and rely on in times of crisis. Immigrants are not a disposable group who we value in the time of crises and refuse to support in seemingly normal times.  

I hope this global crisis has the power to show us the unity we have as a nation and that there are more about our experiences that unites than divides us. The contributions and stories of immigrants often fade in the light of new news, let’s hope that when this is over, we don’t forget the real heroes at the frontline of this crisis. We have the power to create a new normal – let’s actively create a more inclusive future. 

Image: Alisdare Hickson via Flickr