Covid-19 and people of colour: tackling myths and misinformation

In an era of misinformation, recognizing what is true and what is a lie is more difficult than ever, but in the current COVID-19 pandemic, understanding the facts could mean the difference between life and death.

With a disproportionate number of people of colour dying from coronavirus, in the UK and around the world, it is imperative that some myths are dispelled if we are to learn how to tackle the pandemic effectively. The coronavirus crisis has laid bare harmful and racist structural inequalities at the heart of British society, and our understandings of the death toll in ethnic minority communities must keep this in mind. Here we dispel some common types of misinformation surrounding people of colour and the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Coronavirus does not discriminate.” 

Correct, coronavirus does not discriminate, but the structures that we live under do, meaning that certain people – people of colour, in particular – are more likely to die from it. A disproportionate amount of people of colour work in low paid jobs, live in overcrowded accommodation, and are incarcerated.

report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2018 found that Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and black adults are more likely to live in substandard accommodation than white people, and black women have a mortality rate four times higher than white women in the UK.

London’s pay gap alone shows that ethnic minority groups earn on average 21.7% less than their white counterparts. The lower wages and poor living conditions that people of colour are subjected to in the UK are discriminatory, and when people in more deprived areas are dying from the coronavirus, it is easy to see how these factors link up.

Additionally, with rates of incarceration for ethnic minorities so high – in a discriminatory criminal justice system – the poor conditions that people of colour live under, whether inside or outside of prison, pose serious threats to these groups. When people of colour are singled out by societal inequality, any pandemic is sure to hit them hardest. 

BAME people are dying more from coronavirus because they have weaker immune systems.”

Some experts have pointed out that a lack of vitamin D in people with darker skin tones, leading to increased autoimmunity and an increased susceptibility to infection, might be to blame for the unequal death toll.

Public Health England has even recommended that people take vitamin D supplements during the pandemic to lower their risk of contracting the disease. However, advice from the British Nutrition Foundation cites racial factors as just one of many that might lead to vitamin D deficiency. Other people at risk of vitamin D deficiency are all pregnant and breastfeeding individuals, infants and young children, people with very little or no sunshine exposure, and people aged 65 years and over. This situation is therefore not so clear cut, and widespread generalizations such as this one do not take into account the complexities of it. 

BAME people are dying more from coronavirus because they are more likely to suffer from underlying health conditions.”

It is true that heart disease, hypertension and diabetes are all higher in ethnic minority groups. However, a wide range of studies show that those belonging to lower income groups are more at risk of suffering from cardiovascular diseases. Relative to their population size in the UK, people of colour are more likely to belong to a lower income group, showing that the role of structural factors in COVID-19 deaths should not be underestimated.

Whilst biological factors play a part, they cannot be removed from their structural context. Dr Addy Adelaine, CEO of Ladders4Action and specialist in international social work, has called out the overemphasis on biological factors: “All the biological factors suggested as being related to COVID have a social factor…[we should] address the underlying social determinants of health, e.g. poor nutrition, poor housing, stress. We know, through research, [that social factors have] an impact on health and lead to BAME individuals being disproportionately affected by health conditions that are underlying causes of COVID severity.” 

The coronavirus pandemic is fast-changing and unpredictable. Many questions remain unanswered.

If you are interested in learning more, support the #WeNeedAnswers campaign and help the push for an independent public inquiry into why people of colour are disproportionately affected by Covid-19.

Remember to keep asking the right questions, keep tackling misinformation, and keep safe.