COVID-19 and race equality: lessons to learn

It came to me on one of my early morning walks, as I ventured past some lovely houses in north west London, that we are genuinely not all in this COVID-19 situation together. Let’s be honest, surviving lockdown in a one bedroom tower block flat, as a single parent with two children aged under five, is a very different proposition to being in lockdown in one of these big houses.

I find myself thinking a lot about the members of staff working on the front-line in the NHS. Regardless of background or banding, I know how hard, frightening and difficult it must be for them and their families. As a nurse myself, I know first-hand how hard it is to be surrounded by very sick people. It’s easy for people to say “we’re all in this together” from the safety of their homes; not so easy when you are in the thick of it.

What front-line staff are doing every single day, during every shift, is laying their lives on the line, and for that they deserve the country’s unreserved gratitude and praise. My respect and thanks go to them all, but particularly to the families of all our colleagues that have sadly lost their lives fighting this virus.

We are now starting the fourth week of lockdown and what is becoming clearer, is that some people seem more at risk of getting the virus than others and indeed some people are more likely to die. Sobering and very scary thoughts.

The current evidence shows that older people and men are more likely to succumb to the virus and black and minority ethnic (BME) people may also be at higher risk.

In the UK people from BME backgrounds are more likely to be in lower paid jobs, the so called work ‘gig economy’, live in poorer housing and have less access to  open spaces and healthy lifestyles. The social distancing that is required at this time can be problematic for people that live in multiple occupancy buildings with high numbers of people living together.

In recent days, the issue of racial inequality and the Covid-19 has gained traction in the media. Inequality and particularly health inequality is an important issue and for those of us from BME backgrounds: it is a life or death one.

COVID-19 highlights the importance of inclusion and compassion in our country. Many people that are on the front line are from BME backgrounds: doctors, nurses, bus drivers, cleaners, shop assistants. These people are in essential jobs and play key roles in keeping the country going. We should value, respect and appreciate the contributions of these people in both the good times, as well as the bad.

During this unprecedented time, we should be firm to the premise that everyone, regardless of background, deserves the opportunity to thrive, not just survive. I am told that I am unrealistic, idealistic even, and the world which I describe and aspire to couldn’t exist.

However, I believe the consequences of the health and social inequalities that human beings have created across the globe can be seen glaringly during times of crisis like this. These consequences are serious, damaging and devastating for us all to ignore for a minute longer.

Yvonne Coghill

Yvonne Coghill CBE, OBE, JP, MSc, DMS, RGN, RMN, HV, CPT, Dip Exec Coaching.

Yvonne commenced nurse training at Central Middlesex Hospital in 1977, qualified as a general nurse in 1980 and then went on to qualify in mental health nursing and health visiting. In 1986 she secured her first NHS management job and has since held a number of operational and strategic leadership posts.

In 2004, she was appointed at the Department of Health as Private Secretary to the Chief Executive of the NHS, Sir Nigel Crisp.

Yvonne is currently the Director – WRES Implementation in NHS England, and deputy president of the RCN.