Race, Class and Covid-19 – Not an equal opportunities contagion

Race, Class and Covid-19 – Not an equal opportunities contagion

Harshad Keval

Despite the narrative of crisis and chaos that permeates both news media reporting and the everyday experience of life in ‘lockdown’, there are emerging patterns that need thinking about. Many observers have already pointed to the massive inequalities that are appearing in the cracks in between national and international efforts to combat the global pandemic story. The Guardian newspaper has started reporting on what it frames as ‘emerging’ stories of ethnic inequalities in how the disease impacts communities, whilst most news media has already alerted us to the socio-economics of Covid-19 impacts. In this short piece I would like to highlight the way in which race-analytics need to be made more integral to the Covid-19 story.

Hostile territories
In the US, UK and elsewhere, it is those living at the sharp end of the neo-liberal, deregulated market ‘trickle down’ who are most at risk, and yet again, race and ethnicity are at the heart. In the UK, BAME communities making up 13%-18% of the population, have higher admission rates for the virus at 33%, suffer more from cramped housing and, ironically, play a huge role working in the NHS. We know that BAME people are 40% of doctors and 20% of nurses nationally (rising to 50% in London). Black, Asian, and minority ethnic people are also 17% of the social care workforce, rising to 59% in London.

Long term conditions e.g. high blood pressure and diabetes are associated with higher rates of mortality from COVID19. Given that African Caribbean people have higher prevalence of high blood pressure, South Asians have higher rates of coronary heart disease and are up to six times more likely to have diabetes, what does this mean for Covid-19, society, and ‘crisis’? The British Medical Association has asked the government to investigate the disturbing trend in disproportionately high BAME staff deaths from coronavirus in the NHS (the first 10 doctors to die from the virus were from BAME backgrounds). As the Race Equality Foundation – amongst many voices has consistently reported these issues, BAME people have always occupied the precipitous position of ‘precarity’ (long before the notion ‘the precariat’ became academic social class label-de-jour). It is this precarity, deeply embedded inside the racist and racial nature of state governance that now runs the risk of being over-written by ‘exception narratives’.

The ‘everydayness’ of the Covid-19 story is interesting because the everyday institutions and facilities that allow society to operate–health, social care, transport, service industries – are precisely those employment and institutional entities that are the foundation of society, and which are overwhelmingly populated by BAME people (BAME people more likely to be key workers and/or work in higher risk occupations, e.g. include cleaners, public transport (including taxis), shops, and NHS staff.)

A ‘state of exception’ narrative, which relies on the term ‘crisis’ to mark out practical and discursive territories as beyond normal governance structures, also demands a silencing of the accountability for pre-existing intersectional inequalities. Such a landscape struggles to see the racialised structure of labour, access to health and social care, housing, representation in politics, the NHS and public transport.

As other writers have explored, fear, paranoia and anxieties of the contagious ‘other’ lead to more racism and  xenophobia, while racial science yet again rears its head, as bio-racial, race-thinking identifies spaces in public and political consciousness that are ripe for hankerings for new essentialisms projected onto black bodies (e.g. testing vaccines on unprotected ‘Africans’). Race-thinking, racism and class are transversal lines that run through these issues.

In it together?
The paradox of championing key workers whilst ignoring the race-class dynamics are exemplified in the fact that all the key cabinet members who are currently publicly championing the NHS and key workers, also voted against giving nurses a pay rise in 2017. Given the high proportions of BAME nurses in the NHS compared to UK BAME populations, the higher risk of exposure to both socio-economic and now Covid-19 impacts is a moveable oppression line that barely gets acknowledged.

But this ‘race angle’ (as undoubtedly it and other similarly themed pieces will be labelled) is not principally about race and class up to the nation-state border. If social science in this time, written inclusively by people in and of this time is to take part in analysis that dispels the mythology of insular Westernised, European-centred thinking, it must de-link itself from its own narrow confines.

As the sociological landscape becomes increasingly complex and uncertainty driven, several levels of isolationist paradigms emerge. On one, there is the very real, physical isolation and distancing required to mitigate contagion, violation of which has massive consequences. But on another level, isolationism in thinking about Covid-19 and society can prevent analytical imaginations to think further than national and European borders. We are now beginning to see, hear and read about the immeasurable, mass human disasters that will befall global southern countries hit by Covid-19.

While economists discuss the important impact of import restrictions on medical supplies to developing countries, there are more transparent human tragedies unfolding around the world. For example, there are only three ventilators in the Central African Republic and Liberia, with four in South Sudan. If we add to this for example the potential human misery that is currently being experienced by undocumented migrants around the world we can begin to see the importance of connected empathies in social science work. The ‘race angle’ is actually the constitutive structure of British society and the global picture of inequalities is an intimately connected set of global structural processes that span the enduring legacies of imperial and colonial power. If sociological analysis cannot yield valid conceptual discussions without these integral components, then logically, Covid-19 impacts cannot be rendered usefully without a similar integration and interrogation.

My point is simple, but signposts a deeper complexity: that the ‘race’ story here is not an unfortunate addendum about minority ‘cultures’, or an additional issue that sits along-side and is to be subsumed under larger more important issues in the Covid-19 story. If we are to make sense of the impacts of this virus, then we fundamentally need to restructure our conceptions of what constitutes society itself, what kind of polity we seek to live in, and who is rendered a part of that vision – now and after the ‘crisis’.

Covid-19 is not a leveller, a ‘colour/class blind’ virus which, in the bio-medicalisation narrative might perhaps be tempting to rehearse. Worse still, the socio-economic inequalities explanations, vital as they are as an integrated intersectional component, once again run the risk of explaining-away racial disparities rather than demanding structural change to the racist structures inside which these disparities are maintained. To make social scientific claims and produce analysis of Covid-19 and society without a constant attention to the race and class dynamics that lie at the heart of society, is a social injustice.

The increasing isolation and lock-down lives we are living risk turning away from these fundamental interconnections and necessarily focusing on ‘survival’. But for many, ‘survival’ has been the only mode of operation for decades, and just as we need to continue to hold government, politicians, and ministers to account, we also need to maintain vigilance against ‘exception’ narratives in social thinking that do the work of rendering race and racist structures invisible. Covid-19 may not give a damn about the ‘hostile environment, but we know that many people continue to live in one, precisely at a time when life is going to get even more difficult.


Harshad Keval is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology, with special interests in race, postcolonial and decolonial theory. He is based at Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent.


Image Credit: Victoria Priessnitz on Unsplash