The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light increased health risks among groups labelled Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME), exposing many stark inequalities. Lockdown measures are impacting all aspects of life, but differentially impacting students and families from disadvantaged areas. Here, Dr Sophina Choudry, Professor Erica Burman, Professor Julian Williams, Sidra Iftikhar and Dr Yasmeen Jaina Bharkhda from the Manchester Institute of Education report on the findings of their recent project focusing on the needs of members of the Pakistani communities in Rochdale.
- Meaningful conversation is needed through public community-based consultations which reach the most vulnerable members of disadvantaged communities.
- Communities are marginalised through lack of access to and representation in healthcare and education, e.g. school staff should represent and proactively serve diverse communities.
- Long-term work needs to address institutional racism on multiple levels. The lived experiences of the Pakistani communities need to be understood and used to change policy and engage in action.
Rochdale is one of many areas suffering from significant social deprivation, which has intensified during the current pandemic crisis. Top-down lockdown measures have exacerbated historical and existing inequalities experienced by religious and cultural minority communities across the country, where voices have been missing in dialogues on policy.
Our findings led to the construction of thematic ‘voices’ at individual, institutional and community levels and the themes explored resulted in calls for collective action aimed at policy and practice in regard to education, health, the media, local authorities and national politics. Here, we focus on four key themes recurring across individual, often very private, narratives of hurt and pain felt by those enduring racism and abuse.
Blaming the victim
The blaming of the minoritised communities was the first theme to be documented. Often media accounts focus on, sometimes false, accounts of behaviour in mosques or in joint family households. Insinuating a lack of compliance with COVID-related measures, whilst side-lining bad behaviour by others – including members of different ethnic non-Muslim groups, members who belong to different class backgrounds, and socialising in pubs and bars compared with family gatherings in homes. Blaming the victim often begins in media gossip and can become a theme within racist discourse that is supported by government statements with much-voiced examples of rhetoric, discriminatory decision-making, and policy – including closing mosques, opening up pubs and subsidising eating out, and then the differences in government attitudes and rhetoric towards Eid and Christmas.
We want to identify actions that bring these experiences of the community:
- to those in positions of power in the media, in institutions including schools, and in politics where minority communities are often marginal;
- to actively promote policies of affirmative action in recruitment and promotion;
- in short-term actions to raise the profile of these concerns in institutional governance and practice.
At a wider societal and political level, some local scrutiny of the media and national decision-making on local racism is needed. Not just as a one-off inquiry, but as a matter of continuing concern and work, reflecting the longstanding hurt and concerns around racism that pre-existed but were exacerbated in the pandemic.
Marginalisation from positions of authority and power
This marginalisation extends to most institutions, but we are particularly concerned with schools whose staffing fails to reflect the diversity of the community they serve. We suggest that any school with a high proportion of minority students should consider whether their staffing and leadership is representative of the wider communities’ diversity and if it is able to listen, understand, and address the needs of minority voices. We suggest that, in light of how these issues have affected everyone and are intensified within minority communities, mental health provisions should be extended. SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) home support packages should be developed and there is a need for improved home and community school communication pathways (including in a range of languages).
We also recorded accounts indicating how in GP surgeries, some older people who are not fluent in English find themselves cut off from their health care and social support services by various unfortunate procedures. Issues exacerbated by the pandemic include over-the-phone appointments only held in English, and surgeries not allowing accompanying family to visit the surgery with the patient). Thus, we are calling for translation services in healthcare to be re-instated or expanded.
COVID-19 aggravation of discrimination
Lockdown measures are particularly difficult for disadvantaged communities, leading to increasing distrust of and alienation from governmental and institutional policy. For instance,
parents are working from home and also need to supervise children who cannot easily engage with online learning. Additionally, teacher-parent communication needs to consider non-English speaking parents, including those often with no access to or know-how of required technology.
Furthermore, our consultations suggest that the closure of community centres and mental health services should be a last resort, as these are places where the vulnerable go, sometimes in desperate need. We understand from our consultations that some services are in danger of closing permanently due to lack of funds rather than on health grounds, and we ask local and national policymakers to prioritise funding of these centres to support vulnerable members from minority communities.
COVID-19 related communication vacuum
Our interviewee partners expressed grievances over not being heard or engaged with in key pandemic debates, while being expected to be obedient and conform to mandates without question or negotiation. This has led to resistance in terms of rejection of information that is shared by policymakers. It seems from our consultations that the lack of meaningful conversations creates a communication vacuum where conspiracies may take hold, as vulnerable, mostly isolated members of the community are left to their own devices to come up with a narrative that may explain the, often conflicting, advice from the authorities. We suggest community-based consultations at the local level be facilitated to bridge this gap.
Each theme explored here begins with a very private, painful, personal or familial experience, but then is identified as a particular – sometimes impassioned – expression of a collective grievance and need. Collective experience and expression of need is not only a matter for action on the part of the communities themselves but draws attention to practical and remediable gaps and barriers. We suggest that addressing these can really make a difference. Gaps and barriers indicate wider, systemic concerns that highlight the need to educate those with decision-making powers, and to invite changes in policy and practice to facilitate community members’ access to and influence in schools, as well as the media, health, and politics.
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