As scientists and researchers around the World called to take a break from their work yesterday (10 June) to support the ongoing protests against racism and hashtags such as #ShutDownSTEM and #Strike4BlackLives emerged on social media platforms, a new report released by Public Health England (PHE), an executive agency under the UK Department of Health and Social Care on health inequalities was criticized for failing to provide actionable recommendations.
PHE did a swift review of coronavirus and its impact on different populations in early May. Related findings were published in a report on 2 June. The agency discovered that individuals of Bangladeshi ethnicity are twice more likely to die from COVID-19 as compared to White British. Other black and ethnic minority (BAME) groups (i.e., Indian, Caribbean, Chinese, Pakistani, other Asian and other black ethnicity) also each bears 10-50% higher risk of death from the virus as compared to their White counterparts.
Figures showed higher death risks among the black and other ethnic minority
PHE examined thousands of health records and health outcome data of patients who were infected with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), the causative agent of COVID-19; those who work for the National Health Service (NHS), the public health system of UK and the vulnerable (i.e., homeless, living in poverty). The review aimed to establish a more robust data on the factors that are influencing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic within UK as preliminary analyses showed that the BAME community is disproportionately affected.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies, a London based economic research institute reported on 1 May that the impacts of COVID-19 is not uniform across ethnic groups and data or analyses that aggregate all minorities together will miss important differences. Per-capita COVID-19 hospital death is highest among the black Caribbean population, which is three times higher than White British. On the other hand, according to the Office of National Statistics figures published on 7 May, the risks of black people dying from COVID-19 are four times higher than white people. Recent figures from the British Medical Association also added that 94% of clinicians who have died because of COVID-19 were from a BAME background.
On top of which, the PHE report found that BAME individuals are more at risks of a poor health outcome because of a greater chance of co-morbidities. Despite the evidence, professionals and BAME networks criticized the PHE report for failing to provide any recommended actions to reduce the disparities and health outcomes.
A hot potato too difficult to confront
Dr. Shera Chok, General Practitioner (GP) and Co-founder of The Shuri Network, an initiative supporting BAME women to take up digital health roles told Digital Health News that healthcare leaders should focus strongly in addressing inequalities highlighted by the data. They should not regard the matter as “a hot potato too difficult to confront”. Dr. Chok views the unprecedented situation taking place now is an opportunity to show how data and technology can be used to prevent diseases and engage with communities to improve outcomes and safety.
Professor Gurch Randhawa, Professor of Diversity in Public Health and Director of The Institute for Health Research at the University of Bedfordshire added the omission of recommendations is best described as “a lack of humility and honesty in learning from our past actions”. On the same day when the PHE report was published, Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care spoke at the daily coronavirus press briefing that the government will find ways to close the gaps.
It’s worthwhile to note that health inequality is not unique to the UK. United Nations Officer of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights) also reported on 2 June that the growing disparities in how COVID-19 is affecting certain racial and ethnic minority groups need to be addressed urgently. UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet said, “the data tells us of a devastating impact from Covid-19 on people of African descent, as well as ethnic minorities in some countries, including Brazil, France, the United Kingdom and the United States”.
Bachelet asserted this is a global concern and it’s important to systematically collect and analyze data of different ethnicities and gender for a more informed public health response. “In many other places, we expect similar patterns are occurring, but we are unable to say for sure given that data by race and ethnicity is simply not being collected or reported. The appalling impact of Covid-19 on racial and ethnic minorities is much discussed, but what is less clear is how much is being done to address it,” she adds.