The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Blacks in Britain are four times as likely to die of coronavirus as whites, data show

The market stalls on Electric Avenue in Brixton, one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in London, on April 23, 2020. The British capital, where ethnic minorities make up more than 40 percent of the population, has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus outbreak. (Niklas Halle'n/AFP/Getty Images)
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LONDON — Coronavirus is no great equalizer, and new data out of Britain underscore how certain ethnic groups are more at risk: Blacks are four times as likely to die of covid-19 as whites, according to the Office for National Statistics.

This, however, is not a surprise to many in these communities, whose members are more vulnerable to the virus because of their health and economic disadvantages, and perhaps other reasons yet to be isolated.

Britons of Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian and mixed ethnicities also have statistically higher rates of coronavirus deaths than Caucasians, according to the ONS report.

"Appalling," tweeted David Lammy, the opposition Labour Party's point person on justice. "It is urgent the causes of this disproportionality are investigated."

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The trends are not unique to Britain. Parisian suburbs — where many residents are of North African or sub-Saharan African descent — have been hit harder than Paris itself. In one such suburb, Seine-Saint-Denis, the coronavirus death rate is unusually high. "Inequalities are killing Seine-Saint-Denis," six mayors from the district wrote in an open letter published in France's Le Monde newspaper in early April.

The Washington Post found last month that black Americans are dying at a disproportionate rate and that majority-black counties in the United States have nearly six times the rate of deaths as majority-white counties. Latinos also have been disproportionately hard-hit.

In Britain, the government has agreed to an investigation into the ethnic disparities, which are particularly striking among health-care workers. More than 90 percent of the doctors who have died of covid-19 in the country are from BAME communities — black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups.

Earlier this week, British Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van-Tam said at a news conference that studying diseases across ethnic groups was complicated by a number of factors — including age, underlying medical conditions, deprivation and geography — but that the government was taking the issue seriously. "You'll have worked out that I'm from an ethnic minority group," he said at a Downing Street news conference, "and we will get to the bottom of this."

Health leaders in Britain have said they will pore through thousands of records and report at the end of May on how issues such as ethnicity, obesity and gender affect risk to covid-19.

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London, where ethnic minorities make up more than 40 percent of the population, has been hit particularly hard.

Mayor Sadiq Khan said Thursday that minorities in the British capital are "more likely to work in lower-paid jobs, live in overcrowded accommodation and suffer from underlying health conditions, and this is clearly putting them at greater risk from coronavirus."

The ONS said some of the reasons for the differences remain hard to pin down.

According to the ONS report, when adjusted for age, black males are 4.2 times as likely to die of covid-19 as white males, and black females are more than 4.3 times as likely as white females.

When it factored in variables such as demographics and self-reported health issues, the statistics agency found that black male and females were 1.9 times as likely to die of covid-19. Similarly, males of Bangladeshi and Pakistani ethnicity were 1.8 times as likely, and females of Bangladeshi and Pakistani ethnicity were 1.6 times as likely.

"These results show that the difference between ethnic groups in COVID-19 mortality is partly a result of socio-economic disadvantage and other circumstances, but a remaining part of the difference has not yet been explained," the agency said.

Separate research from the University College London, published Wednesday, found similar trends.

Rob Aldridge, the lead author of the study, said the findings supported "an urgent need to take action."

"Actions to reduce these inequities include ensuring an adequate income for everyone so that low-paid and zero-hours contract workers can afford to follow social distancing recommendations, reducing occupational risks such as ensuring adequate PPE [personal protective equipment], reducing barriers to accessing health care and providing culturally and linguistically appropriate public health communications."

Speaking at a parliamentary select committee hearing on Wednesday, Michael Marmot, director of University College London's Institute of Health Equity, said, "The pandemic has exposed and amplified underlying inequalities in society."

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