Britain Likes to Look Down on American Racism. But Color is a key COVID Comorbidity Here Too | Opinion

It's sometimes said that America and Britain are two countries divided by a common language. We are also, as it turns out, two countries united by a common division.

The latest numbers show that Black Americans are 2.6 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than White Americans. Responding to such gross disparities, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot was blunt. "There's no way to sugarcoat it," she said. The vast racial disparities in America's COVID-19 numbers were simply "the manifestation of decades of neglect."

If anything, the pattern is worse in my country.

The racial disparities in hospitalization and mortality in my country are so egregious that London's Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has called for ethnic data on COVID-19 mortality rates to be released to the public. Because the numbers we have are shocking: Though they are less than 15 percent of the UK's population, racial minorities are a third of critically ill COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Studies have found that Black people in England and Wales are four times more likely to die of coronavirus than white people. As a member of a minority community myself, a Muslim of Pakistani ancestry, of course I find these trends not only troubling and terrifying, but infuriating. I also have good reason to take them even more personally.

A study by the British Office for National Statistics found that my neighborhood, the borough of Newham (in East London), was the worst-hit area in all of the country, with standardised death rates four times higher than the national average across Britain. 144 out of every Newham 100,000 residents have died because of coronavirus.

That is the highest COVID-19 death rate in the United Kingdom, which has the highest overall death rate in Europe. Not coincidentally, Newham's population is 78 percent ethnic minority.

In Britain, as in America, socioeconomic divisions often map out over racial and ethnic differences; this does not mean that there aren't poor whites or rich Asians in the United Kingdom, but that, on the whole, racial minorities are poorer than the majority White population. This relative poverty has structural causes: British minorities function at a social disadvantage.

This relative poverty has structural outcomes, too: Higher death rates. In poor areas like Newham, the population density is a lot higher than more economically privileged areas. Worse, the poorer you are, the less space your living space contains, often making social distancing impossible. Not to mention, working from home is a privilege that often belongs exclusively to the well-to-do.

These are not the only differences.

The poorer you are, the more likely you are to suffer from a mental health condition which adds to the strain of being under lockdown. The poorer you are, the less likely you are able to afford protective equipment, such as masks and hand sanitizers, products which saw a sharp increase in prices at the beginning of the health emergency.

The poorer you are, the more likely you are to have underlying health conditions, which make one more susceptible to COVID-19.

Simultaneously, many of the doctors and nurses of the UK National Health Service (NHS) are from ethnic minority communities. They are the ones most exposed to the risk of contracting coronavirus by working to save the lives of their fellow citizens. These doctors and nurses, many of them immigrants, were demonized during the campaign to achieve Brexit, a referendum powered by our present Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

As if it were not bad enough that ethnic minorities are more vulnerable to the virus, they may suffer the consequences of a populism empowered by the virus.

Populism has not answers

Given the raw numbers of dead alone, and never mind the racial disparities contained therein, one could say that Mr. Johnson's response to coronavirus has been an astonishing failure. In that he joins his ideological comrade, President Donald Trump, who has similarly fumbled and bumbled a predictable medical crisis. Two of the world's wealthiest countries, humbled by the sheer incompetence of populists desperate for power but unable to effectively wield it.

Is it so surprising? Britain shocked the world by voting for Brexit four years ago; that vote was widely considered a proof of, and a warning about, the viability of Donald Trump's candidacy. Both of these leaders have profited from racism and may well, in the aftermath of this crisis, turn to xenophobic and irresponsible rhetoric to deflect blame. Both leaders have already proven themselves capable of as much.

The American president has, for example, characterized coronavirus as a Chinese disease. Some in his administration fuel rumors that the disease was engineered in a Chinese lab, or at least escaped from one. Unsurprisingly, Trump dismissed the accusations that his comments were racist. In the U.K., our Prime Minister refused to apologize for a variety of offensive comments, some of them considered to be Islamophobic.

We can imagine this pattern reproducing and feeding off itself. The uncertainties and anxieties of the pandemic will further empower populist and supremacist groups; perversely, then, the communities most vulnerable to the virus will also be the most vulnerable to the populist discourse that follows after the failure of populist governments to contain the virus. We already see the seeds of that in protests against lockdowns in several American states.

This is what it is to be a minority in the United Kingdom today. Decades of discrimination lead to heightened vulnerabilities, which become exposed and exacerbated by a medical crisis. This crisis, in turn, reinforces preexisting discrimination. Although, of course, it does not have to be that way. Recent years have seen an uptick in the number of minorities running for and holding office in my country, with welcome results.

Just a few days ago, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock was challenged by opposition health minister, Dr. Rosena Allin-Khan, over the consequences of his maladministration. Thousands of people may well have died, she argued, who did not have to die: A competent government would have seen to that. Americans are fortunate to have a November election that will allow them to register their discomfort with your similar outcomes. That, however, is only the beginning.

The challenge is to work towards real and lasting change.

Consider the overlapping populisms that fueled Brexit and powered Donald Trump's candidacy. Can there not be a similar movement of progressive, inclusive leaders, advocating for responsible government and esteeming expertise and competency? Xenophobic populism has built transatlantic networks--what is to say Americans and Britons of conscience cannot likewise link arms, work together, share best practices, and magnify each other's voices?

I have spent my adult life working to build bridges between communities of color across the West, including and especially between the United Kingdom and the United States. This crisis confirms to me the value of the work, but underscores how much more work has to be done. Many commentators have asked us, during this pandemic, to imagine how the world should and must change in the years ahead. One of those transformations?

Your color should not be a preexisting condition.

Muddassar Ahmed is a former advisor to the British government, a visiting fellow at German Marshall Fund and patron of the Faiths Forum for London. Follow him on twitter @mmuddassarahmed.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​