The Covid-19 crisis should change the way we think about some of the most vital contributors to our economy. The discussion about immigration in the wake of Brexit has been derailed by the realisation that many of our vital front line workers would not have been settled here to provide the care and other services that we so desperately needed, argues Jo Smith 

The issue of race is never far from the headlines and the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown the issue of systemic racism into sharp focus. The knee-jerk anti-Asian sentiment spread a lot quicker than the virus and it wasn't long before far-right groups began using the virus as a platform for calls to close the UK's borders indefinitely.

The death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer sparked international outrage. Protests drew media coverage, while politicians failed to take any decisive action and the issue of whether our colonial history should be celebrated was largely brushed under the carpet.

Meanwhile, enthusiasm for pro-Brexit, anti-immigration rhetoric began to wane when it became apparent that the front-line workforce, on which the UK relies, comprises a high proportion of immigrants in key roles. Meanwhile, BAME families were disproportionately affected by Covid-19, the impact of which compounded the endemic social and economic disadvantages.

Given the overt racial tensions apparent throughout the globe, it would have been reasonable to expect the UK government to be mindful of the potential for problems when  considering their actions at this time of heightened uncertainty. As lockdown eased and the UK celebrated increasing loosening of restrictions, however, the government took unprecedented action in locking down areas of Greater Manchester just hours before Eid. There was outcry among Muslim communities who were told that they were barred from enjoying traditional family celebrations in each others' homes, despite pubs and bars still remaining open.

As if to highlight the government's indifference towards the chaos this announcement had caused, Tory MP Craig Whittaker then took to the airwaves to accuse BAME individuals of breaking lockdown during an interview on Ian Payne's LBC radio show.  He explicitly blamed immigrants, Asians and Muslims in an interview that Boris Johnson then failed to denounce, proving that anti-Muslim sentiment is not just acceptable to the Prime Minister and the government, but is so commonplace as to be unremarkable. When asked if he stood by his words, Whittaker doubled down and maintained his position that BAME individuals are responsible for the spikes in infection rate and refused to acknowledge the inherent inaccuracy of his claim.

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Politicians and community leaders took to social media to condemn Whittaker's comments, posting images of beaches packed with white holiday-makers and noting the high proportion of white individuals in the areas most seriously affected by Covid. The Muslim Council of Britain expressed their disappointment at the casual manner in which Muslims were scapegoated.

But, unfortunately, this is just the latest in a long line of attempts to portray Muslim communities as a threat to the UK. Just one year ago, a report was released that showed how press coverage of stories involving Muslims has an overwhelmingly negative slant. Using data from YouGov and analysis of more than 11,000 news stories, the report also found that Conservative party members were most affected by these stories, coming as they did mostly from the right-wing press. The practice is widespread, with articles about Eid celebrations focussing on the meat consumed, including graphic images, in a way that is never even mentioned when it comes to the consumption of turkeys at Christmas, for example.

There seems to be no appreciation of the bias inherent in blaming BAME communities for the spread of the Coronavirus, especially given the wealth of other stories about the way that the public has responded to the easing of lockdown. With VE day celebrations and warm weather seeing vast numbers of people mingling with one another and flocking to popular tourist spots, the fact that focus was allowed to be thrown onto the Muslim community reveals how acceptable Islamophobia is.

While there is no evidence to show that BAME communities are responsible for the spread of the virus, there is plenty to demonstrate that they have been harder hit than other groups. Social distancing policies have exacerbated the existing inequalities present in the UK which relies heavily on immigrants and BAME individuals in the workforce.

The keyworker categories identified by the government included many areas where workers are disproportionately from BAME backgrounds, such as health and social care, transport, education, and food retail. This meant that proportionately few BAME workers were able to work from home which increased the infection and mortality rates. Add to that the fact that more than 40% of NHS staff are BAME, and it becomes apparent that the nation is utterly dependent on the groups that its press seeks to vilify.

The Covid-19 crisis has shaken UK society to its core and should change the way we think about some of the most vital contributors to our economy. The discussion about immigration in the wake of Brexit has been derailed by the realisation that many of our vital front line workers would not have been settled here to provide the care and other services that we so desperately needed. However, this momentum needs to be maintained, not sidelined and forgotten. We need to let our leaders know that we will not be fooled by their attempts to score political points by taking a shot at easy targets in order to sell papers rather than fulfilling their duty to act in the best interests of all their constituents.

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