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How Covid-19 is affecting BAME workers on the front line

A blog by 20-year-old marketing student Theophilia Yirenkyi Ayeh.

On April 5th, Belly Mujinga tragically died aged just 47 after testing positive for coronavirus. Belly was working at Victoria Station when a man who said he had Covid-19 spat and coughed at her and a colleague. Within days of the incident, Belly, who had underlying respiratory problems, became ill and was eventually admitted to Barnet Hospital. She died days later, leaving behind an 11-year old daughter and a husband.

My name is Theophilia and I’m 20 years old, currently in my first year at university studying marketing. This topic concerns me because many are blindsided when it comes to structural racism especially in a work environment. But I believe that we need to acknowledge it and understand that it does still exist and how to overcome such challenges still engraved in our society today.

Belly Mujinga with her partner

Belly Mujinga and her husband. The image is taken from the 

family's Justice for Belly petition, which you can sign here

The case of Belly Mujinga gave me an insight into what truly happens to BAME workers – not just on the Covid front line, but day-to-day in workplaces, in ways that people rarely see. This incident made me disappointed that the system failed the BAME community once again and that we were not heard especially in such critical times. I was saddened by the news of so many innocent lives being lost due to the lack of critical protection. Belly was one of the many BAME workers who sacrificed her life, demanding only a little more attention towards her health in an unsafe working environment, but whose voice was not heard.

The protection of all front-line workers is crucial, these are the people who have played such an important role through this pandemic. This is undermined by a lack of basic protection supplies against Covid-19 within workplaces – especially for BAME workers, who represent a disproportionate number of workers on the front line. Across the UK alone, around 3,000 Black, Asian and minority ethnic people have died due to working in life-threatening frontline areas at higher risk of contracting Covid-19. Many individuals within the BAME community have a major role in the front line, within our hospitals, care homes, supermarkets and many different sectors. These are the workers who are sacrificing their wellbeing and crucially at risk daily for welfare of the UK. UCL researchers have shown that Black African groups are 3.24 times higher for the risk of death from Covid-19 than the general population. Due to different health outcomes for BAME workers, and because many have public-facing occupations, employers need to start acknowledging that they must protect employees who are most at risk.

Structural racism has existed for generations, but many people don’t want to acknowledge that it is still alive and thriving within the UK. Many opportunities for individuals and groups in the UK are defined by race and racism especially in connection to jobs, where it reinforces racial grouping. Incidents of structural racism at work allow us to see how the workplace often reflects racialised perspectives and stereotypes. Rather than judging people by their race or how they speak, we need to focus on supporting and appreciating the hard work and determination individuals put towards their jobs and responsibilities. There are obvious racial incidents that take place – however, there are many more hidden types such as hostility, bias and prejudice. Structural racism is the effect of power and privilege based on race and class. We need to start recognising these issues because racism can have a great impact on your well-being and mindset. We need to start seeing a positive change towards morals, attitudes and workplace values.

We can’t overcome structural racism overnight. However, we can gradually solve this problem through our community, government and workplaces. Policies should focus on putting a stop to racial inequality through the racial wealth gap, schools and employment. By gradually decreasing these gaps we can help bring down other barriers to a better future for BAME people. We also need to recognise who is affected by racial discrimination – who benefits and who loses out because of their race. We can’t begin and maintain the change if we don’t allow ourselves to see the issues which are blatantly in front of us.

Structural racism has a great impact on BAME people in many career paths. To some extent, we do have the power to overcome the challenges of inequality and injustice within our chosen careers. By being confident when voicing our ideas and opinions, as well as challenging racism within the work environment, we can have a massive impact on others within our workplace, creating positive change for the BAME community. We must make our voices heard and ensure our hard work is rewarded so our movement against structural racism is an example others can learn from.

You can sign the family's petition calling for Justice for Belly Mujinga here on Change.org. The family are seeking protection and support for those working at Govia Thameslink Railway where Belly worked.

Image credit: Lead image by Anthony Quintano on Flickr