While there is no evidence to suggest that BAME people are breaching government guidelines to a greater extent than white people, there is evidence which contextualises the higher infection rates and disproportionate suffering of BAME communities throughout the pandemic: social inequality.
In a recent interview with LBC radio, Conservative MP Craig Whittaker alleged that the ‘vast majority’ of those breaking Covid-19 social distancing guidelines are of a BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) background. When asked by the interviewer if he was specifically referring to ‘immigrant communities’, Whittaker confirmed: “Immigrant and Asian population.”
Whittaker’s accusations came shortly after the government announced via a series of tweets that it would be implementing a local lockdown across Greater Manchester and areas of West Yorkshire – just hours before Eid al-Adha. The government received widespread backlash not only for its dire communication of such a crucial message – using social media platform Twitter – but for providing such short notice in advance of the Islamic holiday when families had already made plans to celebrate. Many viewed the localised lockdowns as a convenient way to scapegoat Muslims in particular – this not being the first time that Muslims had been falsely held responsible for spreading the Coronavirus.
Dangerous conspiracies have emerged throughout the pandemic, fanning the flames of Islamophobia through presenting Muslims as acting recklessly during Covid-19. A study carried out by Imran Awan and Roxana Khan-Williams found that content shared across numerous social media platforms portrayed Muslims as key contributors to the spread of the virus, using fake news to do so. Images of people visiting mosques were used to suggest that Muslims were refusing to adhere to government Coronavirus guidelines, despite the fact that these had been taken weeks before the UK’s national lockdown.
Regrettably, Islamophobia in the UK is no new phenomenon. In fact, in 2018, Hope Not Hate’s State of Hate report indicated that anti-Muslim hate has become a driving force behind the rise of far-right movements and anti-immigration rhetoric in the UK. The Conservative party, in particular, has a long history of Islamophobia, with the report pointing to a ‘litany of casual Islamophobia exhibited by Conservative party members’ only further exemplified by current Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s own history of troubling, xenophobic statements.
Johnson previously compared women in burqas to ‘letter boxes’ and ‘bank robbers’ which saw Tell MAMA – an organisation which monitors anti-Muslim hate crimes – reporting a ‘direct link’ between Johnson’s comments and ‘an uptick in incidents targeting women who wear the face veil.’
This provides a sinister backdrop to the government’s recent decision to implement a local lockdown across Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire in the hours leading up to Eid al-Adha celebrations, with Craig Whittaker’s subsequent comments only further highlighting the divisive tactics at play. The false notion that those of a BAME background – particularly Asian communities – are among those most accountable for failing to act in accordance with government guidelines is both baseless and actively deceptive.
It is interesting to note that Whittaker chose the ‘immigrant and Asian population’ to turn his attention to while neglecting the countless reports and images of predominantly white people gathering on the likes of VE Day and flocking to Brighton beach – with no social distancing in sight.
What’s more, while there is no evidence to suggest that BAME people are breaching government guidelines to a greater extent than white people, there is evidence which contextualises the higher infection rates and disproportionate suffering of BAME communities throughout the pandemic: social inequality. Perhaps prior to his unwarranted comments, Whittaker ought to have acknowledged the social and environmental factors behind the higher infection rates among BAME communities – had he chosen to do so, he would have noted that individual behaviour is not the problem here but rather systemic inequality.
With BAME communities more likely to live in Britain’s largest cities – typically within densely populated inner-urban areas – and more likely to live in overcrowded housing, it should come as no surprise that they have been hit the hardest throughout the pandemic. Such high rates of infection are not as a result of acting carelessly and failing to abide by social distancing measures but rather are related to damning social and health inequalities which have long plagued the UK.
Yet Whittaker’s unfounded statements are not an example of innocent naivety, rather they are a case of intentional scapegoating. The government’s decision to re-introduce restrictions on visiting family members so near to Eid al-Adha in areas of the country which are highly Muslim populated is no coincidence, nor are Whittaker’s harmful accusations which followed.
Islamophobia in the UK is rife and Covid-19 has further served to demonstrate this. Whittaker’s remarks were a barely veiled attempt to stoke Islamophobic sentiment and must be stamped out.