The Covid-19 outbreak is putting a stark lens on the inequalities faced by nurses from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds, according to a diversity lead who warned that despite giving their lives to care for others, BME staff were being treated of a lesser value.
In an interview with Nursing Times, Carol Cooper, head of equality, diversity and human rights at Birmingham Community Healthcare NHS Trust, said BME nurses and healthcare assistants felt they were being picked to work on coronavirus wards more so than their white colleagues.
“BME staff feel that they are being put on Covid wards over and above their colleagues”
Her comments come amid concerns that health and care professionals from BME backgrounds are overrepresented in the mortality figures from Covid-19.
“BME staff feel that they are being put on Covid wards and exposed to patients with Covid over and above their colleagues,” Ms Cooper said.
“Some are saying they are being taken from the wards that they usually work on and put on the Covid wards and they feel that there is a bias – the same bias that existed before they are feeling is now influencing their being appointed and they are terrified, everybody is terrified.
“Across the piste everybody is frightened but at the same time there is a need to maintain a focus on equity.”
While Ms Cooper said she had struggled to pin down official data, informal information on deaths suggested BME people were overrepresented, noting that the first 10 doctors to have died after testing positive were from BME.
The government has this week announced that it will be launching a formal review into the impact of coronavirus on people from BME backgrounds, including staff, although the timescale of the inquiry is not clear.
“Everybody is frightened but at the same time there is a need to maintain a focus on equity”
“People are dying, I personally get calls every single day about people that I know who have died and so for me this is such an important issue,” said Ms Cooper.
She explained that people from BME backgrounds were at a “greater risk” from coronavirus because these communities were more likely to have “a number of comorbidities” such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, sickle cell, thalassaemia and lupus.
The pandemic is “shining a light on the inequities which are part of the system in which we exist”, warned Ms Cooper.
“Many of us knew that BME people would be overrepresented – given their proportion of the population – in the mortality and morbidity figures because of the comorbidities that exist in our communities, because of the location of our communities in terms of the workforce being on the frontline [and] because of the amount of people that are caught in the poverty trap and live in households that have higher occupancy,” she added.
“There is all sorts of multiple deprivations that people are subject to now and I think Covid is throwing a light on the cracks in society and I think we’re going to have to rethink how we exist as a society, how we care for one another, how we care for the most vulnerable people in our society.”
The intervention from Ms Cooper comes after Nursing Times reported on concerns that BME healthcare staff were being “whitewashed” out of media coverage of the coronavirus crisis with claims that the focus has been mainly on white colleagues.
Ms Cooper is now calling for a “centre for ethnic health” to research into the “disparities and variations” in BME communities.
“I am calling for a centre for ethnic health which makes sure that we look at the health of some of the most disenfranchised populations in the UK and take action to prevent and promote their health,” she said.
“This moment in time cannot be passed without something happening because people are dying.
“I’m saying this to the highest level of government. I’m saying this to the minister of health. I am saying this to the prime minister. I am saying this country needs a centre for ethnic health to begin to take seriously the health of the BME population and respond to it.
“Not just to talk, not just to churn out data, but to begin to commission real research into the disparities and variations in our communities and begin to take preventative action to support the health of the BME population. We can’t go past this point without that.”
Ms Cooper also indicated that a campaign to name one of the new temporary hospitals in England after British-Jamaican nursing pioneer Mary Seacole had hit a “brick wall”.
“This moment in time cannot be passed without something happening because people are dying”
Under current plans, all emergency Covid-19 hospitals in England are due to be named after Florence Nightingale.
Both Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale earned fame for their work nursing sick and wounded soldiers during the Crimean War.
Yvonne Coghill, director of the Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES) implementation team at NHS England and deputy president of the Royal College of Nursing, is among those calling for a hospital to take Mary Seacole’s name as a simple way to acknowledge the contribution of BME staff working on the frontline during the pandemic.
“All of the calls that have been taking place for Mary Seacole’s name to be mentioned alongside Florence – [but] no, there is a brick wall,” said Ms Cooper.
“They don’t want to recognise our contribution over a matter of centuries, and still our contribution is not being recognised, but people are literally giving their lives, but we are of less value and that needs to change.”
Nursing Times contacted both NHS England and Department for Health and Social Care for comment.