First, it was minority ethnics, then Blacks Live Matter and now Asians – the popular trope doing the rounds for why the North is being locked down is now multigenerational households. Yes, multigenerational is the new black.
Craig Whitaker, Conservative MP for Calder Valley, gave an interview on LBC radio with Ian Payne on 31 July 2020 claiming the additional lockdown restrictions for a large region of the North were down to Muslims and black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities not obeying lockdown rules. I guess he has been in hibernation throughout the whole lockdown period to have completely missed what was going on in the wider community, and with the prime minister’s own chief adviser.
He went on to state “What I have seen in my constituency is that there are sections of the community that are not taking the pandemic seriously” and when pressed further, he stated it was the Muslim, Asian and immigrant communities. His comments came on the back of the Tweeted announcement on the eve of Eid, 30 July 2020 at 9pm – instructing a “local lockdown” of Greater Manchester, parts of East Lancashire and parts of West Yorkshire.
Just to emphasise this again, it was a major announcement made by the health secretary on Twitter at 9pm – to take effect just three hours later – 12 hours before prayers were going to be held on the day of Eid, the next morning. The significance is the timing. This not only hurt the Muslim community planning to celebrate one of its most revered festivals of the year, but also four million people of the North with a knock-on impact on tens of thousands of businesses.
Instead of questioning the government’s confused last-minute messaging and sweeping localised lockdown – and instead of showing sympathy towards those affected and wishing the Muslim community a happy Eid – Whittaker used this opportunity to blame BAME communities for causing the problem. His remarks were ill-timed and offensive to many (across the whole spectrum of society),and were designed to feed into a narrative that justifies the government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 response – blame the people.
We all recall the government failing to provide sufficient PPE for care homes, then instructing hospitals to discharge elderly people to nursing homes without being tested to free up bed capacity, and then blaming the sector for not following official guidelines that caused the deaths of thousands of elderly residents. This focus on multigenerational households is just the latest in the blame game series. Evidence locally, and from across the world, shows that outbreaks in Covid-19 can be attributed to a number of factors.
In Trafford, Greater Manchester, the evidence shows that 80 percent of cases are “among white community and ‘middle class complacency’ is being blamed”. In Glasgow, the recent spike has been linked to bars and restaurants in the area. In West Yorkshire and elsewhere there have been spikes linked to factory working and meat processing plants. The World Health Organization warned on 29 July that the behaviour of young people could be fuelling recent spikes in coronavirus cases across Europe. And in the US, evidence shows that recent spikes were linked to “parties, not protests” (after people wrongly condemned the Black Lives Matters protests). Likewise, in some small ward areas in the North there has been a recent rise in cases in the BAME community, with those testing positive reporting a higher than usual number of contacts, including within the same households.
In all these examples, the appropriate response should have been to say “let’s have a conversation”. Let’s be open and honest about what the science says. If ‘complacent middle-class white people’ are responsible in some areas, let’s have a targeted messaging campaign with this demographic. If young people partying are causing spikes, let’s work with them on managing this behaviour. If factories are the problem, let’s look at the underlying socioeconomic factors that cause this, and work with employers to reduce the risk. And if multigenerational Asian households in some areas are at risk, let’s work with community leaders to ensure this message is communicated effectively.
What should not have happened was for the government to apply a sweeping ban across large areas of the North and announce this at the last minute on a social media plaform, just 12 hours before a major religious celebration. And what should not have happened was for MPs like Craig Whittaker to come out the next day and blame BAME communities for a spike in their constituencies, when the evidence didn’t support this. Quite simply, this was dog-whistle politics. He claimed to have seen sections of the community not taking the pandemic seriously, specifically “Muslim, Asian multigenerational households”, yet the slight increase in cases occurred in a couple of wards in neighbouring Halifax, not Calder Valley, where the BAME population is less than 3 percent.
As the Liberal Democrats’ parliamentary spokesperson for Calder Valley, a resident of Whittaker’s parliamentary constituency and a member of the BAME community, I saw the red flag as soon as those words were uttered. Instead of celebrating a now ruined Eid within my social bubble, I spent the day putting out the fires and countering the vitriolic and hate-filled messages that immediately started spreading.
Those of us who have been following the pandemic like hawks could see that a second wave was always going to happen. Other countries, such as Spain, are already showing signs of the second wave taking hold. Reopening foreign leisure travel, and the litany of mass breaches of social distancing – street parties, visits to beaches, opening primary schools, pubs, and restaurants – are symptomatic of bad decisions, or calculated risks based on nothing more than political expediency and lobbying.
For months, the debate around unlocking the economy prematurely has been heated, with official decisions being challenged from all quarters. From the very start, the Conservative agenda was to protect the economy as a priority with its initial failed herd immunity policy – and in response to powerful lobbying from industry and vested interests it reopened the country early to get the economy moving again. The current “whack-a-mole” strategy is to somehow manage the Covid-19 fallout on an ad-hoc basis. In terms of both protecting lives and protecting the economy the government has so far failed and with each failure a convenient scapegoat has to be found.
More articles from Yorkshire Bylines:
- Decade of dissonance by Javed Bashir
- We need a huge culture change to ensure that ‘Black Lives Matter’ by Hugh Goulbourne
- Black people don’t ski! by Joel Baccas
But what of the specific risks for people of colour, and for people living in so-called multigenerational households? If this is the first time you have come across this term, it’s where more than one generation of a family lives in the same household. Yes, some BAME families have several generations living in the same households, many white families do too. Let’s not kid ourselves, multigenerational households have been a major societal challenge for many years but it’s a convenient fact that now fits the consequences of the Covid-19 crisis.
Multigenerational housing is caused not by BAME communities due to their cultural affinity to looking after their elderly, rather than sending them to nursing homes, but by failures in housing policies. Approximately 1.8 million households span two or more generations. The factors range from looking after elderly members in the same family home to students living at home with parents, help with childcare and more importantly, the lack of affordable housing.
Multigenerational households are increasing, just as social inequality is increasing – and it’s not exclusive to BAME communities. White families have brought their elderly parents to live with them during the lock-down period for example. If we want to address the multigenerational households challenge, let’s address it head-on. The cost of housing the elderly in nursing homes is extortionate. Mass job losses are now certain as a result of both Covid-19 and Brexit. The lack of social housing stock and affordable houses is a significant problem. These factors all have had a role to play in where we are today.
BAME communities have suffered the highest number of deaths in this pandemic and not because we’ve been holding street parties, visiting the beaches in our thousands, or packing into our local pubs, but because many have been working throughout the crisis in high-risk environments. They include medics, food takeout places, taxi drivers, cleaners, shop keepers, nurses and the list goes on. When you have multigenerational households with at least one person out working, the risk of catching Covid-19 and passing it on increases significantly. This is not exclusive to BAME communities but all communities. Every family with a child at school carries this risk, even more so if that child has contact with his or her grandparents.
Of course, we must acknowledge there are issues within the BAME communities; we have anti-vaxers, anti-maskers and covid-deniers just as there are within any community. But as with other communities, we have shielded our elderly and vulnerable members where possible, despite the confused messaging, which is embarrassing and dangerous and has costs lives.
Churches, mosques, temples and synagogues all closed their doors and suspended their services when lockdown was announced. Once the lockdown was eased, those in charge of places of worship have been working hard to implement social distancing rules. The Muslim and Asian community organisers sent out regular guidance for Eid prayer preparations with strict social distancing rules, communicated weeks in advance.
The convenience of announcing the localised restrictions immediately before Eid gave a conspicuous cover to justify a lockdown on short notice, despite the reproductive (R) number at that time only being 0.7–1.0 for the North West and 0.8–1.0 for Yorkshire. The R number had not breached the government’s own criteria, unless the data they are assessing is inaccurate, or they are deliberately not disclosing the full extent of spread of the virus. What was being seen was a series of hyper-localised spikes, and these should have been addressed accordingly.
So, with a second spike widely expected over the next few months, and given what we know now about parties, about young people, about complacency and about the risk of gathering in people’s home … will the government now be considering issuing lockdown restrictions for Christmas Day?
Watch this space!