The hostile environment. Who needs a virus?

A guest post by PHIL EDWARDS, joint secretary of Newham Save Our NHS, writing in a personal capacity. See also a linked post – Public health: workers and communities organise, Tory ministers undermine

The shocking, disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 virus on Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities is the outcome of discrimination, exploitation and racism that has piled up over decades.

The heightened danger to BAME communities is one of the most alarming aspects of the pandemic.

The Guardian reported earlier this month that more than three-quarters of BAME doctors feared they would contract Covid 19.

As the Tory health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced that they were “investigating” the high incidence of deaths from Covid 19 amongst the BAME community, our health campaign group

Health workers demonstrating against the “hostile environment”

in Newham, east London, circulated a report from The Voice newspaper by Dr Winston Morgan, a toxicologist at the University of East London, on this issue.

The article was used to question ministers in parliament, to challenge the racist idea that this was somehow genetic – even though hugely different ethnic groups globally were suffering disproportionately.

In fact, the truth is that deaths amongst BAME people, whether in the local population generally or among healthcare workers specifically, is the result of historic discrimination resulting in disproportionate economic and social inequalities.

The fact is that, if you are poor, living in overcrowded accommodation, struggling to survive on a low income or on universal credit, or hiding from the Tories’ “hostile environment” for fear of being charged for health treatment, then you are more likely to be hit hardest by the virus.

These deep social inequalities lay bare the lie that “we are all in it together”.

Poverty has always brought dangers to health. The 1848 Public Health Act introduced localised public health bodies to cope with local outbreaks of tuberculosis, most prevalent amongst poor more deprived communities. The NHS itself was set up at the conclusion of the second world war to begin to address public health as a potential time bomb lying dormant in poverty-stricken communities. Now, there are 4 million working class people living in poverty, a rise of 500,000 since 2015.

What the Tories have done since the 1980s in particular – and what the Blair government did in the 1990s with crippling debts caused by Private Finance Initiative (PFI), and what the coalition government continued with the 2012 Health and Social Care Act – was to eat away at the advances brought by the NHS. They sought to put public services in the hands of private corporate sharks.

The “hostile environment” for migrants, which our campaign in Newham had focussed on since its introduction in 2015, discriminated against many identified in the Windrush scandal, who were denied British citizenship even if they had contributed for decades to the economy, because they had no visa, no passport, and so on.

Newham Save Our NHS is one of the many organisations that have campaigned against this hateful legislation from the start.

In March 2020 we revealed that following persistent questioning of Barts NHS Trust over many months, much circumlocution from them, and a Freedom of Information request, 739 women had been charged in the course of a year for maternity care.

Of these, we later discovered that 40%, 290 women, were actually entitled to free care. They include women who have suffered stillbirths or other traumas resulting from child birth. (See MP’s letter here.)

This is the climate of fear that the government has passed down to every level of bureaucracy in universities, hospitals or wherever people from migrant communities are living and working. This is another way in which communities like Newham’s have been historically targeted, and who have then become victims of Covid-19.

Among the seven reasons for Newham being hit so hard by the virus, given by Stephen Timms MP in a letter to Hancock dated 1 May, was “immigration insecurity”.

The others were socio-economic deprivation, high rates of keyworkers, insecure low paid work, the prevalence of high risk asthma, diabetes, and cardio-vascular diseases, overcrowded housing and poor air quality.

So while Dominic Cummings can freely flaunt the lockdown guidelines he helped to write, and drive hundreds of miles across the country, working class communities in poorer locations

Demonstration by Docs Not Cops in Tower Hamlets, east London

have no escape. They cannot isolate themselves if they suffer overcrowding, and they cannot stay at home if they need to work in order to live. So no, Mr Johnson, we are not all in this together.

No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) became a cornerstone of the “hostile environment” legislation, pauperising migrants suspected of having the “wrong” status who were not entitled to work. People in this position were not only unable to claim benefits but were also unable to get free healthcare, the founding principle of the NHS.

It took a challenge by an eight-year old boy in court to bring this whole ugly piece of discriminatory State terrorism to its knees. The court ruled that it was unlawful.

A report by the Children’s Society, drawing on the Oxford Migration Observatory, estimates that more than 1 million people, including 100,000 children, have been victims of this legislation.

Yet Yvette Cooper, Labour MP, defied the Labour whip in the “interests of cross-party consensus” – or cross-class betrayal – to vote in favour of the initial reading of the racist Tory Immigration Bill in May which retains all the essential elements of the “hostile environment” introduced when Theresa May was Home Secretary.

Christine McAnea, assistant secretary of Unison, the largest union in the UK, said: “Pushing ahead with the Immigration Bill is a triumph of bloody mindedness over common sense.”

It is this bill which set the income threshold, for those applying for visas and deemed to be “unskilled”, at £26,500 per year.

Later on Boris Johnson – having the night before announced how much money was raised from the racist surcharge on migrant workers – completely reversed his position (again) and abolished the NHS surcharge on migrant workers.

He was under pressure not just from rebels in his own party, but from a gathering public realisation that people’s lives depended on many migrant workers not being victimised by the government as they put their lives on the line.

Nevertheless, it remains the case that – instead of filling the gap for careworkers or beginning to address the shortages of 100,000 nurses, or 120,000 care workers – the government continues to exclude vitally needed workers because of its instinctive hatred of immigration which formed part of its Brexit agenda.

In Newham Save Our NHS, we will continue to support these workers and oppose the government’s racist agenda, as we have done from the start. 29 May 2020.

Linked article: Public health: workers and communities organise, Tory ministers undermine 


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