Communities, Colour and the Corona Virus

I started to write this blog last week and must admit it’s been a struggle. I have not been able to find the words that have enabled me to express the feelings I am having about the challenges we are facing as a consequence of Covid19. At the weekend I saw a video tweet from comedienne Gina Yashere.  The video reminded people of the contribution of staff from a diverse range of backgrounds but particularly people of colour (PoC) seeing it helped me to find the words to write this piece.

Getting the balance right in demonstrating care and compassion for all staff in our NHS but also making sure the work we have been doing in the Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES) team for the last 5 years isn’t completely forgotten is a real challenge.

I find myself thinking a lot about the members of staff working on the front-line in the NHS, regardless of background or banding, I know how hard, frightening and difficult it must be for you and your families. As a nurse myself, I know first-hand how hard it is to be surrounded by very sick people.  It’s easy for people to say, “we’re all in this together” from the safety of their homes, not so easy when you are in the thick of it. Basically, what front-line staff are doing every single day, during every shift, is laying their lives on the line and for that they deserve the countries unreserved gratitude and praise. My respect and thanks go to them all but particularly to the families of the three doctors that gave their lives fighting this virus.

  • Dr Amged el-Hawrani
  • Dr Adel el Tayar
  • Dr Habib Zaidi

It seems to me that globally we were poorly prepared to deal with this kind of threat, an unseen and deadly enemy that does not discriminate between people,  Covid19, does not care if you are black or white, rich or poor, gay or straight, able bodied or with a disability, it affects people from every class and every background, that much we  know. We also know that because of the inequity and inequality in our world, some people will be more adversely affected by this disaster than others.  As I looked at the faces of some of the poorest people in South Africa on TV, all black, It became glaringly obvious to me that though the virus doesn’t discriminate, Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock can attest to that, as human beings we do, which means the impact of this pandemic will be so much worse for some communities than others, many of the communities most affected by this virus worldwide will be people of colour who happen to be amongsthe poorest most disadvantaged people in the world.

I live in London, one of the biggest and in my opinion one of the best capital cities in the world. There are 10 million people living and working here, it is a vibrant, busy, cosmopolitan city and approximately 45% of people living and working here come from backgrounds other than white British.

The underground system is used by more than 2 million people a day, overground train hubs, like Euston, Kings Cross and Waterloo bring many more people into the capital on a daily basis. Along with the people that live and work in London, the capital welcomes 30 million visitors a year.

It is therefore not surprising that during this current Covid19 crisis that London has become the epicenter of the outbreak in the UK. More people are contracting the disease, becoming sick and dying here than anywhere else in the country.

According to data published by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in October 2018, there are now more nurses from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background than white nurses in London.  The research shows that in London’s NHS there are now 27,982 nurses from a BME background with 24,847 nurses identifying as white, Overall 44.9% (92,487) of all staff working across London trusts are from BME backgrounds.


The chart shows the numbers of BME nurses in London at band 5 in 2019. The majority of them are from backgrounds other than white, which means that many nurses from these backgrounds are on the front line. The evidence is that staff from BME backgrounds in our NHS and particularly in London, have a poorer experience in the workplace than their white counterparts. The inequalities manifest themselves in many different ways, but through the WRES we measure them in the number of people that are appointed from shortlisting, the number of people going through formal disciplinary processes and from the staff survey questions on bullying and harassment.  The importance of compassionate, thoughtful and inclusive leadership at this time cannot be underestimated. For too many years people from BME backgrounds have not been treated fairly or equitably in our NHS, yet  we are relying on nearly half the medical workforce as well as 1 in 5 nurses and midwives from these backgrounds to step up and do their duty and maybe like the afore mentioned doctors, pay the ultimate price.

No doubt we will learn from the experiences we are having during this time, be they good or bad we will learn a lot about ourselves and others, about the society we live in and perhaps the kind of society we’d like to live in. When a woman, a stranger paid for my bread at the weekend because I didn’t my debit card with me and told me to pass on the kindness when I tried to give her the money, I was deeply touched, no one has ever done anything like that for me before, it was an outstanding act of kindness during these dark times that I will never forget and I will indeed pass on that kindness.

The praise and gratitude that was expressed for our NHS on Thursday 26th March when the nation “clapped for carers” was wonderful, it was not segregated or filtered, it was wholehearted and genuine support for all members of staff. I suppose what I am saying, is that we continue to show how much we value all members of staff that work in the NHS, regardless of background or status and that the society we live in stays kind and thoughtful when this is all over. We must never forget the sacrifices being made by our staff and their families.

Whilst this unprecedented and unusual situation continues, make no mistake it will become harder and more testing for us all, it will become increasingly important that we acknowledge each other’s contributions and commitment to the NHS and wider society. As humans’ beings, we are bound by common cause and purpose, we are interconnected and interdependent, even when we try not to be. We are more alike than we are different, no matter our colour.  I believe many people in Britain are now learning the true meaning of the South African saying Ubuntu, which roughly translated means ‘I am because we are’




4 thoughts on “Communities, Colour and the Corona Virus

  1. Heather Caudle

    Earnest and thoughtful. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and reminding us of the universality of the current situation and the mutuality of our existence as a result.


  2. JS Bamrah

    This is wonderfully written Yvonne! In Swahili there is a saying “Elfu (Thousand) huanzia (starts with) moja (one). Each one of us makes a community, a community makes society, and societies make up the fabric of our people. Together we remain stronger.


  3. Babajide Odusina

    Dear Yvonne, heart-felt truths I totally agree with. Yet we are still not joining up the dots. We have piles of peer reviewed papers proving that there are social determinants of health. BME, LGBTQ+ and disabled people suffer inequalities in the NHS workforce and health outcomes. Despite the sterling work you and your are team are doing, including bringing people like Prof Williams to share his fantastic insights at the NHS Academy leadership programme, too often the words go in one ear and out the other.  There is no incentive to change.

    Until NHS England- Improvement stops rewardingly transactional leaders who hit targets, but miss the point, rule through fear because they are fearful and opt for safe ld hands, we will continue the glacial pace of change on diversity.  

    The winds of change are blowing through the NHS, especially in London.  Either the current incumbents embrace change and foster truly democratic and diverse leadership; or they suffer the consequences as they try to hold back the tide of history, hand picking people in their own mould from underrepresented groups. A failure to facilitate the development of new diverse and inclusive leadership will be a disaster for us all.  The future is diverse, if that diversity is tainted by the command and control, rule by fear and winner takes all mindsets of today; the minorities of tomorrow will suffer the same fates as the minorities of today.  

    We have a window of less than a decade to learn to trust and believe in each other, to play fair and share equitably.  I pray the various equalities teams in NHS England can nurture the necessary cultural change.



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