Tragic heroes

by Preti Taneja

A story goes around the world (Issue III/2020)

Tragic heroes -

Illustration: Julia Praschma


Grief feels like a choking sickness; a fever of sorrow and rage. By May 22, as I write this, we have all caught it along with COVID-19. Yet anyone who works in social justice or lives from a minority perspective knows this grief as an epidemic: it has been raging for decades. It holds us in fear, a perfect storm always about to break. Now in the UK it has come: in the awful, disproportionate toll the coronavirus is taking on people who are Black, Asian and minority ethnic (I will not use the acronym ‘BAME’: there is no such ‘community’. Its use also flattens all nuance and it sounds too much like ‘bane.’ It also elides anti-Black racism, allowing politicians and others to claim diversity if they have Asian people but not Black in their organisation. People also often think the ‘A’ stands for ‘and’ rather than Asian – but South East and East Asian people have such different immigration histories, cultures and experiences of racism. If there must have be an acronym, I experiment first with AMEB, which sounds like the beginning of ‘amiable’; I prefer to use BEAM, here as in light.)

Now, Covid-19 floods through the age-old arteries of the slave trade, of Empire; it multiplies via decades of state-endorsed racism, controlled immigration, tokenism, and discrimination. It spreads through the transmission of cultural expectations and silencing from the mainstream, and within minoritised communities. It is killing us in numbers that many, in the first weeks of the crisis called, ‘shocking’.

Yet it was predictable that the novel coronavirus would impact the people most exposed to it, who are forced to work without enough Personal Protective Equipment (PPE, of which there is still not enough in the UK.) That is, people in the National Health Service (NHS) and social care, and those consigned to the least ‘valued’, most insecure jobs. The people who, (to borrow from Arundhati Roy,) are not voiceless, but are the ‘deliberately silenced; the preferably unheard.’ Who keep infrastructure running as doctors, nurses, hospital porters; cleaners, food industry workers, take-away chefs, delivery drivers; refuse collectors, security guards. All jobs that are disproportionately done in the UK by BEAM people. Whom the government re-classified from the derogatory ‘low skilled,’ to stratified, ‘key worker’ to ‘hero,’ with its sacrificial overtones when the pandemic lockdown began; knowing this would not make people safer, a trick of double speak, a psychological violence.

I am none of the above. I am a fiction writer for my parents’ sacrifices. Fiction writers are not prophets: sometimes we are just weathervanes; we read the world, we write its turbulence and undercurrents, we imagine possible futures onto the page. These are only some collected thoughts about that future, filed the day before George Floyd died with a knee on his neck in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, before the Black Lives Matter movement inspired millions of people who are unable to take any more, to get out onto the streets worldwide. It was written in grief, in the midst of a cast-iron lockdown, in the eye of a perfect racist storm.

It will matter who writes the stories and what material we have to draw on. Without these stories, there will be even more fertile ground for fear, hate and division to find voice

The violent facts of British Imperialism, which subjugated millions and then ‘invited’ Black, Ethnic and Asian minorities to service Britain, and then to work in the new NHS, in factories, farms and shops after World War II, remain largely absent from our national curriculum and from mainstream narratives across the media and arts. The granular detail of individual lives and experiences has rarely been deemed worthy of recording, archiving. This terrible void, caused by wilful omission is growing now as people die early, avoidable deaths from Covid-19. In the months and years to come this absence of knowledge must form part of any reckoning. It will matter who writes the stories and what material we have to draw on. It will be sparse, informal, anecdotal and often second hand – that much is already clear. Without these stories, there will be even more fertile ground for fear, hate and division to find voice. In such a world the fascistic, ‘Go home’ has become a favourite refrain, making even those ‘born here’ in the UK and Europe more vulnerable; weakening a fragile sense of belonging even further. This holds true, not only for those who arrived in the 1950s, 60s and 70s and who are facing a much higher risk now.

It is also made worse because many of our first generations have, all their lives, remained silent: their own memories of collective, historical traumas going back to Britain’s culpability as slavers, and colonial masters; events of the 20th Century including the Indian Partition, the fall out from Western-funded conflicts, global capitalism and climate events that precipitate many dangerous and difficult crossings to England. Our elders remain silent, held in place by nostalgia, a never understood post-traumatic stress and a struggling forward momentum, while investing in their children the desire for basic equality; and from that to rise, and to thrive.

Our grandparents, our parents were the original dreamers, part custodians of our hyphenated identities. As we lose them they take with them the grain of our origin stories, the rituals, traditions and language of our equal ‘other’ homelands. A generation of arrival histories, lost. A British Muslim friend, whose grandparent lived with her and recently died of the disease now mourns the one person she daily spoke Punjabi too. I remember this piercingly: my own mother died sixteen years ago; my Hindi has suffered meanwhile. Our migration lessons, which were being passed down in time-honoured oral tradition (if we pressed for them,) are what root us, and equip us to fight for ourselves, and our peers, and to provide grounding for our children. How will we do that now?

South Asians, like many Black and ethnic minorities celebrate life in extended, multi-generational groups. For better or worse, socialising is culture. The tragedy is awful in its irony: Covid-19 transmission means our kinship networks are now a potential death warrant in any postcode, and so we must learn a new isolation, an anathema for elders in particular to accept. Working class minority families, trapped for decades by successive lack of government investment, live in poor-quality housing across tightly stacked tenement streets or in death-trap high-rise blocks; many run family businesses in the food and service industries. They have it worst, especially as they are concentrated in the most pandemic affected areas of the UK.

No one is born criminal, though racism wants us to believe differently

For working class children and teenagers of colour whose beloved parents, grandparents and primary carers have died traumatically alone and too soon, the stakes are even higher. The UK system perniciously discriminates against them from birth; how will that impact them now? Equal access to internet for school and socialising is already an issue; in lockdown this is made worse. When they are out, Black and Muslim men and boys are more likely to be penalised in the UK police’s ‘stop and search’ protocols, and by the justice system that treats them disproportionately harshly, sweeping them, in numbers, into overcrowded prisons, which (despite efforts) cannot be humane or Covid-safe. No one is born criminal, though racism wants us to believe differently: we must abolish these unsafe practices, the social systems that blight life chances for generations.

Meanwhile another violence: shame. It is an ancient weapon, it cuts out tongues. Violence against women and girls has risen in lockdown: in the UK, fear of retribution and lack of trust in the state, mean women of colour are already less likely to run or report it; or when they do, find protection. They are also less likely to be believed when raising healthcare issues. When elders get sick at home, immigrant pride, lack of trust and a sense they should not burden state resources, can keep them from calling on trained ‘outsiders’ for help. This puts the onus of care on loving but untrained family, particularly women in the house. Depression, mental illness and addictions are culturally taboo subjects: levels of these will inevitably rise in the coming months and years. Lack of resources to deal with any of this will be exacerbated by looming Covid-recession.

The ground has been laid by decades of austerity, which has seen relentless cuts to local services for social care, health, protection for sexual and gender minorities, policing and prisons. Trust in governance has eroded over decades, helped by the high numbers of deaths of black men in custody, the lack of answers from the Stephen Lawrence enquiry, the Windrush scandal, the Grenfell fire. The current government will never admit to policy that is rooted in white supremicist ideology; another commission will be announced, the lockdown will be ‘eased for the sake of the economy’ – capitalism is pacification they believe.

But lists serve a purpose here, and the numbers are too stark.  And we will not forget the thousands of lives lost. Each name: each love. During lockdown there will be even more risk to BEAM lives, from the terror of the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policies, which hold immigrants and migrants guilty until proven innocent and sees us always as a threat. The hostile environment limits access to housing, education, state funding, healthcare; it forces citizens to police each other. Even in this crisis of lives and livelihoods, the policy of ‘no recourse to public funds,’ (if a migrant person dies at work their family cannot claim support) remains. This, plus the impact of the lockdown on jobs is casting those same migrants who make up a huge number of ‘Covid-heroes’ into poverty.

In England and Wales, black people are four times more likely to get and die from Covid-19 than their white counterparts

The first ten (reported) victims of Covid-19 inside the NHS were from black, ethnic and Asian minorities. My first friend to lose a parent to the disease was British Asian. The first general practitioner (GP) to die of it was Indian-origin – Dr Poornima Nair, 56, from Kerala a state famous for sending nurses to the UK. My social media scroll quickly became a digital litany of the dead: more black and brown faces than I have ever seen reported in the mainstream press. I wish it had been the algorithm, knowing my bias and feeding me content I would read.

The UK now has the highest Covid-19 death toll in Europe. We have historically not disaggregated data on deaths by ethnicity: this tiny sleight of policy masks gross inequalities. Now we know that black people in England and Wales are four times more likely to get and die from Covid-19 than their white counterparts. After taking into account underlying health conditions, age, wealth, education and living arrangements, they are still almost twice as likely as white people to die from the disease or related issues. Pakistani and Bangladeshi-origin people are also high risk. They are also more likely to face higher levels of unemployment and child poverty than white people. Indians are next.

In the NHS, 94 percent of doctors, and 71 percent of nurses who have died from Covid-19 are from black, ethnic and Asian minority communities; and 21 percent of the workforce are too; a disproportionately high number compared to the population of England and Wales. Management is mostly white. Ten per cent of current NHS medical staff is Asian, and thirty per cent of those are doctors and junior doctors, newly trained. It is a reality that Black doctors earn £10,00 less, and Black nurses earn £2,700 less annually than white colleagues. Black staff are more likely to be porters, cleaners, hospital bus drivers: all remain on the frontline.

Again culture’s curse kicks in. Nursing, becoming a doctor – these are aspirational, often hereditary professions. In some minority families, five members, all medics, have died. Grief now includes betrayal: that this is the result of early struggles in factories and corner shops, cash and carry businesses or as bus drivers, teachers and carers working and pressuring outsider children to do well at school. To go to university and become those medics and carers: to make them proud. The pressure for (British) South Asian children for example to achieve class status, financial stability and community respect via work in medicine is so common it is a cliché in television, cartoons, fiction and film; no one is laughing; just trying to live.

But now, we listen to the stories of institutional culture of bullying and silencing that forces black, Asian and ethnic minority workers more into Covid-19 wards than their white counterparts. They speak out of their reluctance to complain, to refuse to work unsafely, for fear of being labelled ‘trouble-maker’ or losing hard won jobs. Data from the NHS shows that 29 per cent of ethnic minority staff have experienced bullying, harassment or abuse from other staff in the past 12 months, while the proportion experiencing discrimination at work from a manager, team leader or other colleague is more than twice as high as white staff.

While our British Asian home secretary Priti Patel spouts the damaging, individualist ‘good immigrant’ narrative and has written a book about who deserves what in Britain, and why, other minority people in power take a different position. Early warning on minority deaths was raised by Dr Chaand Nagpaul, Chair of the Council of the British Medical Association. Minority doctors in an NHS Trust in the Midlands, one of the worst affected areas of the UK, put together a multilingual symptom-warning video and Black and minority artists, and some multilingual politicians have filled in for the lack of official translated public service messaging. BEAM lawmakers, academics, musicians, actors, doctors all trying fill in for government lack. And certainly in my newsfeed, the journalists gathering testimony from grieving minority communities seem mainly to be women of colour.

I want to think, on one hand this shows that traditional newsrooms are changing. I was an intern and the only woman of colour on a London news-desk nightshift, in the weeks after 9/11, as the American President George W. Bush declared ‘war on terrorism.’ I was sent by the night editor to a particular area, (Brick Lane) ‘to get the Muslim view.’ He deployed my race and gender as news skills. He thought the local community would trust me (he was right). It was hard to report on community fear and sadness in those nights, just as media responses lead so surely to this moment and its ongoing losses today.

There is a lot that women of colour can bring to reporting the ‘human’ stories, but it takes a toll. Now, it makes us visible targets of racist abuse while remaining responsible for carrying a cultural weight. These are complex ‘frontlines’ to navigate in a climate of rightwing extremism created and stoked by anti-immigrant Brexit rhetoric and racism; the relentless ‘dog-whistling’ of Prime Minister, Boris Johnson and other powerful voices in politics and media continues even as people die.

In late April, Johnson came on national television to call the virus ‘a mugger’ (a term the rightwing relentlessly associates with Black boys in hoodies – be warned while they also encourage you to exercise; do not go for a run). In mid-May, Johnson exhorts the population to ‘stay alert’: the same language is used in the anti-terror campaigns of the hostile environment. He sends those who cannot work from home, back to work. In London and major cities, that is more likely to be Black, ethnic and Asian minority men and women. Meanwhile right-wing columnists write that minority campaigners are ‘twisting Covid data, to further their ‘victimhood’ agenda.’

It is no longer tenable that the only way our lives matter to the mainstream is when we are dying in such numbers

This scourge spreads even to the science. Vitamin D deficiency, plus certain co-morbidities more common in people of colour, are thought a possible link to Covid-19 deaths. Now come Brexit- emboldened armchair racists. They post about the genetic superiority of white people. They postulate that minorities deserve what we get because we live in ‘crowded conditions’ with extended families; we do not wash our hands. We are weaker, because Vitamin D. And Belly Mujinga, 47, mother of an 11 year-old daughter, a ticket officer at London’s Victoria station, is spat on by a man who says he has Covid-19 after he asks her what she is doing there. ‘Working’ she says. She had underlying health risks, she asked for PPE and was not given it, her cousin said: days later, she dies of the disease.

Following such accounts it is no surprise, and perhaps long overdue, that grief slowly morphs into rage. The time of clear-eyed activism has come. It is no longer tenable that the only way our lives matter to the mainstream is when we are dying in such numbers. That the only way our histories are recorded is when they become mass tragedy, as sociological or scientific study, as obituary. This must be spoken of, again and again; and on the streets: that’s the only way the system will change.

In my world of imagining, writing, the articulation of our possible futures must lie equally with the communities who have been so disproportionately affected. Will it happen? Grief, caring responsibilities, untenable working conditions, recession will continue to have an impact on who has time, resources to write. Access to publishing remains a white privilege. Mainstream editors and commissioners may be more likely to fall back on what they find ‘normal,’ and therefore universal. And the small presses and magazines who make most space for minority voices, are at risk of folding. There is so much at stake now.

Sometimes my grief is a railing against the unjust state; sometimes it is a pointless rage at myself, at my peers and elders: that despite all of our work over decades, we have not made our country a more just place. I am angry at the battles we repeatedly have to fight, the million daily compromises we make, even while I know how difficult trying to live a safe and authentic life in a majority world is; the sacrifices, separations and silences we endure for survival. Knowing it all makes the extraordinary losses of this time even worse.

When this perfect storm passes, we will see what rises. We cannot allow the old normal back: it is long time for generations of voices to be heard.

Translated by Jess Smee



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