Trevor Phillips and the Covid-19 inquiry – another perspective

I thought it might be interesting, as a follow-up to Wasiq’s post, to offer a few thoughts on a recent article by Trevor Phillips, published in the Times on 20 April.

The headline was ‘We need to solve ethnic puzzle of Covid-19’, with a subheading, ‘Could religion explain why some ethnic minorities seem to be more susceptible than others?’

The article opens by expressing warm sympathy with the dismay felt by many to see so many BAME people fall victim to Covid-19.  He argues that it’s important to investigate the apparent disproportion, and continues:

‘Try persuading them [the families of minority health workers] that race is merely “a social construct”’.

This, to me, struck an odd note, as those who argue that race is a ‘social construct’ are usually making an anti-racist argument, maintaining that the notion of ‘race’ is flawed. Indeed, and as one would expect, there seems nothing in Phillips’ own arguments in this article that goes against the idea that race is merely a ‘social construct’. However this use of the phrase, in sneering scare quotes, seems to indicate (even if not in any very logical way) a divide between Phillips and left/liberal opinion.   He also later warns that ‘political squeamishness could block the path to a treatment’, suggesting (I think) that it is forces on the left who might oppose an inquiry, when I have seen no evidence that this is the case.

Phillips goes on to explore the fact that ‘the combination of medicine, race and politics does not have a happy history.’ He offers two examples. The first is the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.  His short summary begins: ‘In 1932, American researchers, some of them black, …’. The second is the case of Thabo Mbeki who invoked racism when arguing that AIDS wasn’t a viral infection. It’s interesting that he’s chosen two examples where, although black people were the victims, they also had either a key or subsidiary role as perpetrators.  There seems something quite pointed in this choice.

Phillips then turns to a rumour that black people were unusually resistant to Covid-19.  He wonders whether this misinformation meant that ‘African-Americans were slower than others to respond to the threat’, citing as possible evidence the fact that in Chicago (one third black) ‘over two thirds of virus deaths have occurred in the black community.’ It seems odd to cite just one reason – rashly heeding misinformation – to explain the discrepancy.  Others could include: the greater prevalence of underlying health conditions; a smaller likelihood of being able to work from home; less chance of having good health insurance.

There’s a similar failure to engage with any factors which might relate to inequality in this section too:

Concern about this known unknown was etched on the face of the chief medical officer as he addressed the issue at the weekend; factors like genetics, culture, language and religion could be quietly undermining scientists’ attempt to predict the spread of infection. (emphasis mine)

I wouldn’t rule out the significance of genetics (and its intersection with ethnicity/population groups), or culture, or language, or (possibly) religion, although in this context I would see that as a subset of culture. However I think social inequalities should also have been mentioned. Given his failure to touch on such issues, Phillips’ use, in the same short paragraph, of the phrase ‘knee jerk victimhood’ as something which must not go unchallenged, seems a reasonable cause for some concern.

Phillips then introduces the findings of an investigation he has carried out with Professor Richard Webber into the prevalence of coronavirus in different areas. He suggests that multigenerational households and the fact that ‘many minorities work in high exposure occupations’ could help account for the BAME over-representation in deaths. This seems perfectly reasonable. However he ends this sentence by asking: ‘And most intriguingly, might some minority communities have complied more readily with government guidance than others?’ It didn’t seem very helpful just to leave this question hanging, particularly as the jump to a discussion of Muslim communities insinuates an answer.

Phillips then speculates as to why Muslim communities haven’t been harder hit: ‘no Blackburn or Bradford, no Rotherham, Rochdale or Luton’ among the hotspots. I’d cautiously wonder whether the northern towns on that list were less vulnerable because less affected by international travel from the original virus hotspots at an early stage in the pandemic. He continues:

The London borough of Tower Hamlets is more than a third Muslim — the highest density of any in England — and is sandwiched between two Covid-19 hotspots, Newham and Southwark, both home to substantial non-Muslim minority communities. Yet Tower Hamlets lies in the bottom third of the capital’s infection list: 22nd out of the 32 boroughs.

If you look at the map included in this article you can see that Tower Hamlets is also adjacent to boroughs with infection figures comparable to its own – Greenwich and Hackney. And Newham only has a fractionally smaller Muslim population than Tower Hamlets.  So the argument Phillips goes on to offer – that Muslim hand washing may have helped stave off the virus – doesn’t seem a strong one.

I find myself reading Phillips’ comments about Muslims through the lens of his somewhat problematic record on the issue.  This makes me interpret the handwashing suggestion as slightly facetious, and this next point as a bit of a dig.

And does an ethnic group where almost 40 per cent are economically inactive — and therefore not regularly using public transport, for example — merely underline the protective value of social isolation?

As I noted in the comments below Wasiq’s post, I’m not likely to see eye to eye with Trevor Phillips’ most vocal antagonists.  But I am inclined to agree that he isn’t a good choice have a prominent role in Public Health England’s planned inquiry into the BAME coronavirus figures.


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