COVID-19: Risks for South Asian Groups Remain 'Alarmingly High'

Peter Russell

February 26, 2021

The direct impact of COVID-19 for ethnic minorities improved between the first and second waves of the pandemic, a new report has concluded.

However, people from Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities experienced worsening outcomes, the study by the Cabinet Office's Race Disparity Unit found.

It said that the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on ethnic minorities was "largely a result of higher infection rates for some ethnic groups".

Kemi Badenoch, the minister for equalities, said the findings reinforced the importance of getting a vaccine.

The report said evidence from polling by the Office for National Statistics indicated that less than half of Black people were likely to get the COVID-19 vaccine, while analysis by OpenSAFELY found that vaccine uptake was lower in Black and South Asian groups over 80 years old.

The latest analysis is the second quarterly report in a year long project following publication last year of Public Health England's COVID-19: review of disparities in risks and outcomes. It identified older age, being male, social deprivation, and coming from Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups as factors behind higher mortality.

'Significant Efforts'

The latest report said it was clear that the Government had made "significant efforts" to address disparities in outcomes from the pandemic.

That included £23.75 million in funding to local authorities last month to improve public health communication aimed at promoting healthy living, encourage vaccine uptake, and counter misinformation. The Government had also invested a further £4.5 million in new research projects to improve understanding of the effects of COVID-19 on ethnic minorities.

Some of the actions were beginning to show dividends, the report said. For example, in the first wave, Black African people were 4.5 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than White British people but in the early part of the second wave the risk of death was the same for Black African and White British people.

However, the second wave has had a much greater impact on some South Asian groups, and work was currently underway to help understand why the second wave has so far had a disproportionate impact on Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups.

Nita Forouhi, programme leader, and professor of population health and nutrition at the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine, said: "The lower COVID-19 death rates in the early second wave in some groups shows that ethnic inequalities are not fixed but are mainly driven by risk of infection and amenable to change.

"The persistent COVID-19 impact in South Asians, particularly Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, is alarming and needs targeted research and bold public health and policy action."

The latest analysis strengthened the argument that ethnic minorities should not be considered a single group with similar risk factors from COVID-19, but should be seen as individual groups experiencing different outcomes.

The Government said it was working with ethnic minority publications and TV and radio channels in up to 13 different languages to get its message across.

Ms Badenoch said: "The latest data show that this is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Outcomes have improved for some ethnic minority groups since the first wave, but we know some communities are still particularly vulnerable.

"Our response will continue to be driven by the latest evidence and data and targeted at those who are most at risk.

"There is light at the end of the tunnel, and as the vaccine rollout continues, I urge everyone who is offered one to take the opportunity, to protect themselves, their family, and their community."

Celebrity Endorsements

Prof Keith Neal, an epidemiologist from the University of Nottingham who has advised the Government on infectious diseases, suggested that vaccine endorsements from celebrities and other high-profile figures could boost vaccine uptake.

He cited the impact in 1956 of Elvis Presley being vaccinated against polio live on television, and said he would liked to have seen the Queen or David Attenborough doing the same during this pandemic.

Prof Neal was speaking just before the monarch, during a Zoom call with health leaders, urged the public to "think about other people" and accept the vaccine.

The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh were vaccinated last month.

Prof Neal suggested that mosques setting up as vaccination centres could help reduce vaccine hesitancy and increase uptake. "It sends the right message to people that if the mosque is doing it, it must be okay," he said.

"The top of the inequalities agenda at the moment has to be COVID", because "we can do something about it in the very short term", he told a briefing hosted by the Science Media Centre.

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