England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Andy Burnham’s racist lockdown blame game: No more pandemic scapegoating

Stoking racist tensions is a longstanding game played by capitalist politicians of all political persuasions; and as we have seen throughout this pandemic, seemingly nothing will put them off from their efforts to divide the working-class. Rather, with the escalation of the crisis shaking their already faltering exploitative political and economic system to its very foundations, many politicians have seized upon this crisis to intensify their own hate-speech.

In Britain this grotesque spectacle is currently being played out; last month when it was announced that Leicester would be the only city going back into a tight lockdown, blame for our city’s outbreak was quickly shifted onto issues of ethnicity. As if this was not bad enough when it was pointed out that the outbreaks might be linked to workers being forced to slave away in the hundreds of sweatshops that make up Leicester’s textile industry this idea was quickly swept aside by our Blairite City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby.

Now that large parts of the North West have been forced to accept a further ‘lockdown’ you might have thought that Andy Burnham, the Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, would have been prepared for navigating the racial blame game that was likely to intensify in his region. But he betrayed his electorate at the very first hurdle.

On the morning of Eid (July 31) Burnham laid the blame for new lockdown on not just young people but as he put it “gatherings in households across the board, gatherings in multi-generational households, that I think is the reason why this action is justified… its gatherings in homes that has been the problem”. The interviewer on BBC Radio 4 then highlighted that others had said that the coronavirus “affects everyone, rich or poor, old or young” and asked Burnham if “when you refer to crowded households you refer to multi-generational households, you do mean predominately the Asian population of Greater Manchester don’t you?” To which Burnham replied: “Yes I do mean that.”

Burnham had even been primed by the journalist to think about issues of wealth and how that might effect transmission, which of course it does, but instead Burnham chose to stick to the Tories own talking-point about their concerns with household transmission. Incidentally, this is what Leicester’s Mayor did too when he refused to emphasise socio-economic issues relating to workplace exploitation in his explanations of the viruses spread.

In the context of the North West lockdown this then led to a local Tory MP claiming in an interview conducted on LBC Radio just an hour later that some “sections of our community that are not taking the pandemic seriously.” When asked by the interviewer if he was referring to the Muslim community, he replied: “Of course… it is the BAME communities that are not taking this seriously enough.”

This divisive nonsense was later correctly criticised by Burnham, “who said it was “never a good idea, ever, to make sweeping generalisations about your constituents, but it is a particularly poor idea to single out a single community within your community for such comments”.  “I don’t think those [MP’s] comments are helpful at all” Burnham added, but the damage has already been done by his own sweeping generalisations.

But what is clear is that the deadly spread of Covid-19 exacts a much higher death among BAME communities, and it is not spreading amongst certain communities because of ethnicity but precisely because of their relative poverty. Later in the afternoon this phenomena was well-explained by Professor Dominic Harrison, who is the public health director for Blackburn with Darwen, who pointed out that the towns where the latest lockdown measures were introduced were towns…

“…which have more economic and social challenges. And our research on who is being infected in the last ten-day period in Blackburn and Darwen has shown us that 33% of all the confirmed cases in Blackburn and Darwen were amongst the least wealthy 10%, and amongst the most wealth 10% of our residents we have had no cases at all. And so one of the things that we observed from that is that the virus – and this was confirmed incidentally by the Office of National Statistics in relation to deaths earlier in the pandemic – is that those who have high levels of deprivation, high levels of unequal and unfair life chances are certainly being more impacted by this virus, and in terms of the narrative, it is very clear that that’s not because they are necessarily not social distancing, it’s probably because they are finding that their employment conditions, particularly because many are in front-line roles exposes them to more risk of being infected in the first place. And so we need to be very cautious about how we explain the causes of higher rates in these northern towns because to the best of my knowledge there is no evidence that that pattern is any greater in the northern towns than in England as a whole, and what’s therefore driving our increased risk of transmission is our increased risk exposure which is generally driven by higher levels of inequality and exposure to risk.” (BBC Lancashire, July 31)

Commenting on the politics of the Tories’ latest lockdown mayhem, even the British Medical Journal has gone beyond the Labour Party’s leadership in ridiculing the government. In an article published on the day of the Eid celebrations, Manchester GP Siema Iqbal told the Journal that the government’s announcement created only confusion and…

“… seems to suggest that blame incorrectly lies at the south Asian communities. This completely ignores the fact that actually many have adhered to the rules, but due to social deprivation and overcrowded housing it means risk of transmission is higher, especially if two families mix as part of a social bubble.”

In a similar vein Hina Shahid, chair of the Muslim Doctors Association, said there is “an overwhelming feeling in BAME communities that we are being scapegoated for systematic government failings in handling the crisis.” As if this was not bad enough Shahid “said that her association had also written multiple policy briefings and letters to the government to ‘highlight the structural inequalities, discrimination, and racism that are the main drivers for covid-19 transmission,’ but had received no response.”

Again, none of this should be novel to anyone concerned with fighting back against exploitation and oppression. For example, earlier last month Shahid wrote an impassioned evidence-based opinion-piece for the British Medical Journal where she capably laid out the problems facing Britain’s Muslim community. She highlighted how Muslims have the highest age standardised mortality rate, drew attention to high levels of deprivation facing the Muslim community, their demonisation by both politicians and the mainstream media, and reminded her readers how “over 50% of doctors who have died in the UK have been Muslim, despite constituting 9.1% of the medical workforce.”

Yet Andy Burnham, when responding to the Tories’ latest lockdown, chose to ignore all these facts and settled for echoing the government’s divisive narrative on the pandemic. The manner in which the Tories have mismanaged this crisis – at every turn – meant that the introduction of localised lockdowns provided the perfect opportunity for Burnham to challenge their absolute failure to protect us from the ravages of this pandemic.

Socialist Alternative believes the working class needs class fighters who will organise to dismantle this deeply oppressive, racist, sexist, violent, utterly bankrupt system of capitalism. What we do not need are so-called political representatives who are not willing to oppose the Tories racist deceits at every opportunity. Our class deserves no less.  


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