In the worst public health crisis since The Spanish Flu (1918), it’s safe to say that a new social contract should be drawn up after COVID, like what happened after the Second World War with Labour’s Welfare State. Yet, unlike the narratives within both world wars, this time, the actions of Black and brown people, migrants, and refugees cannot be written out of the history books. Can they?
Being in lockdown for the past eight weeks, it’s allowed me to contemplate my British identity. Before this crisis, I was at odds with my identity, and at comfort. Now, I feel that there really “ain’t no Black in the union jack”, as per Paul Gilroy’s book. When I saw headlines about whitewashing the NHS, disproportionate deaths within communities of colour and Black men being stopped by police buying food for their kids, I thought am I really British?
The last time the world went through this much disruption, fear and uncertainty was during the Second World War, and before that, during the Depression. What both these times have in common is that they wrote the actions of Black and brown people out of the narrative. Racial theories, originating from pseudoscience played significant roles in how people that looked exactly like me were treated. Black and brown soldiers, sailors and servicemen were expendable and then erased out of history. On the African continent, these people were deemed not human enough to have dignified burials like their White counterparts, they were buried in mass graves.
What if I told you that afterwards, in 1919 there were race riots across Britain ? And at Albert Docks, a Bermudan Black veteran was lynched in a racially-motivated attack? Charles Wootten, who fought for this country, a nation that wasn’t his own only to be treated like a second-class citizen and then murdered. And in the wake of the The Depression, Britain’s own civil rights struggle took root. Now, the utter arrogance that the UK will defy all the odds against existential threat all on its own without any help at all.
Which makes decolonisation such an interesting space, because frankly none of this is on school curricula. That in teaching slavery, we only really teach Wilberforce, not about slave rebellions in the colonies nor resistance from the White working-class in Britain. Emancipation came from the bottom up, not top down. The history is complex and class solidarity kicked the elites in the teeth. And even in that, why do we not teach class solidarity in schools? Not how the Jews and the Irish kicked Oswald Mosely out of Cable Street, or the striking women of Gunwick in [British] South Africa? Today, as I see the death rate in the UK compared to somewhere like New Zealand or Germany or Taiwan, it’s hard not to believe there’s been a mismanagement somewhere, to put it lightly. Or, bias is at play. Similar to how Churchill left three million Indians to die in the Bengal Famine (1943). His hate for Indians was notorious and the Government’s contempt for the working-class can be seen through austerity, Universal Credit and its reactions to events such as Grenfell and the Windrush Scandal, where Black British citezens have been deported.
Now, this textbook British Blitz spirit will not do in 2020. Not that Britain won the wars on their own. But today, jingoism, White ethno-nationalism and #PickforBritain sing strong and loud. This blitz spirit may have formed Britain as a nation for White people, but as a Black person my experience of Britishness is one of unbelonging being written out of the identity of this country. That in narratives of COVID-19, will the actions of Black bus drivers, healthcare staff, and teachers be erased from the history books?
In Coronavirus, I see echoes of Brexit. That we can go it alone. Yet, there are no whispers of resistance to this. Forty thousand bodies say hi. I don’t see public anger. That in Britain’s pride to do it alone, I think of the calls for British independence from the EU. Lest we forget the stories of Empire; independence wasn’t gifted, it was fought for. Haiti’s Revolution for example, after which Britain sent armies to invade the French Caribbean. An unsuccessful campaign to reinstall slavery. This moral abolitionist narrative, that we are freeing ourselves is so commonplace to the UK.
So, when I see people who look like me dying in numbers, it is a reflection to how this country started calling itself great. Stepping over the bodies it feels are inferior. People of colour. Poor people. Immigrants. Refugees. United by class. That in #PickforBritain, the industry is losing not because of Coronavirus. It is losing because of Brexit, where the majority that voted for it told foreigners they were no longer welcome here. A prejudice born from pride. Meanwhile, you are asking the public, many of whom whose ancestors toiled on those plantation death camps in the Caribbean, if they want to pick potatoes. No, Boris. I won’t. And the website doesn’t even work.
In light of VE Day and under Britain’s whole campaign in response to COVID-19, there is a story of the underdog that survives all odds, backed with popularised films such has 1917, Darkest Hour and Dunkirk. The truth of the matter is that people from the British Empire [of which I am descended], including Africans and Asians, were instrumental in Britain and the allied forces winning those wars. That here on this small island, we weren’t just some minor nation but a vast empire able to win because it had collected so many countries previous, pillaged for wealth and benefits.
After Coronavirus, Black and brown people should be at the centre of this story. That the diversity we boast about is why the NHS hasn’t been overwhelmed and the diversity we boast about is also dying at a disproportionate rate. Good manners and freedom; these are things we label with British values, which also came from Victorian values, which are colonial values. That clapping for our carers rings of a time which would not have afforded me my Britishness. Now, we are taught distorted histories which make people question the narratives of race in situations like COVID.
Knowing all this, is it surprising that today British people of colour like me are treated like “good immigrants” having to prove their worth, when the history we learn at school is a juxtaposition to how Britain is, how it has always been?
I am minded to write something about both utilitarianism and human rights as a consequence of watching the news the other night. Two separate but linked news articles struck a chord. The first about police being heavy handed in applying the emergency laws surrounding the restricting of movement and the second about the emergency laws being passed to suspend jury trials in Scotland. Both have an impact in respect of human rights.
Turning to the first, the complaint is that the police across England and Wales have in some cases been disproportionate in their dealing with the public when attempting to manage the restrictions around movement. The example shown was the uploading of videos onto social media depicting people walking around the Peak District. The captions simply asked whether the trip was necessary.
The government guidance is pretty clear regarding staying at home but perhaps is a little less clear about travelling to a location to partake in exercise. I must admit though I am a little perplexed at the accusation of heavy handedness. The Human Rights Act 1998 provides for a right to life and it has been held that the government and its agencies have a positive obligation to facilitate this. There are of course some caveats as it would be almost impossible to ensure this in all circumstances. There is no doubt that people are dying from Covid-19. The approach to enforce social distancing, presently predominantly through information and the reliance on responsibility and good will, seems to be the only current viable approach to combating this killer. The curtailment of some Human Rights is it seems necessary to ensure the greater good and to preserve life. The latter of course is a primary duty that most police officers would recognise. The greater good for the many is it seems compatible with a key principle of human rights.
Turning to the second news article. The right to a fair trial is a fundamental human right. The suspension of a jury may be against longstanding legal principles but, the Human Rights Act does not specify that the trial should be before a jury, merely an independent judge. The argument could be made that trials should be suspended but this might be impinging on rights in respect of defendants being held in custody awaiting trial. The convening of a jury would flout the rationale behind current legislation in place to enforce social distancing and would quite simply be contrary to obligations to protect life.
The notions of utilitarianism are often viewed as in conflict with individual rights and therefore the Human Rights Act. Many see the two as incompatible, one relates to the many and the other the individual. This argument though fails to have vision, it is not truly consequentialist. Human Rights are utilitarian in their very nature. Is it not to the greater good that people have a right to life, a right to freedom of association, a right to a fair trail to name but a few? Should it not be considered that every individual case that is examined under the Human Rights Act has consequences for the many as well as the individual? A breach of the Act if unchallenged opens the way for abuses by governments and their agencies, it is utilitarian in nature, it is there for the greater good, not just the individual circumstances that are being examined. But should we also not consider that there is a need to prioritise rights, particularly in the circumstances the country and world finds itself in? Some parts of the Act are in clearly on occasions, incompatible with others. Curtailment of some freedoms and rights is necessary for the greater good but more importantly, it is necessary to save lives, perhaps even the life of the individual complaining of the curtailment. We can but hope that amidst all of this, good sense prevails.
If you’re anything like me, the last few weeks you’ve probably found yourself fighting your way through a tsunami of information that’s coming from all directions. Notifications are going into overdrive with social media apps, news apps and browsers desperate to deliver more and more content, at ever increasing frequencies. Add to this all the stories, videos and memes friends and family are also sharing and it’s hard to know where to look first. The sheer volume of content makes it harder than ever to know what is fact, fake or opinion. In honesty, it can all be a bit overwhelming.
How do you even begin sorting the information that’s being thrown at you when you can’t keep up with how quickly your news feeds are moving
1. Sort the fact from the fiction
There’s nothing like a pandemic to send the fake news mills into overdrive. Many are easy to spot, the 2020 version of an urban myth (My neighbour’s, brother’s dog is a top civil servant and says….) others are much more sophisticated and purport to be from trusted sources. The Guardian (Mercier, 2020) reports on the danger of these stories and the tragic consequences that can occur when people believe them.
Why are we so susceptible to fake news stories though? They use “truthiness” to play on our fears and biases. If it sounds like something we think could be true, if it confirms our prejudices or worries, we’re more likely to believe it.
Fact checking is more important than ever. Take a moment to think before you share – what is the source? where are their sources? For more tips on spotting fake news check out this guide (IFLA, 2020) or use an independent reputable fact checking site such as Full Fact. This blog article from the Information Literacy Group (Bedford, 2020) pulls together a selection of reliable information sources related to Covid-19.
2. Bursting your bubble
Personalised content from news feeds can be useful, but we often don’t even realise the news stories and content we’re seeing in apps has been chosen by an algorithm. Their purpose is to feed us stories they think we will like, to keep us reading longer. This can be convenient, but it can also be misleading. We get trapped in a filter bubble that feeds us the type of content we like and usually from a perspective that agrees with our own way of thinking.
Sometimes we need to know what else is going on in the world outside our specific areas of interest though and sometimes we need to consider viewpoints we don’t necessarily agree with, so we can make an informed judgement.
These algorithms can also get things wrong. My own Google news feed weirdly seems to think I’m interested in anything vaguely related to British Airways, Coventry City Football Club and Meghan Markle (I’d like to state for the record I’m not particularly interested in any of these things). This is without considering the inherent biases they have built into them, before they even start their work (algorithm bias is a whole other blog article in itself).
It’s human nature to want to hear things that agree with our way of thinking and reinforce our own world view, we follow people we like and admire, we choose news sources that confirm our way of thinking, but there is a risk of missing the bigger picture when sat in our bubble. Rather than letting the news come to you, go direct to several news sources (maybe even some that have a different political leaning to you, if you feel like being challenged). Be active in seeking news stories, rather than passively consuming them.
3. Step away from the news feed (when you need to)
It’s a bit of a balancing act, we need to know enough to be informed and stay safe without spending 24/7 plugged in. We’re not superhuman though and sometimes we need to accept that just because it’s on our feed, we’re not obliged to engage. Give yourself permission to skip stories, mute notifications and be selective when you need to. We all have different saturation points, mine will vary day to day, but listen to yourself and know when it’s time to switch off. If it helps, set reminders on your apps to give you a nudge when you’ve spent a certain amount of time on them. The Mental Health Foundation (2020) have some tips for looking after your mental health in relation to news coverage of Covid-19.
If you need help finding information or want support evaluating sources the Academic Librarian team are offering online tutorials and an online drop-in service. You can also contact us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Academic Liaison Manager, LLS
Bedford, D. (2020) Covid-19: Seeking reliable information in difficult times. Information Literacy Group [online]. Available from: https://infolit.org.uk/covid-19-seeking-reliable-information-in-difficult-times/ [Accessed 31/03/2020].
IFLA (2020) How to spot fake news. IFLA [online]. Available from: https://www.ifla.org/publications/node/11174 [Accessed 31/03/2020].
Mental Health Foundation (2020) Looking after your mental health during the Coronavirus outbreak. Mental Health Foundation [online]. Available from: https://mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/looking-after-your-mental-health-during-coronavirus-outbreak [Accessed 31/03/2020]
Mercier, H. (2020) Fake news in the time of coronavirus: how big is the threat? The Guardian [online]. 30th March. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/30/fake-news-coronavirus-false-information [Accessed 31/03/2020].
In the documentation of #clapforourcarers, the British media does what Britain often does best, neglect its diversity whilst simultaneously boasting about diversity. You cannot tell the history of the NHS without talking about the diversity of ethnic backgrounds that make up the workforce. This history is also a story about race and society, incorporating the lives of people from around the world.
After the War, the UK government put out a call to its empire for workers, not thinking that all these Black and brown people from the Caribbean, and Asian and African continents would come, not the White people from English speaking countries such as New Zealand. The NHS would have been stillborn had it not been for Black nurses in the beginning that saved it from collapse. Yet, today, with Coronavirus, the whitewashing of the NHS continues in the media’s representation of the workforce. You cannot go to a hospital without running into the people of colour that keep it afloat.
The late Jamaican philosopher Stuart Hall said “We are here because you were there” and it is in part because of Britain’s colonial project that we have migrants from places all over the world. For international viewers looking in, watching British press on Coronavirus, they are being lead down this path of dominant whiteness. From the people being interviewed to how the NHS is being represented in the media. As Britons, we know the NHS workforce is culturally diverse. Yet, any viewers without knowledge of the NHS will believe that it is as White as it is being portrayed to be.
Africans, West Indians, Pakistanis, Indians, Chinese and many people of colour make up a good percentage of carers in Britain today. The same can be said for students on health-related courses at our universities including nursing, social work and social care. Like Gina Yashere says, it looks like Britain is erasing this diversity from its history. When we look back on this in 20 years time, history will show it to be whitewashed, as many significant events in British history were before it; from the world wars to Renaissance Britain to the days of Roman rule. But wasn’t it a legion of African Romans (or Moors) that stood watch on Hadrian’s Wall for nearly 350 years?
As I sit at home now in lockdown, we must talk about the nuances of Coronavirus under inequality. Will people of colour be stopped at a disproportionate rate to White people under new police powers? Will they be detained at such a rate? This is a global disease but those receiving tests seem to come from a certain class. We have a government that advocated for the genocide (herd immunity) of its ageing population. We also have a government that put the whims of billionaires over all. Its contempt for the working class has not gone unnoticed. When this is all over, the public and parliament needs to hold the prime minister’s government to account.
Gina Yashere mocks the people saying it shouldn’t be about race, and she’s absolutely right to do that. Race is a social construct but it’s a social construct of which the global majority have been othered. However, you cannot talk about British healthcare without talking about race. From institutional racism within healthcare to the diversity of the workforce. It comes from the comfort of privilege to live your life not having talk about race in any meaningful way. And life isn’t binary. One size doesn’t fit all.
We are better than this, we need to #stopthewhitewash; and if race doesn’t matter (as they say), why is the British media representing the National Health Service in its own image?