LONDON: British Asians have expressed fear that they are being scapegoated for a rise in coronavirus disease (COVID-19) infections in the UK, as millions of the country’s Muslims prepare to celebrate Eid Al-Adha.
Members of the Asian community say the rise in cases is being blamed on race and religion, and say this is fueling an increase in racist and Islamophobic abuse.
Recent outbreaks in cities and towns such as Leicester, Blackburn, Luton and Oldham, which have high populations of people of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origins, have been recorded in the most deprived areas — where concentrations of the Asian community live.
A local politician and community inclusion activist in Blackburn, Saima Afzal, told the Press Association (PA) COVID-19 spreads quickly in densely populated areas of high-contact — such as care homes, cruise ships, football crowds — irrespective of race or religion.
“People are hearing, ‘Muslim, coronavirus, Niqab, death,’ and you are going to start feeling a little bit of angst by it. People need to just be a bit more empathetic, step back from making this a race issue or a religious issue,” she said.
“No-one is suggesting for the data not to be put out there. Now we are finding a knock-on effect from that, which is not good for anyone. We have got to be honest about the data, but we have to also manage the impact. I’m worried just as much about the negative impact on cohesion.”
According to the PA report, a young Asian man recently reported being told he was “disease spreading” and was abused using a racial slur while out shopping.
Experts in the UK have said with COVID-19 spreading quickly through densely populated areas, families of south Asian backgrounds living in smaller, closely packed houses in cities and towns are at higher risk. This is coupled with added risk when considering British Asians are more likely to work in people-facing jobs such as healthcare or as bus and taxi drivers.
Leicester, a city of 330,000 in the center of the UK, is still in local lockdown conditions after a spike in cases this month. Several other towns, such as Oldham, Rochdale, Northampton and Peterborough, are on a Public Health England watchlist.
“There is a strong feeling that some sections of media are normalizing the racialization of this debate. My own view is also that some sections of media are guilty of this — be it wittingly or unwittingly,” Afzal said.
“I have heard lots of judgmental narrative about how multi-generational households are a ‘problem,’ that ‘Asians have large families’ and so our lifestyle is causing the disease to spread. Every member of this community doesn’t want the cases to rise. It is just really unfortunate Eid is in the middle of it. It could have been Christmas.
“There are always going to be those that don’t understand or don’t care, but that is never a justification to blame and label all sections of the community,” Afzal said. “It is not about us doing something wrong, it is about the circumstances; poverty, multi-generational housing, asymptomatic transmission.
“I’m asking for sympathy and empathy and not being judgmental, otherwise we are going to have a real problem on our hands,” she added.
Mosques across the UK have brought in a number of preventive measures in preparation for Eid Al-Adha, including temperature monitoring as worshippers arrive, banning hugs or handshakes and limiting the number of worshippers allowed in for prayers.
Shadim Hussain, CEO of black and Asian fostering network My Foster Family, and a member of the Bradford Foundation Trust, said: “I think some communities are more challenged by the nature of how they congregate, carry out prayers, family gatherings.
“It can be seen from the towns and cities that have been highlighted publicly, those still showing high numbers of cases, Leicester, Bradford, Blackburn.
“There’s obviously a concern around with Eid coming up and at a time when large gatherings do take place but from the work I have done here locally in Bradford with the council for mosques and other organizations, I have been pleasantly surprised by the efforts to make sure places of worship are well prepared,” he added.
“The communities are in a much better position. The message has got through, I think you are always going to get an element of your young people who might still want to go out, (but) by and large I think there’s a clear recognition that it’s Eid at home this year.”
Studies have shown that black and South Asian people are more susceptible to being infected with, and dying from, COVID-19 than other ethnic groups, with health experts citing health inequalities, underlying health issues and cultural and traditional differences as causes.