COVID-19 and racial capitalism in the UK: why race and class matter for understanding the coronavirus pandemic

In the UK, Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. To understand this, we must reject “biological” explanations and examine contemporary configurations of class, race, and labour

Despite assertions from senior Conservative Party figures that COVID-19 “doesn’t discriminate”, emerging evidence on infection and mortality rates in the UK tells a very different story. Recently released NHS data reveal a disproportionately high number of COVID-19 patients from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, with 35% of critically ill patients identified as BAME, almost three times higher than the overall BAME make-up of the population. Black people are especially over-represented in terms of mortalities; they made up 6.4% of the first 12,600 COVID-19 deaths in English hospitals, for example, despite only accounting for 3.4% of the general population. Finally, BAME workers represent a large proportion of the NHS staff who have lost their lives to COVID-19, comprising 68% of known staff mortalities to date.

Racialised patterns of infection, severity of infection, and mortality in the UK mirror data from the US, where Black Americans are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the pandemic. The links between axes of inequality such as race and class (and their intersections) and poor health outcomes are well documented; key drivers include socio-economic deprivation, such as poverty, food insecurity, unemployment, and poor or overcrowded housing, as well as barriers to accessing healthcare. These factors contextualise the higher incidence of chronic medical conditions such as heart disease and diabetes among some BAME groups in the UK (which in turn increases vulnerability to COVID-19). Health inequalities are further exacerbated by the material and psychological effects of racism. These dynamics mean that the uneven distribution and effects of COVID-19 cannot be explained by biomedical factors alone, but are questions of political economy.  

Analysis of the racialised impacts of the pandemic in the Global North has to date largely focused on the US. Further research is needed to ascertain exactly how and why BAME workers are being impacted by the virus in a UK context, in both health and economic terms. Evidently, part of this analysis must acknowledge the concentration of BAME workers in certain sectors of the UK economy, namely public administration, education, and health. The NHS is a case in point here; BAME workers make up 20% of NHS staff nationally, rising to 44% in London. This goes some way to explaining the high numbers of BAME NHS staff falling ill with COVID-19. However, BAME workers are still overrepresented among staff critical care submissions and mortalities relative to population size. This type of disparity underscores the importance of taking into account a broader range of factors—beyond exposure level—in shaping vulnerability to COVID-19 among oppressed groups.

Another part of this analysis must focus on the overrepresentation of BAME workers in certain types of work, namely low-paid, casualised, and/or otherwise precarious work. According to research by the TUC, 1 in 13 BAME workers in the UK are on a temporary or zero-hours contract, compared to 1 in 20 white workers. Black women in particular make up an increasingly large proportion of the precariat. This has a knock-on effect on earnings, since workers on temporary or zero-hours contracts earn significantly less on average than workers on permanent contracts. The forms of racialised deprivation and disadvantage that structure health and other socio-economic inequalities in the UK have a long lineage. Yet these dynamics have been intensified by more recent shifts in the organisation and nature of work, namely precaritisation, as Gargi Bhattacharya explains.

Bhattacharya’s (2018) book Rethinking Racial Capitalism offers a powerful lens for analysing the labour relations and political economic factors shaping the uneven impacts of COVID-19. She writes, “If racial capitalism is a process that sifts people into different categories, sometimes with an economic purpose, but always with an economic outcome, then the visibility and value accorded to types and locations of work, therefore, becomes a central question” (2018, p.59, italics mine).  As the pandemic lifts the veil on the myriad activities and processes that go into sustaining and renewing everyday life—that is, on social reproduction—this question of visibility and value has never been so pressing. Social reproductive labour—paid and unpaid, privatised and socialised—includes health, social, and community care: the vital work of looking after children, the sick, the vulnerable, and the elderly. As Merisa Thompson’s blog recently highlighted, this labour is both gendered and racialised: a pattern that is reflected, for example, in the overrepresentation of women, including BAME and migrant women, in jobs with a “high exposure” risk for COVID-19.

In mainstream political discourse, many of these jobs are now referred to as “key workers”. This term is not only applied to workers providing essential “social reproductive” services such as health and social care, but across a range of other sectors and industries, including processing, retail, and distribution. These sectors comprise some of the most low-paid and precarious workers in the UK economy, especially in cleaning and maintenance, transport, retail, and social care. The class and racial dimensions of precarity are therefore critical to understanding the implications of COVID-19 for different types and locations of work. In other words, while the health impacts for BAME key workers are intensified by heightened risk of exposure, a lack of adequate PPE equipment—including for care home staff, non-medical NHS workers, and for workers outside the health sector—and existing health inequalities, the economic risks are compounded by precarity, low pay, and structural racism. This speaks to Bhattacharya’s description of the “sifting” effects of racial capitalism across processes of production and reproduction.

The centrality of race, class, and labour to understanding the unfolding crisis is intuitively clear to me as I write this blog from the south-east London neighbourhood of Brixton. Lockdown London is, in a sense, “racial capitalism” writ large. Located on the fourth floor of a co-op building, our flat has a panoramic view of the neighbouring streets. Once an important site of organising in the Black British liberation movement, the road is now dotted with luxury flat developments, where two-bed apartments sell for upwards of £750k. Opposite, a newly finished block serves as the architectural embodiment of Brixton’s rapid gentrification. Every morning, I observe rows of men and women, exclusively white, sitting down at kitchen tables to begin work on laptops. Meanwhile, in the streets below, an overwhelmingly Black and Brown workforce unloads deliveries of groceries and takeaway food, collects rubbish, delivers post, drives buses, and makes their way to work in the supermarkets and market stalls of central Brixton. These scenes are, in part, a story of the co-constitutive effects of race and class in contemporary Britain. They are also a slice of life that starkly illuminates why the health and economic impacts of COVID-19 will not be felt evenly across the population.

Moments of crises, so the wisdom goes, can entail a moment of unveiling, in which the injustices and inequalities of everyday life are temporarily laid bare. As the grim human cost of the pandemic becomes increasingly clear, we can only hope that its revelatory power is more than fleeting: that it leads to a better understanding of racial capitalism—of the racialised and gendered hierarchies that undergird the global capitalist economy—and to a revaluation of whose bodies and whose labour counts.