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expert reaction to Report by Institute for Fiscal Studies Report- Are some ethnic groups more vulnerable to COVID-19 than others?

The Institute for Fiscal Studies have released a report into ethnic groups and vulnerability to COVID-19.


Prof Sarah Harper, Clore Professor of Gerontology, University of Oxford, said:

“The review confirms that given their typically younger age profiles most minority ethnic groups are suffering excess hospital fatalities in England. Of importance here, however, is that this excludes deaths in care homes, the residents of which   we know are predominantly white, and which we know are currently high.

“The fact that there is a concentration of these populations in large urban areas – 60% of the overall black population and 50% of the Bangladeshi population live in London for example – makes them particularly likely to be exposed to the virus. They are also more likely to live in areas of deprivation, which have also been associated with higher mortality rates. However, the direction of this association is complex – as it might also be argued that the relatively higher concentration of ethnic minority populations in more deprived areas could be contributing to the overall current higher mortality rates here.

“An important factor may be that morbidity – or ill health – is generally higher in these groups as well. Given that CV19 mortality seems to be associated with underlying health issues it is therefore not an unlikely assumption that this might lead to higher death rates among these populations. Older Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and black Caribbean men and women are much more likely than white British to report one or more chronic health problems. Black and south Asian ethnic groups have higher rates of diabetes and older Pakistani men have been found to have particularly high levels of cardiovascular disease.

“However, the associations are complex – for while three quarters of the Black population are overweight or obese, higher than the white population, Asian populations are lower than the white population.

“As the authors themselves state, the unequal effects of the COVID-19 crisis on different ethnic groups are likely to be the result of a complex set of economic, social and health-related factors. Understanding the role of each of these will require a better understanding of the virus itself, more data than are currently available, and additional research.

“The best conclusion to be drawn at this stage is there is much still unknown about the unequal effects of the COVID-19 crisis on different ethnic groups in England and Wales both in the short term and in the future.”


Dr Saffron Karlsen, Senior Lecturer in Social Research, University of Bristol, said:

“The IFS report released today does not contain new data on ethnic differences in experiences of Covid-19. But, it provides us with a detailed discussion of the likely explanations for the differences which are emerging.

“Public and political discussions about this issue have focused on the potential for genetic predisposition, the impact of other health problems, or cultural factors such as the frequency of hand washing or community gatherings. This report clearly shows the importance of looking closely at the data to really understand it. And the importance of factors related to wider society, and the economic opportunities given to some but not others, to explain it.

“As with other health inequalities, the ethnic patterning of Covid-19 does not affect all ethnic groups equally. Black Caribbean people appear more likely to die from Covid-19, while other groups, such as Black African or Pakistani people, appear more protected. But the authors highlight important complexity which has been hitherto ignored: the protection against Covid-19 offered by being young. If we are to really understand these complex processes, we need to disentangle them. The problem is not simply that people with some ethnic minority backgrounds die more from Covid-19. But that these higher rates of death persist despite the fact that on average people with minority ethnicities are much younger than the white British population. In short, they die more, when they should be dying less, which means the scale of the problem is even bigger than we imagine. By stripping out the benefits of younger age, and the effects of geography, Platt and Warwick show us more clearly the extent to which membership of particular ethnic minority groups disadvantages people. Now, Bangladeshi people are twice, Pakistani people three times and Black African people almost four times more likely to die of Covid-19 than white British people, with a higher rate of death also among Indian, Black Caribbean and ‘other white’ ethnic groups. And, when we focus just on ethnic differences between older people, they are greater still.

“The authors highlight the important role for occupational factors in exposure to Covid-19. People with certain minority ethnicities are more often key workers. But there are a range of other ways in which economic factors – like those presented by these authors and in the ONS report today – are also producing ethnic differences in the impact of the pandemic. People with certain minority ethnicities are employed in more precarious and irregular work, living with their families on low incomes, in over-crowded accommodation and without a safety net. The economic consequences of the lockdown is being felt more keenly by people with minority ethnicities, and they will last much longer. Living in such circumstances also make you more likely to get ill, and less likely to recover. These ethnic differences in the experiences of the pandemic are not being given the attention it should be.

“Only by understanding all these complex factors can we hope to effectively respond to them.”


All our previous output on this subject can be seen at this weblink:


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