Framing inequality: A look at David Harewood’s documentary on covid-19


David Harewood’s documentary on 'why covid is killing people of colour highlights the depressing realities of health inequality.

It’s a topic which is deeply frustrating. For matters of this importance, actual measures of consequence feel like the only credible response, but for those without the power to influence change, any work done to illuminate the relationship between race and the difference in outcomes within healthcare has to be taken seriously. 

It begins in Brent, North-West London, a community where 65% of people are from a minority background. Brent is also chosen because it has been one of area’s worst hit by covid-19. It experienced some of the highest rates of death in the country, and there’s a recognition that behind the numbers is a community which is still dealing with the impact that the virus has had.

At the time of filming, market stalls had reopened, but we know that it’s an area where the community is still engaged in efforts to stop the spread of the virus. 

We’re also shown the impact in which the virus has had in hospital wards through a look at the local Northwick Park Hospital. The hospital faced an overwhelming number of cases last year. The documentary states it was the first hospital in the country to run out of intensive care beds and at one point was taking in almost 60 new patients per day, of which 1/6th required critical care - this is 5x the usual number. 

The scale of what the community in Brent faced may not be consistent with every area of the country, but the disproportionate impact on individuals from minority backgrounds had been consistent enough to warrant Harewood looking deeper. 

As has been reported consistently since the beginning of the pandemic and has played out in front of eyes, this is equally apparent within healthcare. It was revealed that individuals that were not white accounted for 44% of doctors within the NHS, but also accounted for 95% of deaths experienced by doctors. The documentary also reveals that a greater percentage of doctors who were ‘people of colour’ (63%) felt less empowered to talk about safety of their work conditions and less likely to be heard. 

Many of the statistics which break down the disproportionate outcomes resulting from the virus are already known, but where the documentary succeeds is its simplicity in approaching the subject to highlight wider issues.

  1. There is a problem (covid)  

  2. There is a noticeable trend which seems to centre ‘people of colour’ at a disproportionate disadvantage

  3. Here are some of the rationale which has been suggested (vitamin D deficiency etc.)

  4. These are important but are only explaining part of the issue. Given that these aren’t explaining these issues adequately, what else could be encouraging these outcomes….

The reason this approach is so effective is that it sets up Harewood to discuss the socio-economic conditions which have helped define the tragedy of this pandemic. 

By finding similar consistencies within the areas of deprivation, exposure to air pollution, occupation (which features a nod to the Windrush generation) maternal mortality and mental health, he’s able to strand together pieces which paint a much broader view on how race manifests itself as a determinant factor within society. 

However, his brief discussion with Equalities minister Kemi Badenoch shows that there is still an unwillingness to recognise its significance as a factor in the figures we’ve seen during the pandemic

The Equalities Minister acknowledges the impact of socio-economic factors in covid-19 outcomes, but says that the evidence has not shown the same with race. Though this may be true on a biological level, there still seemed some hesitancy in recognizing the role it plays in contributing to these socio-economic conditions.

She admits that the fact people believe it’s significant is important, but the soon to be released report on racial disparities may shed further light on the evidence she’s referring to. 

There is the exploration of weathering too, which Arline Geronimus argues for. She suggests that chronic racism itself contributes to the psychological and even physical deterioration of black people.

Contributions are made from various doctors such as Tariq Hussein, Guddi Singh and Jenny Douglas throughout the documentary.

As with Brent, Harewood falls back to the community to speak on the reality of their experiences. This is the case with Tamira, whose father was among the first set of Doctors to die during the virus, and Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah whose daughter died after due to air pollution in 2013.

In the one hour documentary, Harewood finds success in taking a simple approach to a big problem.


Mayowa Ayodele


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