Racism hurts our entire profession

 Anne Marie Rafferty and Yvonne Coghill 5 Jun 2020 RCN President Prof Anne Marie Rafferty

RCN President Anne Marie Rafferty and Deputy President Yvonne Coghill address the impact of COVID-19 on BAME staff and patients, and wider discrimination within society.

During this unprecedented time, when focus has been on fighting the COVID-19 virus, we hear about the death of George Floyd. His death has sparked outrage, grief and horror across the world. This pain has been felt in our country, where people have donned face coverings and protested in London, Nottingham, Manchester and other cities.

For years we have known of the disproportionate health risks of people from BAME backgrounds, and now COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on impacts on healthcare workers and our fellow nurses.

There has been shock and surprise in some quarters at the scale of the problem, that BAME people are twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than their white counterparts, when socio-economic and comorbidities have been taken into consideration.

A recent report from Public Health England highlights the complex and multifaceted nature of the problem; higher levels of co-morbidities, environmental exposure through multi-generational households and the roles that our BAME colleagues occupy as key workers, which make them more vulnerable.

But what the report did not state was the fact that discrimination and racism also make people more susceptible to COVID-19. Epidemiological research from the US has indicated that the additional stress of living in and working in white dominated countries induce physiological responses which have been shown to shorten the lives of BAME people.

It is often said that this virus does not discriminate but it appears that COVID-19 does. The more we know about the virus, the more we know that it discriminates in terms of who is susceptible to dying from it.

The NHS has been built and sustained by many generations of immigrants. It is of no surprise that we have seen disproportionate numbers of our colleagues succumbing to the disease. To date we have lost 235 members of staff and 62% are from BAME backgrounds, a disproportionate number to the 20% of BAME staff that work in our NHS.

We are heartbroken at the loss of any nursing staff to this virus. The importance of personal protective equipment and of robust risk assessment of all members of staff have never been more important. Indeed, a recent RCN survey found less than half (43%) of BAME respondents said they had enough eye protection or enough fluid-repellent surgical face masks (40%) for the duration of their shift. This is simply not good enough.

NHS organisations have a duty and responsibility to protect all its workers and must do so. We at the RCN will continue to campaign for the safety of all our members and fight to ensure everyone is risk assessed and shielded and protected where necessary.

We will get through this and come out the other end, and when we do, we must build a better future; one in which we tackle the root causes of discrimination. The launch of the NHS Health and Race Observatory to identify and tackle the specific health challenges facing people from BAME backgrounds is a welcome step in the right direction.

When you listen to the voices of the Black Lives Matter movement, what comes across loud and clear is a sense of pain, outrage and frustration at the systemic racism and discrimination that has been experienced by black people for centuries. Our General Secretary and CEO expressed her own personal experiences on BBC Question Time.

The RCN will always seek to be a world class champion of diversity, equality, inclusion and human rights. We believe that we need to be courageous about the centrality of equality and bolder about inclusion in its importance to nursing. We owe it to our colleagues never ever to forget the nursing and midwifery staff who have given their lives to care for their patients. It is our actions that will be the most fitting memorial to honour their names.

rcn presidents

Anne Marie Rafferty and Yvonne Coghill

RCN President and Deputy President

Page last updated - 05/06/2020