For the first time in centuries, the entire world has been consumed by a global pandemic of unbelievable magnitude. But while we unite to face this common threat on the belief that the Coronavirus doesn’t discriminate, unfortunately the most vulnerable are being most affected. Emerging evidence shows that minority groups in the UK, including those within the South Asian Diaspora, are being hit harder than others. Not only this, the pandemic has further highlighted the gender inequalities within the U.K., with womxn suffering the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19 to a greater extent than men. For many South Asian womxn, this lockdown will be a profound period of uncertainty and insecurity. In this blog, we explore the different ways in which COVID-19 and the lockdown is affecting womxn in our communities and what we can do to help, even now.
The indefinite nationwide shutdown will fuel fears for many, but especially for domestic abuse victims who are now being told to stay at home, often with their abusers.
These fears are entirely justified as the sharp rise of domestic abuse cases continue to be widely reported. So far, UK charity, Refuge, has experienced a 150% increase in website visits while the National Domestic Abuse Helpline recorded a 25% rise in phone calls.
While these figures are already alarming, the actual number of domestic abuse cases is probably much higher, as not all victims can reach out for help.
This is especially the case in the South Asian community, where womxn are often considered responsible for upholding the family ‘honour’, which has created a history of underreporting over the years. This ‘honour’ is often perceived to be held in the woman’s marital status, where the stigma of divorce or separation means victims are forced to remain in abusive atmospheres.
If all of this was the case before COVID-19, there’s no doubt that this lockdown will give abusers the opportunity to exercise more control over victims and amplify victims’ feelings of hopelessness, with further barriers to accessing adequate support services.
However, while it looks like the world has come to a halt - with potential support hubs such as places of worship, local markets and workplaces closed - it’s important for victims of domestic abuse to know that help is still out there. Most recently, Home Secretary, Priti Patel, announced additional spending on online support services, expertise IT services to domestic abuse charities and offering places of refuge for victims trying to escape.
Of course, communicating this additional support to victims, who are already isolated by their abusers, seems an almost impossible task. Again, particularly in the South Asian community, where there is already a lack of specialised services to recognise the cultural sensitivity of these situations.
This is why it’s even more vital for our own communities to offer support by taking the time to check-in with any potential victims within our networks. Keep in mind that abuse can be financial and emotional as well as physical. We can share useful information such as hotline numbers for support services, information about spotting the signs of abuse and any local guidelines. As community members, we are in the unique position to ensure such information spreads through our family and friend networks in a way others may not be able to access.
We’ve compiled a number of support services that may be useful if you are suffering from violence at the moment:
The Sharan Project: www.sharan.org.uk | 0844 504 3231 | firstname.lastname@example.org - If you can’t speak to an advisor immediately, outline your situation, location, contact number and a safe time for them to call you back.
Chayn: chayn.co/tools - Running a 10 week programme delivered over Telegram, a secure messaging app to build trauma resilience. The course started on 24 March 2020 but you can join the telegram group and go through the course at your own pace.
If there is an immediate danger, please call 999 - and press 55 on a mobile if you are unable to talk.
It’s become frighteningly apparent that there have been a disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths amongst minority communities. The Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre found that 35% of almost 2,000 patients were non-white, nearly triple the 13% proportion in the UK population as a whole.
The worrying figures have sparked a call from Labour for an urgent investigation as it begins to highlight the existing inequalities faced by our communities. We know these figures are manifestations of and have their roots in structural violence. They are due to the absence of policies that fail to correct long-standing socio-economic inequalities that have the greatest impact on minority communities in the U.K.
Moreover, the NHS has always been heavily dependent on staff from minority backgrounds (making up 44% of the workforce), which means they are currently most at risk on the frontline. And out of the 3 million people in high exposure jobs in the UK, 77% of them are women. Women overpopulate the care sector with more than 80% of adult social care jobs being held by female workers. On top of this, BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) women are most likely to be on part-time, temporary or zero-hour contracts, making them more vulnerable to the economic effects of COVID-19. A labour market segregated by race in this way means that it is individuals from minority communities that are on the front lines of exposure, not just in the care sector but also as pharmacists, corner shop owners, restaurant owners and more.
We are now relying on the very immigrants that were so recently used as racist propaganda to fuel pro-Brexit arguments. It is us, who were considered a financial burden to the economy, that are now risking their lives for others. Yes, the UK government is automatically extending thousands of NHS staff’s work visas for a year, but that it’s taken a global pandemic (and significant loss of life) to finally recognise the crucial role immigrants play in our society, is more than worrying.
Even this gesture doesn’t mean much as long as staff aren’t properly protected as they work on the frontline. While the UK government are reluctant to release figures on the number of NHS staff deaths, just seeing the faces of those who have passed away, will tell you that it’s those from a BAME background who are most affected.
This will continue to be the case until the government can provide a steady supply of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) to all members of NHS staff who are exposed to the deadly disease on a daily basis. Despite the government denying any shortages in equipment, NHS staff continue to voice their fears of going to work unprotected every day. Now, the public have taken it upon themselves to source effective protection and you can get involved too. For example, SOS Supplies, a volunteer-run 3-week old organisation, has already worked sourced PPE for over 80 organisations and charities.
Many of these same womxn working as key workers are then under further stress as they risk bringing the disease home to their families. As living with extended family members, often including older grandparents is more common within the South Asian community, once again we see South Asian communities more at risk.
Recent stats show 80% of the British Asian population live with younger people in the home. This tendency for multi-generational households means that self-isolation is less possible, especially for those who need to look after family members and are again, more likely to be womxn.
However, it does seem that the NHS is doing its best to support these individuals at this time, with one NHS contact of ours getting their hotel accommodation, meals and parking all paid for by their employer. This means that they do not have to risk staying with their parents or travel too far for work at this crucial time.
The caregivers at home
As we know, many womxn are still expected to take on the bulk of unpaid family care through cooking, cleaning and other domestic duties. This is even more common within South Asian families, where patriarchal socio-cultural norms rule and where it is often considered the mothers’ and daughters’ duties to look after the home. Now, due to the lockdown, these same womxn have the unexpected burden of also educating their children and/or looking after their in-laws and husband full time – all while still maintaining their homes as usual and potentially working an external job too. Or some may not even have the freedom of external work to escape the household chores.
As if COVID-19 isn’t stressful enough, the overwhelming strain of additional household roles could lead to potential mental health complications with many South Asian womxn being taught to suffer in silence as they play the dutiful daughter, mother or wife.
Equal division of the household labour is just one way we can alleviate this unfair burden:
Cooking: Take turns in cooking meals for the family or use this opportunity to teach other family members how to cook
Boundaries: Communicate honestly about your availability while at home - it’s important to take time out for yourself, but make sure everyone knows when you would prefer your alone time.
Caregiving: Split caregiving duties fairly if someone requires additional support in house
Open communication: This unique situation has given families the chance to reflect and improve relationships. Take this time hold some honest and open discussions which can hopefully help towards a more amicable environment.
Young womxn & girls
The high number of South Asians living in multi-generational households may also affect second and third generation womxn whose freedoms might be further restricted due to the lockdown. Although this idea has been met with humour on social media, this form of isolation can take a real psychological toll on the younger generation.
Before the lockdown, many young womxn were able to use their independent lives (through work, friends, relationships etc.) as a form of escape from the controlling environments often found at home.
However, now that escape is no longer available, they could find themselves trapped without a release from the toxic home atmosphere – maybe even forced to hide certain aspects of their external lives from their family.
The emotional support they once found from friends and relationships (often hidden from family) could disappear, leaving them feeling further isolated and alone, despite having family around them.
Here are some great social media accounts that can may help those feeling isolated in restrictive environments:
@brownmillenial.socialworker - Meghna Agnihotri specialises in mental health through a South Asian feminist lens and often posts great resources and tips.
@asianwomanfestival - AWF empowers and celebrates Asian women with some great motivational posts for when you’re feeling down or looking for a community who may understand your experiences.
@browngirltherapy - This wellness community for South Asian second-generation womxn has recently posted some useful tips on how to spend quality time with their parents
@brownpsychologist - Dr. Tina Mistry always posts useful information for mental health in the South Asian community, specifically for womxn. You can also join her Facebook group ‘Brown Brave Women’.
To say this pandemic will dramatically affect many South Asian womxn is an understatement. We are merely weeks into the lockdown and already fears and negative impacts are trickling down into the community. The antagonising effects of social isolation will continue to grow and put womxn at a greater risk, both in terms of their health, mental and physical wellbeing. As we have seen in the recent figures, while the virus does not discriminate between race, age or gender, it does expose the racial, class and gendered disparities in place within the current system in Britain.
If you are feeling the effects of COVID-19 and think we can support in some way, please feel free to email us on email@example.com.
Tasha Mathur is a volunteer at The Rights Collective. She is a London based freelance journalist and Picture Editor at Sky. She has written on a multitude of gender-based topics within the South Asian community and spoken on a number of panels about various issues faced by South Asian women today.
Avinash Virdee, a volunteer at The Rights Collective and currently working as an immigration paralegal at Mishcon De Reya, contributed research to the development of this article.