The Independent View: Overcrowded housing, BAME groups and COVID-19

As the COVID-19 era has progressed, more and more data has pointed towards a deeply harrowing truth – the virus is having a disproportionate impact on BAME groups. According to research from ICNARC, approximately one-third of the COVID-19 patients admitted to Intensive Care Units (ICUs) have been from BAME groups, despite the fact that just 14% of the UK population is BAME.

Added to this, black ethnic groups have experienced the highest diagnosis rates, and both black and Asian groups have experienced higher death rates than the white British majority. In order to understand this disparity, it is important to take a close look at one of the factors thought to play a part: overcrowded housing.

All minority ethnic groups are statistically more likely to live in overcrowded housing than the white British group. Taking the Bangladeshi ethnic group as an example, just short of 30% of households have more residents than rooms. For white British households, this figure stands at just 2%.

Overcrowded housing is of huge significance for two main reasons. Firstly, it dramatically increases the risk of COVID-19 transmission, as the virus can spread easily among those who live in close proximity to each other and share facilities such as bathrooms and kitchens. Secondly, it makes adhering to self-isolation guidelines essentially impossible, as a person cannot minimise their contact with others if their circumstances are such that they did not have enough personal space to begin with.

Taking this into account, it is likely not a coincidence that BAME groups are overrepresented in both overcrowded housing statistics and COVID-19 statistics. Rather, there is almost certainly a direct causal link between the two.

Overcrowded housing is far more common among those experiencing poverty, and the UK poverty rate for BAME groups is twice as high as it is for white groups. This is also not a coincidence; longstanding inequalities are thought to be a major cause of ethnic disparities in COVID-19 outcomes.

It is important to note that overcrowding is also common within some South Asian ethnic groups due to the cultural tradition of multigenerational households, whereby children live under the same roof as their parents and grandparents. Whilst this type of structure can have some health benefits, such as reduced social isolation, there is also a risk of socially active young people transmitting the virus to vulnerable older relatives.

The adverse health problems caused by overcrowded housing are well-established. As pointed out in the Marmot Review published in February of this year, cramped living conditions can cause respiratory disease and poor mental health/depression, both of which have been mentioned as risk factors among those already infected by COVID-19. This demonstrates the sheer threat that overcrowded housing poses- not only does it lead to an increased risk of transmission, it also leads to some of the health problems known to contribute towards more severe outcomes.

Unnecessary suffering can only be prevented when all people, regardless of income or ethnicity, have access to appropriate accommodation.



* Cameron Boyle is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration solicitors

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.


  • Peter Martin 3rd Jul '20 - 10:04am

    The other big question has to be about how well, if at all, Leicester’s sweatshops responded to calls to close down during recent weeks.

    There is always a reluctance among ‘liberal progressives’ to enforce the same rules when racial sensitivities are involved. In the end it does more harm to racial relations as we’ve seen when it has been the sexual behaviour of adult men which has been, in the end, exposed to public scrutiny.

  • John Marriott 3rd Jul '20 - 10:08am

    I am not disputing any of the evidence put forward by Mr Boyle; but has he ever wondered why so many non white workers at all levels have sadly succumbed to COVID-19 and why so many of them have not survived. I am not surprised that those working in the NHS, where the virus is clearly most concentrated are particularly at risk. However, I hardly think that a consultant, for example, would be hard up or living in overcrowded conditions.

    No, there has got to be another reason why BAME people and elderly people, besides those with underlying health conditions, are suffering disproportionately. Could it be a defective immune system? We are told that Vitamin D can boost our immune system and that this can be absorbed from sunlight. That’s why we tend to get more colds in winter. Also the heat is a factor, which may account for outbreaks of the virus in abattoirs and food processing plants recently.

    I have read somewhere that those with white skins absorb Vitamin D from sunlight better than those with brown or black skins. My wife and I have been playing safe for quite a while by taking Vitamin D tablets, especially as our ancient skins don’t appear to like too much sunlight any more.

    So, it may actually be that the sinister word ‘Race’ may be equally and possibly ultimately to blame for the discrepancy regarding deaths. I realise that this ‘diagnosis’ may not go down well with some; but it’s surely time to be honest with people. More honest research needs to be undertaken that find out if there is indeed a metabolic reason why some people, and I include all ethnicities here, are more at risk than others.

    Perhaps, in the meantime, in addition to searching for treatments and cures for this virus, or any other that might come along, we ought to be encouraging people to take a Vitamin D tablet every day. After all, the powers that be have seen fit to add fluoride to the water supply to combat childhood tooth decay – a very controversial decision some would say. However, it was in order for my mum to pick up her free bottle of orange juice after the war or for me and my fellow pupils at Nursery school to be given a daily spoonful of cod-liver oil (ugh! I still remember the taste to this day).

  • Sue Sutherland 4th Jul '20 - 1:43pm

    There is definitely a correlation between inadequate housing and ill health and the Covid pandemic is exacerbating this. I would have thought, though, that this would be experienced across all racial groups living in poor housing conditions. As you say Cameron this is one of the factors in this shocking situation. John Marriott mentions another which was discovered quite a few years ago now when the prevalence of rickets increased. Australians have also experienced an increase in rickets which was attributed to the use of sun block creams causing a vitamin D deficiency.
    I firmly believe you can’t have a decent life without a decent home so I hope the pandemic really does kick start a programme of house building, but so far I fear the money promised will do little to solve the problem.

  • Peter Martin 4th Jul '20 - 4:20pm

    “It has been reported by workers that many Leicester factories continued operating throughout the lockdown. The principal cause was sustained orders, primarily from the biggest brand sourcing from Leicester, Boohoo, which continued to operate and trade online. By the 22nd April, even before the lockdown on businesses reopening was lifted, factories were reportedly operating at 100% capacity. ”

    “We have also heard of workers – positive for COVID-19 – being required to work throughout their sickness in order to fulfil orders”

  • Peter Hirst 5th Jul '20 - 1:32pm

    We need a sea change in our attitude to property. We should be less attached to our physical surroundings so we are more likely to alter where we live as circumstances change. We also need more control over the sort of properties built so everyone can have a decent home to live in. Making money from your home interferes with building a fairer society.

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