Contextualizing the United Kingdom’s High Coronavirus Mortality Rates among Muslims
According to new official data from the United Kingdom, the highest coronavirus mortality rates in England and Wales are among Muslims. Similar to their black compatriots who are 90 percent more likely to die from the disease than white ones, such recent findings arguably reflect pre-existing social inequities that inform daily realities. The Muslim community’s socioeconomic status, health issues, and living conditions help contextualize its high mortality rates amid a pandemic.
There are approximately 1.6 to 2.7 million Muslims in the United Kingdom and they comprise about 4.8 percent of the total population. One half are native Britons. While the country has long favored a policy of multiculturalism, public-opinion polling has revealed that approximately 75 percent of Britons view the Islamic faith as the most violent of religious traditions. About one-third view the religion as a threat to the British way of life and approximately half believe that Islam is incompatible with their values. Such public perceptions are important because they may manifest in quantifiable acts of anti-Muslim bias—such as workplace discrimination—that contribute to social inequities.
While the United Kingdom enjoys one of the fastest-growing developed economies, it has the third-highest income inequality in Europe, behind Spain and Greece. Every year from 2003 to 2017, white households were less likely to be in fuel poverty than those from ethnic and racial minority groups. Research has revealed that poverty rates vary dramatically among these groups: Bangladeshis (65 percent), Pakistanis (55 percent) and black Africans (45 percent) have the highest rates; Indians (25 percent), white Other (25 percent) and white British (20 percent) have the lowest rates. Moreover, more than half of British Muslims occupy the bottom 10 percent of the nation’s socio-economic strata.
In theory, British Muslims enjoy legal protections ensuring religious freedom in public life. The Equality Act of 2010 is the United Kingdom’s premier non-discrimination legislation that provides a legal framework to protect individual rights in a variety of contexts, including in places of public accommodation, employment, and education. It recognizes religion and/or belief as a characteristic deserving legal protection. In addition, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006 prohibits incitement of religious hatred. The law defines religious hatred as “hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief.” Alas, such legal protections have not always translated into fair treatment and equal opportunity for Muslims.
In practice, and even prior to the coronavirus crisis, the lived experiences of British Muslims have reflected a distinct reality that helps contextualize the government’s most recent coronavirus findings about disparate mortality rates. Indeed, British Muslims have long struggled with unemployment rates two to three times higher than the national average for women and men, respectively. According to a 2016 study, Muslims with the highest unemployment levels of all religious and ethnic groups in the United Kingdom. Additionally, Muslim women were found to be the most economically disadvantaged group and described as confronting a “triple penalty” due to their religion, ethnicity, and gender. Moreover, employed Muslims are commonly concentrated in the low-skill labor market (for example, taxi drivers, waiting staff, security guards, machine operatives) thus undermining socioeconomic advancement and integration.
This social and economic background facilitates an enhanced understanding of the Muslim coronavirus experience. Muslim Britons living in poverty are also more likely to live in overcrowded housing where social distancing is impracticable. Conversely, they are less likely to afford quality healthcare or avail themselves of medical attention when necessary. This may translate into an increased likelihood of preexisting health conditions and vulnerability to the coronavirus. Also, without access to quality healthcare, British Muslims may be unable to detect and/or treat the disease upon infection. Those employed in the low-skill labor market were presumably disproportionately impacted by shelter-in-place orders without an ability to work from home. Those not subject to layoffs may have experienced increased vulnerability to infection as essential workers.
Ultimately, these realities reveal a glaring gap between legal protections in theory versus what the British Muslim minority community enjoys in practice. Such unequal treatment contextualizes social inequities that may help explain why a tiny segment of the population suffers the highest mortality rates in England and Wales.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.