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By The Revd Dr Alfred Banya

Around the second week in May this year, I got a surprise offer from the producer of a Sunday Radio 4 religious and ethical programme, to be part of a discussion with Robert Beckford, Professor of Theology at the Queen’s Ecumenical Foundation in Birmingham.

I was intrigued  to find out why it was myself rather than a renowned theologian or ethicist who was asked. It turned out that the producer had seen an article in The Tablet  (7th May 2020) about my letter to the Catholic Association for Racial Justice (CARJ) regarding my experience of the devastating effect of COVID-19 on patients and their relatives. As a hospital chaplain, two weeks into the COVID-19 cases coming into our hospital, I noticed being called to support more and more young BAME patients. In subsequent weeks, reports started appearing in the press (eg The Guardian, 22nd April 2020) about disproportionately high numbers of BAME people dying from COVID-19.  As a Christian and a permanent deacon in the Catholic Church, I felt the Radio 4 invitation provided good opportunity for me to speak out on this grave matter of inequality.

As a background, the Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons (n.9) describes the ministry of the deacon as a call to proclaim the scriptures, teach the people, administer some of the sacraments, and help the disadvantaged and those in need. Furthermore, the Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons (p 102) explains the deacon’s ministry of charity as that of ‘promoting life in all its phases and transforming the world according to the Christian order’. All these are predicated on the premise of respecting the dignity of the human person - a central aspect of the social teaching of the Church. As I reflected on this, it became clear to me that the BAME people’s experience of a disproportionate impact from COVID-19 was not just a disadvantage but an infringement on their human dignity because of the lack of any clear mitigating action being undertaken.

The broadcast of the Radio 4 programme was a heavily edited version of an interview in which I was asked what is behind this disproportionate impact. In my view, multiple factors, including biological, social, educational, employment and environmental may be at play and these  needed to be understood. My fellow discussant, Professor Beckford however argued that it was social factors that were the main cause, and in his view, focusing on biological factors was racist because it deflected the blame on to the BAME people themselves. He further argued that priests were ill trained to challenge such racism and equally the churches were not doing enough.

Whilst I agree that the churches and clergy could do more in practice, this does not justify underplaying any biological factors that might be at play. Emerging evidence lately being reported in the press appear to suggest that, even when factor e.g. health status, deprivation, age are accounted for, the impact of COVID-19 is still greater on BAME people than white people. The discrimination is related to how biological factors are mitigated (or not) by those with responsibility to do so. The scandal of unavailability of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) compounded by a history of institutional discrimination which often prevents BAME staff from complaining, points towards a failure to protect not only all frontline staff but particularly this more vulnerable group. A black doctor recently pointed out to me the NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard 2019 data which show that the percentage of BAME staff in NHS trusts in England personally experiencing discrimination at work from a manager/team leader or other colleagues was 15.3% (compared to 6.4% for white staff). Such BAME staff are less likely to complain to their managers about lack of PPE/unsafe working conditions than their white counterparts.

In supporting the BAME healthworkers who have often been rendered voiceless, I would argue that an approach informed by the doctrine of Preferential Option for the Poor (i.e. listening to and supporting the marginalised, and showing solidarity and responsibility for one another) could help. As explained in Lumen Gentium (n.80), this is about seeing the face of Christ in the face of those who suffer, and responding by showing them love.  Pope Francis has echoed this in his Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (n.199) saying, ‘Without the preferential option for the poor, the proclamation of the Gospel, which is itself the prime form of charity, risks being misunderstood’.

Arguably, much still needs to be done in translating the social teaching of the Church into action. Those in pastoral ministry must be more active in raising with politicians, policy makers, and managers, those issues that impact on their flock.  In my previous chaplaincy role I chaired the BAME Steering Group and represented it on the Equality and Diversity Committee that fed issues up to the hospital Executive Board. In my present Lead Chaplain role, I have ensured that the Chaplaincy  is represented on the BAME Network and used this forum to raise the COVID-19 impact issue with the hospital.

The Preferential Option for the poor correctly emphasises the importance of listening to the marginalised. Similarly health promotion and community development approaches to health improvement value participation of the affected in identifying their health needs and helping develop solutions. The Public Health England review on COVID-19 impact on BAME  is expected to report at the end of May 2020, but may lack direct input from the affected BAME community. Perhaps the period following the report provides an opportunity for the Church, faith groups, and theological institutions to help galvanise the BAME community so that their presently ‘voiceless voices’ can begin to be heard.