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