The British media both traditional and new are ablaze with headlines expressing shame, shock and horror; shame that Britain has failed to protect its citizens; shock that this could happen in a progressive, forward looking and developed society; and horror that those protecting the public, including frontline healthcare workers, are more likely to die due to coronavirus if they aren t white.
There are many factors which are being examined by the media which try to explain this disparity. These include a higher prevalence of diabetes or heart disease, socioeconomic differences or the fact that ethnic minorities are more likely to have a frontline? job. There is certainly evidence to suggest that the problem is multifactorial and that these are factors which have negatively impacted non-white communities over the last few months.
Despite the media's despair on behalf of non-white British citizens, the same media houses continue to engage in outdated and often arrogant colonial tropes when reporting how poorer nations are tackling the coronavirus pandemic. There is a huge amount of duplicity in how the British media reports events in other parts of the world compared to domestically. Although media organisations are not homogenous entities, many have editorial values and standards which supposedly apply to all content produced by that media outlet, regardless of geography and language.
PPE is a non-issue issue in India
In early April, a cartoon (pictured) tweeted by BBC News Hindi depicted a poor Indian father missing parts of his clothes so that his son and him could wear homemade cloth masks. The caption in Hindi translates to, In many cities, wearing a mask is a luxury. This was after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi publicly endorsed a campaign urging Indians to wear a mask, homemade if necessary.
Whilst it is an undeniable fact that a higher proportion of India's population suffer from extreme poverty, the tweet was criticised by many in India. Some critics described the BBC as white supremacist? and the tweet as a sign of colonial hangover?. Amrita Bhinder, a lawyer and author replied to the tweet, Your view of India, reeks of racism, since masks availability is a non-issue here. Not only are they widely available for just Rs.10 at every chemist but folks are pretty proficient in tailoring them at home for supplying to others too.
Mohandas Pai, the Chairman of the Manipal Global Education and former director of Infosys tweeted, These are mocking and making fun of poor people! Is this what BBC World is all about? A vulgar, racist, white supremacist bigoted media?
Now, one month on, the irony is clear. The UK is currently still facing a shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and, as of early May, the British government have finally, and reluctantly, advised the public to wear masks in enclosed spaces. The UK government website even has a page instructing us on how to make a homemade mask out of a t-shirt.
Britain's systemic racism
This small example of a negative media trope is not an isolated incident. For decades, a wide variety of institutions in the West have been criticised for policies of neo-colonialism and systematic racism. In April 2020, prominent doctors in France suggested that coronavirus vaccine trials ought to take place in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatments, no resuscitation. Astonishingly, the comment was made during a national French television debate. This sparked indignation from former footballer Didier Drogba, who condemned the comments as racist. He added, Do not take African people as human guinea pigs! It's absolutely disgusting.
Closer to home, the infamous Francis Report published in 2015 looked at the openness of the reporting system in the NHS. In this report, BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] staff were described as a vulnerable group who are disproportionately more likely to suffer victimisation when raising concerns. In 2018, the first non-white chair of the NHS, Chaand Nagpaul, described a 'subconscious bias? that had potentially prevented non-white doctors from reaching higher posts.
Before curry and carnival
One of the biggest root causes of these disparities is swept under the carpet the deeply entrenched post-colonial racial hierarchy which is ingrained in British history and affects British society. Often, media houses have openly engaged in what is arguably historical denialism, to present Britain as an intrinsically multicultural and tolerant concept. A BBC animation about immigration claimed that, Britain was multicultural long before curry and carnival? and completely ignored the notion that Empire could have drastically affected the modern British worldview. Our Anglo-centric school textbooks still softly justify the British Empire by suggesting that the creation of railroads, courts of law and other forms of modernisation? have benefited nations which Britain left. Letting bygones be bygones, our current socio-political environment illustrates that black and brown people are still seen as expendable in the West.
The British education system needs to be open about identity and explore the concept of race in the context of colonialism with children. The media need to be held to account on editorial standards by engaging with ethnic minority groups to ensure that content accurately depicts all accounts of history. Furthermore, grassroots ethnic minority media houses must be nurtured so that age-old institutions such as the BBC can be held challenged and held accountable from the outside. It is time we change this by pulling off the curtains from Britain's past glories and showcasing the parts of history which have been whitewashed for decades.
I am not advocating that the British establishment has to be apologetic about the past, but at least honest.
Dr Arjun Varma is a dentist and filmmaker from London, with a keen interest in diaspora politics and writing.