Study: East London’s Somali families hit hard by COVID-19

LONDON, UK (Caasimada Online) – A new study has revealed that Somali families residing in East London experienced “acutely high” infection and mortality rates throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The research attributes these heightened figures to a late lockdown and a “community-insensitive” public health approach that exacerbated the community’s vulnerability during the first wave of the pandemic in March 2020.  

Furthermore, the persistence of elevated illness rates was fueled by the “legacy of historical poverty, housing density, and institutional racism.” 

Ethnic minority disparities  

Ethnic minority communities in London, including the Somali population, suffered disproportionate fatalities during the pandemic.  

As a result, campaigners have urged authorities to place race at the forefront of the official Covid inquiry.  

The study was conducted by Dr. Farah Bede, a Somali general practitioner in East London, and Prof. Joanna Lewis, a history professor at the London School of Economics (LSE).  

Their objective was to create a “snapshot” of how the pandemic unfolded in the Somali community in the borough of Tower Hamlets. 

The researchers gathered data from anonymized primary care patient records, in-depth interviews with residents, general practitioner testimony, and feedback from preliminary findings given by a group of 100 local council health workers in the area. 

The study revealed that Somali men, particularly those employed as Uber drivers, hospital porters, and street cleaners, were initially the hardest hit by the virus. 

Experiences of illness and loss 

Mohammed, a taxi driver in his fifties, contracted the virus in early April. He lamented the lack of community testing then, which could have prevented further spread to his family. 

Muna, a community leader, reported that during the pandemic’s peak, “there were five deaths a day of people known to us… We know families that got wiped out.”

The high hospitalization rates among men led the wider local community to delay reporting symptoms or severe breathing problems due to “a massive fear of going to hospitals and dying alone.” 

Limited English proficiency exacerbated the situation, as patients struggled to seek treatment without assistance from children, friends, or neighbors. 

The study found that over half of the respondents faced difficulties dealing with receptionists at general practitioner surgeries and experienced a perceived lack of “Somali-focused community health initiatives.” 

Socioeconomic factors  

The research highlighted the influence of “fragile incomes” on community members who continued working in frontline jobs during the lockdown, despite the risk of infection. These roles became a “vector of transmission.”  

Zamzam, an interviewee, shared her experience working as a carer for elderly Covid-19 patients discharged from the hospital without proper testing to confirm they were no longer contagious. 

Additionally, the study emphasized the role of “poor housing and overcrowding” in East London as factors that increased virus transmission.  

The authors noted that a “disproportionate number of deaths from Covid-19 in BAME communities can be partly explained by the conditions in which people live,” suggesting further research into the intersection of multi-generational living and overcrowded accommodation in perpetuating health inequity.

The report criticized the government’s inconsistent public health messaging and communication with patients, leading to a “lack of trust.”  

The authors highlighted the interlinked nature of vulnerability to Covid-19, mental health, and economic inequity, which affected employment opportunities and well-being for individuals in the community. 

Recommendations for the future

In conclusion, the authors described the impact of Covid-19 on the Somali community as a “perfect storm” that “severely tested and sometimes shattered their coping mechanisms and halted the masking of their underlying precarious health.”  

They observed that high infection and death rates persisted due to the “intersection of historical socioeconomic and health inequalities that include racism.” 

The researchers called for more trained Somali health experts, community-sensitive data collection, and a more significant number of local networks to help reduce inequalities.  

They also emphasized the need for a “culturally sensitive” approach to bolster “future resilience” for the Somali community.