For every athlete across every sport there will be a level of anxiety right now regarding a return to action post-lockdown. When will it be? What will it look like? Why, exactly, will it be taking place? But among those from black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds the sense of unease is likely to be especially acute given the way in which Covid-19 is ravaging their communities.
The numbers are stark. NHS England figures published last month showed that hospital deaths per 100,000 among British people of a black Caribbean background were three times the equivalent number in the white population, while analysis carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies soon after found the death rate among British black Africans and British Pakistanis in English hospitals to be more than 2.5 times that of the white population.
On Thursday the Office for National Statistics published a report which provided further evidence that people from ethnic groups are at a “significantly higher” risk of dying from coronavirus than people of white ethnicity – four times as high in the case of black people.
A range of variables are at play here, from health inequalities to socio-economic and cultural factors, but there remains shock and an overall lack of clarity as to why people from BAME backgrounds are being so disproportionately affected. The government has launched an inquiry while medics across the country – including at Birmingham NHS trust – are carrying out their own investigations. But there are no guarantees of findings, let alone solutions, and as such it is little wonder BAME athletes are worried about resuming the day job anytime soon.
This appears to be the case in football in particular, which is no surprise given how diverse the sport is in the UK – about a third of Premier League players are from a BAME background, with similar figures in the lower leagues. Emile Heskey spoke for at least some when he said last week that he would be “100% concerned” about returning to action were he still playing. “My grandad passed away two years ago and he had diabetes, high blood pressure,” the former Leicester, Liverpool and England forward, who is of Antiguan descent, said. “My eldest kids are sickle cell trait. Are they at risk as well? These are the problems we have.”
Jobi McAnuff is a BAME player who shares Heskey’s concerns. The Leyton Orient midfielder said: “You only have to look at the effect Covid-19 is having on black and ethnic minority groups – it’s quite shocking really. It’s most definitely a worry for football given the percentage of players from those backgrounds and it’s vital that before we get playing again the strongest safety measures are in place to ensure everyone involved doesn’t catch the virus.”
It can be argued that competitive sport – and football especially – will provide BAME athletes with a space that is safer than even their own homes. Testing will be stringent, medics will be on hand and, as such, they should not fear a return to action. There is sense in that way of thinking but, equally, it does not fully take into account those circumstances that are BAME-specific, or at least BAME-prevalent.
McAnuff, for instance, has been dropping off food at the home of his elderly Jamaican father while he self-isolates, which touches on the socio-economic aspect of the issue given his father lives in Tottenham – where the family grew up and he has remained through a desire for familiarity but which, like many parts of London with long-standing ethnic communities, is densely populated.
“For the first three or four weeks [of lockdown] I’d order food to my address and then go round and leave it on his doorstep,” McAnuff said. “I’ve got two sisters who have been helping out and while where my dad lives isn’t crowded – he’s not in a housing estate or anything like that – there are people around, so there has been that worry about contact. It’s a difficult situation.”
The British sprinter Asha Philip does not have to worry about dropping off food to family given most of them are living with her during lockdown. As the 29-year-old put it: “My mum, my brother, his girlfriend, their two kids and my sister and her child just turned up at my house and haven’t left.”
This has created an environment that is common within BAME communities – a sizeable number of people from various generations cohabiting under one roof, and which could therefore be deemed a concern in regards to the spread of infection. But Philip, who has won gold, silver and bronze medals across Olympic, world and European championships and Commonwealth Games, insists her home is safe.
“We’re all staying indoors and being very strict in regard to cleanliness – for instance, all our post is sprayed with Dettol as soon as it comes through the front door,” she said. “My mum does have diabetes but it’s a mild form and none of the rest of us have underlying health issues, so we’re OK on that front.”
Philip, who is of Antiguan and Jamaican descent, has no concerns as a BAME athlete about returning to competitive action. But because of her background she is worried about competing at the world indoor championships in Nanjing next March, having read about the treatment of black people in China following the spread of coronavirus.
Last month it was reported that a branch of McDonald’s in Guangzhou had banned black people from entering because of fears they were spreading Covid-19 – leading to an apology from the restaurant chain and a temporary closing of the premises – and that in the same city, hundreds of Africans had been evicted from hotels and apartments due to the same, unfounded fears.
“Hearing things like that is scary as a black person, especially given I’m meant to be going to China next year,” she said. “It’s a worry. Hopefully things will have changed massively by the time the worlds take place.”
There are a host of unknowns across the sporting landscape, especially in regards to which, if any, measures should be put in place to safeguard BAME athletes. The Guardian has contacted a number of governing and representative bodies regarding the matter, including the Football Association, UK Athletics, the Professional Cricketers’ Association and the Rugby League Players Association, and the message has essentially been the same – we are waiting on government and medical guidance.
But how long will that wait be – and will BAME athletes feel truly safe?