‘Coronavirus has exposed the inequality BAME families face’

Sejal Sehmi
Photo credit: Sejal Sehmi

From Red Online

When I was reading about the coronavirus pandemic, the mass burials and the overstretched medical resources, I never imagined that close friends of mine would soon be contributing to the rapidly increasing daily death rate.

While I once believed that race, caste, colour or gender were irrelevant to the virus, it soon became clear, both via my own experience and others, that we were at a higher risk. A recent review by Public Health England found that Bangladeshi communities were 50 per cent more likely to die from COVID-19, in comparison to those of White British origin. Chinese, South Asian, Caribbean and other Black ethnic groups were at a 10 to 50 per cent higher risk of death in comparison to their White British counterparts. These numbers amplified my fear for my loved ones. Despite the unity and cohesion that ethnic minority families like my own pride ourselves on, we still could not shield those we loved from falling prey to this illness.

Amongst the whirlwind emotions of anger, loss, and frustration of the passing of our friends, we also had to accept that those who departed did so alone, taking their last breath without the presence of family, in order to keep their loved ones from suffering the same fate. I soon realised as a woman living alone that grief during the lockdown period brought a rollercoaster of emotions, many of which were, and still are, impossible to fathom.

At the crux of the pandemic, “stay at home” became the official mantra to adhere to – and rightly so. Yet with the reality of how close to home coronavirus really was now, I was forced to find solace in the confinement of my four walls, which became the only witness to my uncontrollable tears. The value of a loving touch or reassuring hug from family and friends had elevated, particularly from my mother who had also lost a close friend to the disease and was dealing with her own grief.

Fortunate enough to still be working from home, the ability to disconnect from my grief, be it momentarily, became somewhat of a routine as I scrambled to fill my 9-5 hours excessively. And yet between the plethora of emails, virtual meetings, and my daily exercise ritual, I was still left with those dreaded moments of silence and nothingness. Without the usual company of work colleagues or family and friends, with no other outlet to express the void, lingering memories in the form of photos and old voice messages constantly triggered overwhelming grief. It was, and still is on some days, a toxic cycle.

Where geographically possible, visiting the family of the deceased to pay homage and respect, and even attending the last rites, was now strictly limited to a handful of close family members in order to protect the remaining public. Yet the nagging feeling of guilt was sometimes hard to shake off, knowing I was in such close proximity but still helpless in what I could offer besides my attempt at comforting words, and hoping that would be sufficient. It probed the question in my mind: are we really able to let go? If we haven’t followed a methodical approach to support those who lost loved ones or to ease our own pain, have we done our bit, or is our grief momentarily on hold until we find a way to say goodbye?

There’s no denying that technology has been a blessing in lockdown, bringing us closer together in even the most difficult of times. Virtual meeting rooms, such as Zoom, have been useful beyond just work meetings and Friday night trivia. Suddenly, I was one of more than 100 mourners around the world reminiscing over fond memories of friends who had left us. Stories of joy, precious photos and songs were circulated in different time zones as we found comfort in each other’s words. Will this method of virtual mass grievance become the new norm once lockdown is over?

As difficult as it has been for my mother and I to comfort each other apart in isolation, in our own ways, we have found solace in the legacy that has been left behind. We’ve watched young shoulders take on a huge responsibility of ensuring their fathers are laid to rest in peace. We’ve listened in awe at the younger generation assuring and comforting others that this was God’s will, reminding us to keep safe and look out for each other whilst still keeping us digitally involved – a language they know best. Watching a funeral online wasn’t something I thought I would ever witness, but the gratitude of being a part of that final journey will always remain. I felt assurance that the one I loved was still there in spirit in his children. Maybe, amongst this chaos, there is still hope of a better tomorrow.

Last updated: 22-06-2020

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