Lessons from the most challenging year of Londoners’ lives

This article is part of the Thrive Together series, exploring the key themes from Thrive LDN’s community insights.

Thrive Together: Racism

Everyone should have an equal right to good mental health. But they don’t. We believe this is fundamentally unfair.

COVID-19 has shone a harsh light on inequalities in society, exposing long-standing structural injustices with people from marginalised and disadvantaged communities hit hardest by the pandemic.

Since the pandemic began, research has shown that people of some ethnic backgrounds are at greater risk from coronavirus than others. Londoners from black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) communities have had a notably higher risk of infection than white Londoners. Previous data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggested black people have a fourfold higher risk of dying from COVID-19 than white people. They also influence our exposure and vulnerability to coronavirus infection, our ability to manage the consequences of the disease, and how the control measures affect us.

 There is no doubt that ethnic groups exposure and vulnerability to coronavirus has been influenced by demographic, geographical and socioeconomic factors. In other words, the ONS has highlighted where you live or the job you have puts you at greater risk rather than having a worse outcome when infected.

Evidence is growing that economic hardship and mental health issues arising from the pandemic are also disproportionately affecting people from these communities. London’s ethnic minority population varies across the capital, but the boroughs worst affected by COVID-19 – Brent, Newham and Haringey – are also some of London’s most diverse. Communities are coping with unusually high levels of loss and grief alongside the added financial and household pressures of the crisis.

It is worth noting that people’s identities, their experiences, are made up of different factors. People are not just their ethnicity, but are affected by other characteristics, such as their sexuality, gender, a disability, faith. Any of these can amplify discrimination and marginalisation.

COVID-19’s unequal impact has not only been on health. Low-paid workers are more likely to have seen a fall in their income and to be worried about their finances – and they are also far more likely to be women, young people, migrants, and people from BAME communities. Added to this black or Asian Londoners are overrepresented in sectors that were shut down by the pandemic.

It is therefore not surprising to hear that people from BAME communities have suffered a greater negative impact on their mental health during the pandemic. The latest UCL Covid-19 Social Study shows higher levels of anxiety and depression among black, Asian and ethnic minority people than white. Our community insights collected at the end of 2020 in particular highlighted the distress of black Londoners in response to devastating number of people in their communities who have died as a result of COVID-19.

Uncertainty for the future emerged as a strong area of concern from our community engagement. However, there was also a definite theme of hope. People highlighted the importance of family and the support offered by the wider community. Our findings show a clear relationship between coping with uncertainty and the power of relationships, of social networks and communities coming together. These are real strengths that need to be reinforced to protect Londoners’ mental health and build long-term resilience and wellbeing into the future.

Migrants Organise works with refugee families, asylum seekers, torture and human trafficking survivors, domestic migrant workers, and undocumented young people. Even before the COVID-19 crisis many were struggling with isolation, depression, post-traumatic stress, panic and anxiety – but the need for support is now even greater.

Community programme director, Francesca Valerio, told Thrive LDN:

“We work with people who really struggle and feel under-represented and really feel they don’t have a voice in our communities. They’re mainly migrants and refugees who are destitute, who might speak very little English, who experience difficult mental health symptoms and therefore they always feel marginalised. So for us it’s very important to give them a platform and an opportunity to talk, to be with each other, to feel connected and to feel supported.”

The organisation is using a Thrive LDN Right to Thrive grant to provide intensive support to 50 vulnerable refugees and migrants to make a positive difference to their mental health and quality of life. The project provides a variety of support, including mentoring and buddying, group activities such as English lessons and sewing, and specialist peer support for survivors of gender-based violence or trafficking.

“Being able to see people join activities, to connect to their communities, to be able to receive support and see their children going to school and accessing education is really, really important,” said Francesca. “That’s about thriving and having a voice in the community and in society.”

Kanlungan – Filipino for haven or sanctuary – is a registered charity bringing together several community-based organisations in the UK. Formed 25 years ago, its aim is to empower Filipino and other migrant communities from South East Asia, and advocate for their rights and welfare. During the pandemic, the charity has been at the forefront of helping vulnerable migrants, including providing food vouchers and mental health support.

“Filipinos are known as resilient people,” says Kanlungan’s Andrea Martinez. “We can thrive anywhere, we can survive everywhere, but given the strength of the pandemic, it tested our strength, it tested our resolve and our resilience.”

Kanlungan is using a Right to Thrive grant from Thrive LDN to develop and improve the positive coping skills, resilience and wellbeing of migrant women and LGBTQ+ people in precarious job conditions. The project grew out of work Kanlungan conducted in 2019 to improve people’s mental health. It aims to build the confidence and capacity of migrant communities to deal with stressors.

“Many of the migrant communities are actually the frontliners during the lockdown,” Andrea explains. “Many of them have suffered from anxiety, even trauma and isolation. Some have lost their loved ones, others have actually suffered through their mental health problems.

“So we still need organisations and people to help us through these problems. Thriving does not mean merely coping with our everyday stressors, it means our ability to bounce back, our ability to survive and our ability prosper from whatever adversities come our way.”

You vs You works with young people, from diverse backgrounds carrying out one-to-one mentoring, mental health workshops, personal and interpersonal development. A Thrive LDN Right to Thrive grant is enabling the organisation to teach mindfulness techniques to help them build their resilience and look after their wellbeing.

Founder and CEO Ahmed Mohammed said: “COVID-19 actually impacted on the community that we work with because we work with young refugees and asylum seekers in Haringey. Understand that in the majority of these young people, English is not their first language. Sometimes they struggle with the government guidelines as well and also some of them are actually anxious around their refugee status or their leave to remain status. They are always anxious about it because they don’t know what’s in store in terms of their future.”

Participants take part in three mindfulness sessions and an inspirational workshop. As Ahmed explains, the idea is “to show them that there are things that they can do to help them to either be of a positive mindset or even be able to make that phone call to seek professional help.”

Ahmed was inspired to start You vs You by his own personal journey:

“I came to the country as an unaccompanied asylum seeker at the age of 14. I’ve been through the care system, the asylum process. I was very fortunate to have good people and good social workers around me that helped me to get to where I am today. Society would have projected someone like myself to either be in jail or doing drugs or not be on the positive side of life, but fortunately I’m here today, giving back to my community and supporting young people.”

Ahmed believes that helping young people will help the community to thrive, and create a better society: “The majority of our young people, there are so many anxieties around them, but if they are to thrive, just like with the help that was given to me growing up for me to be able to be where I am today, it’s the reason I’m doing what I’m doing to help other young people which means they will be able to pursue their dreams, go through education and become a better citizen which will improve our society.”

Overall, the pandemic is having a devastating impact on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. COVID-19 has exacerbated existing inequalities. Londoners with lived experiences of marginalisation and social disadvantage, who were already experiencing poorer social, economic and health outcomes, have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic.

These powerful accounts are just a few which highlight the experiences and voices of communities who experience structural inequalities and historic racism. These issues are a root cause affecting health and the risk of both exposure to the virus and becoming seriously ill.

Yet, they also tell a positive story of community-led activities to improve understanding, build trust and develop solutions that are meaningful and impactful for black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. We are currently expanding our Right to Thrive programme to offer additional support, training and development opportunities to grassroots groups and take further action to advance equality. This will allow us to work with grassroots groups, like Migrants Organise, Kanlungan and You vs You, ensuring that COVID-19 transition and recovery strategies actively look to tackle the inequalities which exist in our society.