Kamrul Islam doesn’t dare visit his local supermarket. Over the last few weeks, he said three of his closest friends fell ill with the coronavirus shortly after shopping there. One friend’s mother became seriously unwell after contracting the virus and sadly died.
The 40-year-old former cab driver says a day doesn’t go by when he isn’t aware of a death or infection of someone he knows. While the coronavirus has spread widely across the UK, the pandemic has taken a huge toll on the area where Islam lives, the east London borough of Newham, which has recorded the worst mortality rate in England and Wales.
The borough’s rate – 144.3 deaths per 100,000 people – is closely followed by Brent in north London (141.5), and Newham’s neighbour Hackney (127.4), according to figures published by the Office for National Statistics. The data confirms what Islam has suspected all along: people living in the poorest parts of the country are dying from Covid-19 at a much higher rate than those in the richest.
On Islam’s road and neighbouring street, 22 people have died after contracting coronavirus. “Every day I get a message from someone in my community telling me of people who have died. They are young and old. It’s been really tough,” Islam said. His wife, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “You hear sad stories of people dying and no one was with them. It does affect people mentally.”
A closed corner shop in Newham. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi/The Guardian
The deaths from the coronavirus include Betty and Ken Hill, who were together for more than 40 years and died hours apart; Dr Yusuf Patel, who was the fifth GP to succumb to the virus in the UK; “exceptional” secondary school English teacher Dr Louisa Rajakumari; and Abdul Karim Sheikh, the former ceremonial mayor who founded one of the first mosques in the area.
The pandemic comes nearly a decade after the area hosted the 2012 Olympic Games, and has become a stark reminder that the better jobs, housing and quality of life that were promised have failed to materialise. Though parts of the borough have undergone regeneration and housing prices have rocketed, the legacy of the games wasn’t felt by all.
Rokhsana Fiaz, who was elected mayor of Newham nearly two years ago, said: “I’ve grown up in the borough and lived here all my life. Like many of my friends, the opportunities that were promised with regards to the Olympics weren’t necessarily felt by me or my peer group. There’s a real sense of haves and have nots in the community. My promise has been we’re going to reverse that because everyone in Newham needs to have a stake.”
The borough’s deprivation and diversity makes it particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. More than half of children live in poverty, while the rate of households in temporary accommodation is one of the highest in England. A study commissioned by the council found that up to 36,000 people are not paid the legally required national minimum wage.
Newham has the most diverse population profile of any local authority in the country. Some 78% of residents are from ethnic minority communities, which has been reported as a risk factor for the coronavirus. Many live in intergenerational households and there are longstanding health inequalities.
Tahir Mirza, chair of East Ham Labour party. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi/The Guardian
Tahir Mirza, Newham resident and chair of the local Labour party in East Ham, described the deaths in his area as “truly shocking” and called for more efforts for people in the community to get guidelines on social distancing in their own language. He said many didn’t speak English and were simply unaware of the dangers they faced. The consequences of failing to reach these people will be dire, he said: “People will continue to die otherwise.”
Dr Zubaida Haque, deputy director of the Runnymede Trust, said areas like Newham show the discussion about PPE and testing needs to go much further than just the NHS. Key workers, from taxi drivers and care workers to grocery shop owners, who are disproportionately from a BAME background, also require protective equipment. “BAME key workers aren’t just NHS staff. We need to start asking whether they are getting proper PPE equipment. Are they being protected? Are they being tested? Is that infrastructure there?”
Peter Raison, a 58-year-old train driver for Transport for London who lives across the road from Islam, is also not surprised by the high level of mortality. Many like him on their street have to go to work and even he isn’t being provided with PPE. He is upset that there are people still failing to socially distance as the death tolls increase. “People are just assuming it’s not going to happen to me.”