The #YouClapForMeNow campaign emerged following a video in which key workers from immigrant backgrounds recited a poem, targeting an audience who demonstrate anti-immigrant sentiments. A hashtag using the poem’s title has now come to symbolise a powerful online wave, which is thanking the ethnically diverse community of key workers. With the streets of Britain filled with clapping every Thursday evening to celebrate the efforts of a multicultural NHS, this video urged those clapping to not forget this nationwide diversity in a post-coronavirus Britain.
The poem in the video aims to break down identity-based divides and appreciate immigrant workers. Nevertheless, the importance given to solidarity is convoluted by the repeated reference to antagonising differences. Constructed around the binary of ‘you’ and ‘me’, a hashtag for solidarity became one bound up in a separating logic, exacerbating the issue of ethnic differentiation. Yet perhaps it is this awareness of systemic, racial segregation that gives the poem its power. By consciously critiquing a historically divisive rhetoric, it demands an acknowledgement and re-articulation of anti-immigrant sentiments, hinting towards an inclusive future beyond reductive identity-based divides.
A multicultural society must recognise ethnic minorities’ contributions towards collective, socio-economic progress. In the recently published Research and Development Roadmap Policy paper, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Alok Sharma writes that “we want to send a powerful signal to talented people around the world: come to the UK, be part of this exciting new future”. Society must recognise that this ‘future’ relies upon diverse talent.
With visa regulations favouring ‘skilled’ workers and graduate routes favouring those attaining higher education, many ethnic minorities – especially key workers – are slipping through the net. In spite of the increasing demand for workers, ethnically diverse workers who might not technically qualify as high-skilled are notably underrepresented. For the UK to truly build a brighter future for all, society must move to displace the deep-rooted perception that ethnic minorities are taking jobs, and instead value their present resilience and courage. Yet, as we remember the efforts of immigrant workers in a post-COVID-19 society, these efforts should not constitute their place in a UK allegedly ‘for all’; a place where inclusivity must not be contingent on tangible contributions.
Frequent circulations of the phrase ‘COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate’ has perhaps only exposed and exacerbated the societal structures that do. As the global crisis intensified, the conversation shifted to its disproportionate impact on certain domestic demographics. Belly Mujinga, a key worker for TfL, suffered a racially motivated attack when she was spat on by a man claiming to have COVID-19. A few days later, Mujinga tested positive, dying after two weeks. In spite of her respiratory problems, she was expected to resume work on the concourse as usual, where she was not supplied with personal protective equipment (PPE). Alongside the attack, Mujinga’s deprivation of PPE reflects the systemic, discriminatory treatment of many ethnic minority workers. her death represents the ultimate outcome of a societal injustice where socio-economic structures are both a causal and enabling factor.
As racial prejudices often impact the quality of life of individuals and communities, we must be able to trace the racially divisive foundations on which these are built. To envision a post-COVID-19 UK that intrinsically appreciates and celebrates ethnic diversity, policy makers must deconstruct the umbrella of racism when examining the correlation of socio-economic divides with ethnicity. We know that 63% of healthcare workers who died due to COVID-19 were from a BAME background, prompting researchers to investigate why ethnic minorities are overwhelmingly vulnerable. As Judith Butler has asserted, “the virus alone does not discriminate, but we humans surely do”.
Socio-economic inequality has isolated minorities in their particular battles with the pandemic. Due to existing social and economic factors, COVID-19 is worsening inequality in a society already laced with, and built upon, structures that discriminate. Amidst a pandemic encouraging an increasingly global consciousness, society and governing structures must assume this mindset in the UK as well. To normalise diversity, we must act upon the reality of racial disparities exposed by COVID-19, epitomised by the binary of ‘you’ and ‘me’; a binary that reflects the prevailing treatment of ethnic minorities. A future that is able to break-down identity divides must celebrate the claps that are fuelling national efforts to investigate ethnic inequality, proposing a future consciousness that seeks to overcome racial divisions and is built on present hopes for a more inclusive society.
Mahi Shah studies German and Spanish at the University of Cambridge.