How to talk about health and diversity with ethnic minorities

16 Dec 2021 | Research & Business Knowledge

ICG member Anumita Sharma discusses recent media speculation about the causes of the greater impact of Covid on ethnic minority communities and talks through changes we can make so that people from ethnic minorities feel included and not the ‘other’.

The economic, social and health fragility of the nation, and particularly ethnic minorities, has been amplified by the shock of Covid. In early 2020, it was evident that people of ethnic minority heritage were being disproportionately impacted by Covid. Some in the media blamed this on their genetics and lifestyle – factors like obesity, higher proportion of diabetes, overcrowded households, and lack of social distancing.

Members of the ethnic minority community who participated in the research conducted for Genomics England in 2020 clearly stated they felt they were being unfairly targeted. They suggested that instead of racial castigation, the media needs to report the socio-economic factors which have led to this frightening statistic. What needs to be highlighted is the fact that many ethnic minorities have been at the forefront during the lockdowns. They were the people who were delivering essential services like NHS, transport, care sector and delivery services to the nation, while the rest of the nation was isolating.

The participants, who were all from various ethnic minority groups, also suggested the media needs to better understand their lifestyle choice. Many people look after their elderly relatives at home and don’t send them to care homes, so obviously, there are multigenerational households. 

While a number acknowledged they could lead a healthier lifestyle – in particular taking more exercise and eating healthier food – being in low paid jobs with long hours made it difficult to do so.

Given the unfairness of the media rhetoric and the actual number of ethnic minority Covid deaths, the BLM (Black Lives Matter) uprising was no surprise. The systemic issues of racism led to the simmering undercurrent to bubble over in the summer of 2020. George Floyd’s death just fanned the flames of burning injustice.

With this in the background, the conversations about health and social welfare that I have had with people who are of an ethnic minority and the less fortunate, have changed since Covid. They are less reticent and are not holding back on expressing their frustration at the state of their lives. And they are more involved now in wanting to make the changes to better their own lives.

Black History Month is the right time to focus on inclusion and diversity, but not the only time. Inclusion, improving lives and health is not a monthly matter – nor is it about token photo-ops of diversity on leaflets. It’s about a deeper change in attitude and behaviour which focuses on the removal of cognitive biases which have a pervasive influence on the choices people make.

If a nation-state considers some of its own as the ‘other,’ they are not looked after and are allowed to suffer. The attitude that an organisation has reflects on its service offer. The ultimate aim of any diverse and inclusive organisation would be that no one is looked at as the ‘other’ or made to feel like the ‘other’ but as a part of the whole. However, we have a long way to go before this happens.

So how do we talk to people from ethnic minorities about what changes they want, to feel included and not the ‘other’?

  • If organisations are making decisions about a service offer which is available to everyone, they need to make sure they have some staff (or advisors) who are Black African, or Minority Ethnic in heritage, so they understand the issues which they face. I think commercial companies should realise that if they don’t serve everyone’s requirements, there will not be a successful market for them anyway. If they have diversity in their staff or advisers, they would be able to produce / deliver a service which is right for all. 
  • Therefore, commercial organisations which serve the nation should include everyone (including ethnic minorities) in the sample and communication. There is no need to add ethnic minorities as an afterthought or a ‘box ticking’ exercise. They should be naturally included in all research samples. 
  • In the health sector, there is a sensitivity about feeling targeted. Recently, I have seen many a debate in the research community about whether we can include ethnicity questions for recruitment. In my opinion, this needs to be done judiciously and sensitively as not all research questionnaires and screeners need ethnicity questions. In qualitative research, a recruiter should have a representative ethnic mix in regular groups anyway. However, if the service / product offer is for people of specific ethnicity, then ethnicity questions are required and need to be asked with an explanation, with honesty and with no hidden agenda. 

If there is a service targeted specifically at ethnic minorities, then make sure it is done without making them feel the ‘other.’ Also, the service communication should not make them a racial target of other members of the public.

  • When talking to minority communities, try to understand the context of their lives. Their life influences would be more than those coming from the UK and include input from many countries around the globe. Thus, it would be important to understand what these influences are, how strong they are and why they still play a role in their lives in the UK. 
  • Communication with first generation needs to be tailored to their level of understanding of English, without patronising or oversimplification, if required.

However, many first and second-generation immigrants understand mainstream communication perfectly. Again, given their specific experiences and influences, the interpretation of some communication could be different. After all, we understand things from our own perspective. Thus, if any product or service offer has the potential to be misinterpreted, it is best to check with them.

Today the ethnic minorities are feeling fragile and are often pushed to stand up for themselves at the same time. Any communication to the hard-working workers and citizens of this nation needs to recognise their contribution. 

The future is for all citizens including those who are still the ‘other’. Post Covid the whole nation needs to heal ‘together’ and move forward.

Anumita is an international brand and market development market researcher. She works extensively with the ethnic minority community in the UK. Through this Covid period she has been working on Covid and the impact on the general public and ethnic minorities. She also works on a public sector diversity recruitment initiative.

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