UK: South Asians at higher risk of Covid-19 infection, death; here's why

Several doctors and nurses of sub-continental origin were among those who died after being infected while working in hospitals

Reuters file
Reuters file

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Fri 3 Dec 2021, 3:05 PM

The presence of co-morbidities and a gene responsible for doubling the risk of respiratory failure are among key reasons why people of South Asian origin were disproportionately affected and died after being infected with Covid-19, a major UK government report released on Friday said.

Early in the pandemic, experts and medical professionals had identified that sections of the ethnic minority population were at increased risk.

Several doctors and nurses of sub-continental origin were among those who died after being infected while working in hospitals.

The report, which addressed Covid-19 health inequalities, identifies three reasons for the south Asian community being more vulnerable than the white community:


Particularly for those in public-facing frontline roles, such as National Health Service workers, living with children in multi-generational households, and living in densely-populated urban areas with poor air quality and higher levels of deprivation.


Once a person is infected, factors such as older age, male sex, having a disability or a pre-existing health condition (such as diabetes) are likely to increase the risk of dying from Covid-19.


While ethnicity itself was not thought to be a risk factor, recent research by Oxford University identified the gene responsible for doubling the risk of respiratory failure from Covid-19, carried by 61% of people with South Asian ancestry – this goes some way to explaining the higher death rates and hospitalisations in that group, the report says.

In the second wave of the pandemic, the risk of dying from Covid-19 was much higher for the Bangladeshi and Pakistani ethnic groups, the report says. In response, the government introduced measures designed to protect those from South Asian groups.

“This included guidance on preventing household transmission, which was particularly important given the higher percentage of people from the Bangladeshi and Pakistani ethnic groups living in multi-generational homes, and measures to protect taxi drivers, over half of whom are from an ethnic minority background," the report says.

The most significant measure to protect South Asians ethnic and other minorities from the risk of infection and to save lives has been the vaccination programme, which involved several measures to build trust with the communities and innovative interventions.

These included using around 50 places of worship as vaccination centres, with many more acting as pop-up venues; taking the vaccines into the hearts of local communities through initiatives such as vaccination buses and taxis; and reacting quickly to lower vaccine uptake rates within particular ethnic groups with targeted campaigns to address vaccine concerns and promote uptake, linking in with key religious festivals such as Easter and Ramadan.

Officials also worked with trusted voices such as faith leaders and prominent ethnic minority celebrities and influencers to build trust and encourage vaccination uptake.


They also tackled vaccine misinformation through myth-busting content and targeted approaches on social media channels, such as clarifying concerns around vaccine ingredients (which was important on religious grounds) and perceived links to fertility and pregnancy.

Minister for Equalities Kemi Badenoch said: “Our understanding of how Covid-19 affects different ethnic groups has transformed since the pandemic began. We know now that factors like the job someone does, where they live, and how many people they live with, impacts how susceptible they are to the virus and it’s imperative that those more at risk get their booster vaccine or their first and second dose if they are yet to have them."

She added: “This work is not over. We still need everyone to get vaccinated to protect ourselves, our families, and our society. By accepting the recommendations of my reports, the Government has committed to learning and applying important lessons from this pandemic across public health to ensure everyone, of every background lives a longer, healthier and happier life.”

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