The mayor of London has warned that the government’s “inadvisable” culture war is stoking divisions which is fuelling Covid vaccine hesitancy in Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.
Sadiq Khan has been campaigning to increase vaccine take-up in London including across BAME communities, with one study suggesting white people were almost twice as likely to have the jab as Black people in the first four priority groups.
However, for many non-white people vaccine hesitancy is rooted in a fundamental mistrust of power – something that has been exacerbated by the Conservative government.
Speaking to HuffPost UK, Khan said: “What the government’s got to realise is that some of its actions have consequences. It’s not possible for you to, on a regular basis, have policies that create a hostile environment, use language that denigrates people because of the colour of their skin or religion – then later on ask them to trust you.
“Members of the government are engineering a culture war because it plays well to their hinterland. It’s inadvisable. We should be trying to bring people together rather than amplify differences that we have.
“It’s really important that the government realises that they don’t have trust and credibility in some communities. One of the reasons why there’s so much hesitancy among people of colour is because of the lack of confidence in people in positions of influence – and that’s not helped by the culture war.”
The mayor also gave ministers credit for “asking other people who are respected message carriers to persuade people that the vaccine is important”.
In recent weeks, the so-called “war on woke” has seen right-wing media platforms running opinion pieces taking aim at marginalised communities and government ministers attacking progressive agendas. During an LBC appearance last week Priti Patel labelled Black Lives Matter protesting as “dreadful” and accused Khan of prioritising renaming colonial statues over saving lives.
“Woke” is an ebonics (African American English) slang term that means being alert to injustice.
But the term has been weaponised by some on the right, reducing struggles for equality to their symbols (toppling statues, renaming streets and using people’s chosen pronouns) instead of recognising them as part of more fundamental fights for people’s rights and safety.
The use of “woke” as an insult is seen by some as dogwhistle racism.
Khan said: “I don’t want to get involved in the culture war. What I do want to do is to make sure as many people as possible receive the vaccine and make sure we bring people together.”
Khan received his first Covid vaccine dose on Friday morning due to having severe asthma, a condition that requires him to take steroid tablets. People aged 16 to 64 with underlying health conditions are being included in the second phase of the vaccine delivery programme.
The mayor tweeted: “I’m relieved and very grateful to have received my Covid-19 vaccine today – I was asked by my GP to have the vaccine as I have severe asthma. I urge everyone who is offered it to have it as soon as possible. It could save your life.”
As the capital’s mayor and a man of Pakistani descent, Khan represents power while hailing from a marginalised community. Is the politician’s skin-folk listening to him and how far is his campaigning helping make an impact?
Speaking from the vaccine centre in Mitcham Lane Baptist Church where he had his jab, Khan said: “I take my responsibility really seriously and that’s why I’ve been encouraging vaccine take-up; the good news is that we’re narrowing that gap.
“We’ve managed to pursue the government and NHS to have more places across our city where the vaccine could be administrated where people trust. There’s nothing wrong with mass vaccination centres and hospital hubs. But in London you’ve got to recognise that we’ve got to make it as easy as possible for people to receive the vaccine in places they’re comfortable with
“This vaccine is a lifesaver and sometimes, for good reasons, we can’t reach certain parts of our community so we’ve got to ask people who are trusted.”
The mayor also praised a star-studded TV advert which aired on Thursday night, encourage those from Black and Asian backgrounds to take the vaccine.
Organised by actor and writer Adil Ray, best known for BBC One comedy Citizen Khan, it featured people such as Beverley Knight, Meera Syal and David Olusoga. The campaign has been managed by Samir Ahmed, founder of cultural diversity specialist agency Media Hive.
The mayor said: “I was so proud when I turned the TV on last night, just before 10pm, and saw these Black and Asian faces – whom I respect, many of whom I adore as role models – talking to BAME communities about the importance of the vaccine. That video will save lives.”
With the prime minister expected to announce a roadmap out of lockdown 3 on Monday, Khan is calling for an extension of the business rates holiday, VAT relief and furlough, as well as increase of support for those self isolating.
“What I’d like to see on Monday is the PM publishing a roadmap that is transparent and clear about the various staging posts before we come out of lockdown completely – that should include an announcement that he’ll be extending support for businesses, families and communities.
“I think it’s really important that the government learns the lessons of the mistakes made in the past and doesn’t repeat them. Over the last year we’ve seen too many examples of stop, start, stop and start.
“The government has not recognised that the health of individuals is intertwined with the health of our economy; it’s important that they follow the data rather than the PM being bullied and pushed around by his backbench MPs.
“Unless he does that, you’ll see a lot of businesses temporarily close and a lot of people currently furloughed being made redundant – that’s the worst thing that could happen.”