United Kingdom

I can tell you exactly why Leicester had to go back into lockdown

My only surprise when the Government announced a local lockdown in Leicester last week was that it had taken so long.

I have had grave and growing concerns that my city was heading for a severe Covid-19 outbreak because, since the end of April, lockdown here has been observed in name only.

At first, when schools, workplaces and most shops were closed, the people of Leicester observed the regulations as instructed.

My only surprise when the Government announced a local lockdown in Leicester last week was that it had taken so long, writes Manzoor Moghal, who is pictured above

But within a few weeks, I noticed that many – particularly workers in the local textile factories that provide so much local employment – and in the densley-packed markets where a lot of Asian food is sold, had given up observing social distancing. 

They were carrying on with their pre-coronavirus lives as if nothing had happened.

Partly this happened because there seemed to be little enforcement from the police and the authorities. But to grasp the problem more fully, you need to understand Leicester and some of the realities of life here.

With the help of a large immigrant community, the city has clung on to its textiles industry – there are believed to be about 1,000 garment factories here, many of which could accurately be described as sweatshops.

Roughly half the population is non-white, and the majority of black and minority ethnic residents come from the Indian subcontinent – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The majority are Muslim, but there are thriving populations of Sikhs and Hindus, too.

Workers at the Fazia fashion factory in Leicester are pictured above working during the newly reimposed lockdown

I want to be clear that Covid-19 is a problem for everyone in our society, whatever their colour or creed. And, of course, there were other parts of the country where social distancing broke down to some extent.

Think, for example, of the VE Day celebrations, various mass street protests, and thousands driving to beaches for day trips. But these were headline news and were eventually brought to a halt.

In Leicester, however, the problems were hidden, continuous and particularly problematic because of the city’s social, economic and cultural make-up.

It is an inescapable reality that ethnic minorities face particularly acute challenges when it comes to coronavirus.

Lockdown was ordered on March 23. But even by mid April, I began noticing that the sweatshops in the city centre were beginning to operate again.

The garment workers campaign group, Labour Behind The Label, confirmed my fears, reporting that clothes factories in Leicester were operating at 100 per cent capacity by April 22.

It named the online fashion chain Boohoo as operating ‘throughout the crisis’ – with 80 per cent of its production in Leicester. These are cramped, unhygienic places at the best of times, let alone when there is an airborne virus spreading through the population.

Most workers are housed in dilapidated buildings where safety or health is not a top priority.

Most employ about 50 workers, some as many as 100, and they are invariably crammed into small, enclosed spaces with little in the way of mechanical ventilation and fresh air. Bathroom facilities can be inadequate.

I know of one case in which one factory owner tested positive for the virus and was visibly unwell, yet continued to visit his workers to make sure that production standards were not slipping. 

Labour Behind The Label also suggests that wages in Leicester sweatshops can be as low as £2 an hour and has reported numerous allegations of links to modern slavery and people-trafficking.

There is little respite at the end of workers’ long shifts. Many are here illegally, which means they have no employment rights and are forced to live in tiny terrace houses, sharing rooms and bathrooms with many others.

It is not particularly unusual to find 20 people living in a three-bedroom, one-bathroom house. 

Some of what they earn will be sent back to their families in the Indian subcontinent, but the wages are so low that better living conditions would be unaffordable in any case.

While lockdown is an inconvenience for most of us, these people must work to live.

It hardly helps that many speak little English and, as surprising as it sounds, they could be largely unaware of the health crisis and its consequences.

Leicester’s ‘mini-markets’ – packed shops specialising in ethnic food – have been another source of concern.

There is little chance of social distancing in such cramped conditions and very few people have been wearing masks.

Watching this play out was almost like living in a parallel world. Some pleaded ignorance of the lockdown rules when I spoke to them. Others claimed that the local council had not informed them of any measures. 

This was laughable, but what concerned me still more was that the local authorities were turning a blind eye – and, until last week, continued to do so.

A Covid-19 outbreak, I fear, was inevitable but no one wanted to take responsibility to stop it.

Why did no one in authority ensure that the basic safety rules were upheld in shops and in factories?

While the police lectured dog-walkers for venturing out too far to beauty spots, they seemed to allow sweatshops to operate without batting an eyelid.

Some pleaded ignorance of the lockdown rules when I spoke to them. Others claimed that the local council had not informed them of any measures. This was laughable, but what concerned me still more was that the local authorities were turning a blind eye – and, until last week, continued to do so. The city centre of Leicester is pictured above

The rules should have been enforced to protect our community – minority groups are especially vulnerable to Covid-19, remember – but also to ensure that members of our community behaved in the larger interests of society.

Significantly, too, I am convinced that the South Asian view of death is an additional cultural factor, one which has received little attention.

Many people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are what I might call fatalists, believing that we will die when are meant to die and there is nothing we can do to prevent it.

This leads to a dangerously laissez-faire view of Covid-19 and other health hazards. One person I know has been refusing to observe social distancing and will not wear a mask for precisely this reason. He believes that his fate is written in the stars.

So, while the mosques and temples in the city have remained shut during lockdown, it is more than likely that some worshippers have gathered to pray in the confined air of their living rooms. This can only have helped to spread the virus.

Protecting a place such as Leicester should have been a priority, particularly since diabetes is another known coronavirus risk factor. The city has a prevalence of adult diabetes almost 50 per cent higher than the national average.

With proper oversight and policing, this outbreak in Leicester need never have happened. But those in authority failed.

How, then, do we get out of this mess?

I believe we need a concentrated effort in all urban areas to create Covid-19 task forces comprising the council, police and various communities – groups with genuine local knowledge. They should meet or liaise on a daily basis.

Above all, other towns and cities at risk of fresh outbreaks – places such as Barnsley, Rochdale and Bradford – all of which have large populations of South Asian heritage, should learn from the mistakes made in Leicester and ensure that more lives are not needlessly lost.

Manzoor Moghal is chairman of The Muslim Forum, Leicester.

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