MOn 7 February 2021 y dad, Zahari Nagah died of COVID-19. He was 68, and had no underlying health conditions. He was a Malaysian national who came to the UK to study in the 1970s. He settled here, trained and qualified as a clinical psychologist and a child and adult psychotherapist. He worked for the NHS for almost 40 years, and he cared deeply and sincerely for the democratization of healthcare and mental health care.
In his spare time, Dad worked with refugees and asylum seekers. She texted us a few weeks before her death – we couldn’t be with her in hospital – to remind us to donate to the UNICEF Yemen appeal, and sent us a song for Grenfell. He was a caring person who always thought of others.
When the Covid inquest began last year, I felt cautiously optimistic about its potential to allow families like mine, who have been bereaved by Covid, to understand the context of their loved ones’ deaths. Sadly, the inquiry is refusing to look at the issue of structural racism, or listen to the bereaved. Families like mine are being let down again and again.
When I describe what happened to my family, many people respond sympathetically to how “horrible luck” we’ve had. But when you look at the context in which my father died, the terrible fate becomes all the more appalling. New data from the Office for National Statistics has again shown that as a non-white man, my dad was significantly more likely to die from COVID-19. His death and the deaths of so many others from “minority” ethnic groups were the result of persistent and undeniable failures within the government and apathy towards the communities most affected by the virus. Unfortunately this apathy has also spread to the way the investigation is conducted.
The Inquiry is afraid to touch the issue of caste: it will not even use the word in the terms of the context. We were told that there would be no module on racism at the inquiry, as this would be looked into throughout the process. However this month, the inquiry announced structural racism would not be examined in its first module on pandemic preparedness, as it would be an “impossible task”. Structural racism is a challenging issue. It is also an issue that lies at the heart of the UK’s high mortality rate, thus making it imperative for a thorough and impartial investigation into the pandemic. An inquiry that refuses to examine the most challenging issues is completely redundant.
We knew that Dad was at higher risk of Covid because of his race, but we couldn’t do anything about it or figure out why – we still can’t. There is something almost maddening about the way race has been accepted as a factor in the rising mortality rate for people in the BAME community and yet there is so little introspection and willingness to reform the systems that perpetuate it. is warranted. This is racism and it is all the more violent because of its subtlety.
An entirely new section was opened to cater to the innumerable bodies arriving at the Muslim cemetery where Dad was buried, who had died by Covid. A sobering reminder of how deeply the Muslim community in particular was ripped open by Covid. On the day of my dad’s funeral, we watched as diggers dug his grave in front of us—another time-saving mechanism employed because there was not enough manpower or time to deliver a traditional funeral service.
I joined the Covid-19 bereaved families for justice and started campaigning for Covid testing soon after my father’s death. I know it will take time, and it will not be straightforward, but families like mine have a right to be active participants in this process.
Unfortunately, the investigation has met with bereaved families with skepticism and negligence. Private companies enlisted to collect our stories and testimony include 23red, which worked with the Cabinet Office and was responsible for the government’s public health messaging during the pandemic. Why do families like mine want to go through the pain of sharing their experiences with a system run by the same people who let us down in the first place?
So far these companies have created an online portal for the public to share their experiences. The webpage stresses that “you do not need to have Covid-19 to participate” and asks insensitive questions such as “when did your experience of Covid-19 begin and end”. I have met with many bereaved families and none of them have talked about their experience being “over”. It is a process that is clearly not designed for us, and it feels like we are being systematically excluded from the inquiry we worked so hard to secure.