'They deserve more credit': Britain's south Asian taxi drivers on Covid frontline

Shaz Saleem first started helping out at his father’s taxi firm when he was 13, manning the phones and processing fares for the drivers. Even as a child he could see it was not an easy job, but it was a trade that allowed Pakistani men, some very recent immigrants to the UK with few qualifications, to earn a living.

Over the years there have been many challenges, he says, with drivers being violently attacked and others being regularly subjected to racist abuse, but the pandemic has become a very unique type of foe. Now the head of both the Dudley Private Hire and Taxi Association and the West Midlands Drivers Association, as well as running his own firm, Saleem says taxi drivers have become the forgotten victims.

Many drivers, usually self-employed, have continued to work throughout the pandemic, often ferrying key workers to shifts at antisocial hours, while also juggling their own family commitments and increased financial worries due to reduced trade. Saleem says many of the men’s families begged them not to work, but they had no choice but to carry on.

This has come against the backdrop of yet more evidence highlighting the elevated risk to ethnic minorities of contracting and dying from Covid-19. Analysis has showed that between the first and second waves of the pandemic in 2020, death rates in black communities improved, but continued to remain high in people from Bangladeshi and Pakistani backgrounds.

They included the five friends who were the pillars of the Pakistani community in the small pocket of Birmingham who died during the first wave; and Abdul Mabud Chowdhury, a consultant urologist at Homerton hospital in east London, who died in April. Those who perished in the second wave included the Rotherham taxi driver Haji Tanveer Hussain, who died on 7 October.

In the first wave, all ethnic minority groups had a higher risk than white people, but in the second wave the risk levels improved for black African and black Caribbean groups, while remaining substantially higher in people from a Bangladeshi background, and worsening in people from a Pakistani background, according to study author Dr Nazrul Islam at Oxford University’s Nuffield department of population health.

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Saleem says he finds the statistics very upsetting but isn’t surprised, with many Pakistani people working in trades where they are overexposed. “You have to remember that taxis isn’t a safe job. We’ve always had issues, but at least if a customer is carrying a weapon then sometimes you can tell,” he says.

“Now, there’s a different kind of fear because if they have a virus, this is an enemy that we cannot see.”

Saleem says more taxi drivers have continued to work during this second wave despite pleas from their families not to go out. “There’s so many drivers I’ve spoken to whose family members have asked them not to go out, telling them they will manage somehow, they will find a way. Unfortunately, they’ve got no choice,” he says.

“They need to work because they can only earn by working. It’s a very tricky situation. It’s one where they’re risking their lives to keep our country moving and they deserve a lot more credit than they actually get.”

A raft of measures have been introduced to keep drivers and customers as safe as possible in taxis in Dudley, including plastic screen dividers, getting passengers to sit in the back of the cab, regular use of disinfectant wipes and drivers wearing gloves and masks. However, Saleem says some local authorities need to do more.

“The council here has worked hard to listen to our concerns and we’ve managed to really try and make vehicles Covid-secure, but sadly not all local councils take the same view and I’ve heard of drivers in other areas who are not being allowed, under taxi licensing agreements, to fit safety screens in their car,” he says.

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The Bangladeshi community has also been harder hit during the second wave, with some suggesting it is due to a disbelief in the severity of the virus. Bashir Uddin, the chief executive of Bangla Housing Association, a social housing society that supports the Bangledishi community in east London, knows all too well the deadly consequences of misinformation.

During the first wave, his relative, a 44-year-old man, was ill for a week at home. His wife and children thought he’d recover soon enough. “There were videos going around on YouTube saying that this virus is not going to hurt you. Things like, the Muslims are going to be safe because they pray five times a day and already wash their face and hands,” he explains.

His relative then started to struggle to breathe. When the family called a doctor, they were told to call the ambulance. He feared the severity of the situation wasn’t explained to the ambulance staff, who instructed giving the man some tablets and that he’d be fine overnight. He died that night.

“People at home did not realise how serious the disease was. And when they were tested after that, everybody at home was positive. So these kinds of stories are heartbreaking because of the lack of awareness,” Uddin says. “I’m sure there are lots of many cases like this in the community.”

Cases spread like wildfire across London, disproportionately hitting communities of colour. Uddin and his team were ringing up their tenants to ask how they were coping and if anyone was impacted by the virus.

In one case, a tenant’s wife was particularly distressed on the phone because her husband had been taken to the hospital with breathing difficulties and everyone else in the family was ill. “She was completely lost,” Uddin says, and she didn’t know who to turn to for help. The project manager kept checking in on the family and giving advice. Her husband died five days later.

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It was after he read a Guardian report on the high Covid-19 death rates among the Pakistani and Bangladeshi community that Uddin decided that he needed to do more to get the message across. The association launched an advice service in October, Bangla Covid-19 Advice Project, and was provided funding in January as part of the government’s community action scheme.

As well as handing out translated leaflets and posters in the community, the project produced videos, including one that tackles vaccine misinformation, that have been circulated to all residents, clients, community and mosque groups, as well as local schools and medical centres.

A Preston GP, Dr Arif Dasu, who has run a similar information campaign aimed at the south Asian diaspora, describes the latest analysis as disheartening, agreeing that it could be due to a delay in seeking help.

“There is a lack of adherence to patients of this demographic seeking appropriate and timely help in response to Covid infection, which may be due to different factors that need further exploring,” he explains. “There still remains anxieties within the community regarding the Covid pandemic itself made worse by the fake news.”

Uddin says that, despite his information campaign, it’s heartbreaking to learn that death rates have remained stubbornly high for the Bangladeshi community. He believes the message is getting across, but more needs to be done. He adds that many of the issues that made the community more vulnerable to the coronavirus are structural and long-standing and require sustained interventions.


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