During the surreal and scary times we are now living through, I have been thinking about the simple act of breathing and how it has taken on a disturbing dual significance.
On the one hand we have seen the tireless efforts of NHS staff, many of whom come from immigrant and minority communities, to restore breathing to Covid-19 patients, while on the other hand we witness the horrific events in the US where white police officers, not for the first time, have killed a black man by denying him the ability to breathe.
We know that Covid-19 has disproportionately affected minority communities in both the UK and the US. In fact, members of black, Asian and minority ethnic communities in the UK are up to four times more likely to die from the disease.
The persistence of racial inequality in both countries is demonstrated by a range of evidence, including lack of access to justice, unemployment, poor and overcrowded housing and poverty. To give a specific example: over four million children in this country are being brought up in poverty. This is scandalous enough, but it is surely truly shocking that while 26% of white children live in poverty, this applies to 45% of children from BAME communities. Growing up in poverty will have long term consequences, including susceptibility to diseases such as Covid-19.
These facts should be yet another wake up call to put adequate measures in place to deal with structural racism and inequality.
So the question is will our government really be committed to addressing these issues and what can we within the Jewish community do to properly show solidarity with black communities here.In other words what does solidarity look like?
I would like to suggest one good place to start is by doing something about the inequality that both Covid-19 and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis have brought into sharp focus.Having a strong Jewish voice and campaigning role on reducing poverty in the UK is something we can begin to do immediately.
In conclusion, I’d like to return to the symbolic significance of the act of breathing. A century ago, my grandparents were among millions of European immigrants who came to the United States. Many were escaping from poverty, inequality and racism to seek a better life. Passing by the Statue of Liberty, they would have seen the words of Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus”, which includes the famous lines: “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.
It’s important to remind ourselves that breathing is not only essential to support life, but as her poem suggests, represents the human need to live a full and meaningful life.
Tackling racial and economic inequality are necessary prerequisites to enable people to breathe free.
Dr Edie Friedman is Executive Director of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality