My only surprise when the government announced a local blockade in Leicester last week was that it took a long time.
I had serious and growing concerns that my city was heading for a serious outbreak of Covid-19 because, since the end of April, the blockade here has only been observed in name.
At first, when schools, workplaces, and most stores were closed, the people of Leicester followed the rules according to the instructions.
My only surprise when the government announced a local blockade in Leicester last week was that it took a long time, writes Manzoor Moghal, who is pictured above
But within a few weeks, I noticed that many – especially workers from local textile factories who provide so much local work – and in dense markets where markets sell a lot of Asian food, had stopped observing social distances.
They continued with their pre-coronavirus lives as if nothing had happened.
In part this happened because there seemed to be little enforcement by the police and authorities. But to better understand the problem, you have to understand Leicester and some of the realities of life here.
With the help of a large immigrant community, the city has clung to its textile industry – there are believed to be around 1,000 clothing factories here, many of which could be accurately described as sweatshirts.
About half of the population is not white and most of the black and minority ethnic residents are from the Indian subcontinent – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The majority are Muslim, but there are also thriving Sikh and Hindu populations.
Workers at the Fazia di Leicester fashion factory are pictured above during the newly reimposed block
I want to be clear that Covid-19 is a problem for everyone in our society, whatever their color or creed. And, of course, there were other parts of the country where social distancing had somewhat diminished.
Think, for example, of the VE Day celebrations, the various mass protests and the thousands of people who go to the beach for day trips. But these were the main news and in the end they were stopped.
In Leicester, however, the problems were hidden, continuous and particularly problematic due to the social, economic and cultural composition of the city.
It is an inevitable reality that ethnic minorities face particularly acute challenges when it comes to coronavirus.
Lockdown was ordered on March 23rd. But even in mid-April, I started to notice that the work centers in the city center were starting to work again.
The clothing workers’ electoral group, Labor Behind The Label, confirmed my fears, reporting that the clothing factories in Leicester were operating at 100% of capacity by April 22.
He named the online fashion chain Boohoo as operational “during the crisis”, with 80% of its production in Leicester. These are cramped and unhygienic places at best, let alone when there is an aerial virus that spreads in the population.
Most workers are housed in dilapidated buildings where safety or health is not a top priority.
Most employ about 50 workers, some up to 100, and are invariably crammed into small enclosed spaces with little in the way of mechanical ventilation and fresh air. The toilets can be inadequate.
I know of a case where a factory owner turned out to be positive for the virus and was visibly indisposed, but he continued to visit his workers to make sure that production standards were not slipping.
Labor Behind The Label also suggests that wages in Leicester sweatshirts can go up to £ 2 an hour and reported numerous allegations of links with modern slavery and human trafficking.
There is little respite at the end of long worker shifts. Many are here illegally, which means they have no job rights and are forced to live in tiny terraced houses, sharing rooms and bathrooms with many others.
It is not particularly unusual to find 20 people living in a house with three bedrooms and a bathroom.
Part of what they earn will be sent back to their families in the Indian subcontinent, but wages are so low that better living conditions would in any case be inaccessible.
While blocking is an inconvenience for most of us, these people have to work to live.
It barely helps that many speak very little English and, however surprising, they may be largely unaware of the health crisis and its consequences.
Leicester’s “mini-markets” – crowded shops specializing in ethnic food – were another source of concern.
There are few chances of social estrangement in such tight conditions and very few people wear masks.
Watching this show was almost like living in a parallel world. Some pleaded ignorance of the blocking rules when I spoke to them. Others claimed that the local council had not informed them of any measures.
This was ridiculous, but what worried me even more was that the local authorities turned a blind eye – and, until last week, have continued to do so.
I fear that a Covid-19 outbreak was inevitable, but nobody wanted to take responsibility for stopping it.
Why has no one in authority assured that basic safety rules were respected in shops and factories?
While the police lectured with dog-walkers to venture too far to the beauty spots, they seemed to allow the workshops to operate without batting an eyelid.
Some pleaded ignorance of the blocking rules when I spoke to them. Others claimed that the local council had not informed them of any measures. This was ridiculous, but what worried me even more was that the local authorities turned a blind eye – and, until last week, have continued to do so. The center of the city of Leicester is pictured above
The rules should have been applied to protect our community – minority groups are particularly vulnerable in Covid-19, remember – but also to ensure that members of our community behaved in the greatest interests of society.
Significantly, I am convinced that the vision of death in South Asia is an additional cultural factor, which has received little attention.
Many people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are what I could call fatalists, believing that we will die when they should 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 risks. A person I know has refused to observe social distances and will not wear a mask for this reason. He believes his fate is written in the stars.
So while the mosques and temples of the city remained closed during the blockade, it is more than likely that some faithful gathered to pray in the confined air of their living rooms. This may only have helped spread the virus.
Protecting a place like Leicester should have been a priority, especially since diabetes is another known coronavirus risk factor. The city has a prevalence of adult diabetes almost 50% above the national average.
With proper supervision and police, this outbreak in Leicester must never have occurred. But those in authority failed.
How can we get out of this mess?
I believe we need a concentrated effort in all urban areas to create Covid-19 task forces that include the council, the police and various communities – groups with authentic local knowledge. They should meet or collaborate daily.
Above all, other cities at risk of new outbreaks – places like Barnsley, Rochdale and Bradford – all of which have a large population of South Asian heritage, should learn from the mistakes made in Leicester and ensure that they don’t lose lives unnecessarily.
Manzoor Moghal is president of the Leicester Muslim Forum.