I travelled to my family home in Bradford on Thursday evening. It was the eve of Eid al-Adha, the second major Muslim festival marking the end of the Hajj pilgrimage. I arrived to watch my sister unleashing Nadiya Hussain-esque culinary magic, as she drizzled chocolate and edible golden glitter over home-baked cookies, which she planned on giving to our aunt in Burnley.
Then, at 9.54pm, a friend who is a senior NHS professional broke the news on a Bradford-based WhatsApp group:
“Bradford back on lockdown :-(.”
Her message referred to the health secretary Matt Hancock’s announcement, a disastrous three hours before Eid, of renewed restrictions on movement and socialising in parts of West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and East Lancashire. Different households could no longer mix together in homes, even in their gardens, shattering plans for Eid gatherings across the north.
This morning, my Facebook and Twitter feeds were saturated with a meme of a green-faced Boris Johnson. “The Grinch who stole Eid”, the caption read.
Families lamented the bouncy castles they had hired for their children, the marquees they had erected for socially distanced Eid celebrations. The marathon of Eid food preparations days in advance, in anticipation of family gatherings, had all come to nothing. Many families had already made the journey to spend Eid with their loved ones before the new rules were imposed at midnight.
In the face of the global coronavirus pandemic which has taken more than 45,000 lives in the UK, with England now having the confirmed highest number of excess deaths in Europe, the restrictions are, of course, a necessary sacrifice for the greater good.
But Hancock’s announcement was part of a catastrophic communications disaster which has marred the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Public trust in government handling of the pandemic, already declining, fell further after Dominic Cummings breached lockdown, with only 48% rating the government in late May as “relatively trustworthy” according to an Oxford University study.
Baroness Sayeeda Warsi has said she has been inundated with phone calls in recent hours from people in communities left in the dark by the lack of clarity in the new guidance. They did not know if families could meet outdoors, or whether mosques could continue to prepare for Eid prayers in accordance with social distancing measures.
According to the current rules, socially distanced prayers at a mosque are permitted but the government recommends they take place outdoors.
Speaking to LBC this morning, the Conservative MP Craig Whittaker, whose constituency is affected by the changes, even had the audacity to say that the BAME and Muslim communities weren’t “taking this pandemic seriously enough”. This prompted the comedian Nish Kumar to respond: “Is Dominic Cummings BAME?”
Across all communities there are pockets of people who have not observed social distancing regulations – from anti-mask conspiracists to the plain selfish. The truth is that black, Asian and minority ethnic communities – painfully aware that elderly relatives with underlying health conditions could be more susceptible – have often felt sheer terror throughout this year. The Asian couple who came to visit their parents across the road from my mum before the lockdown, weeping as they held back their young children from getting close to their own grandparents, captures the pain of separation families have had to endure, BAME or not.
Whittaker’s comments are not an anomaly; they highlight how the government has failed BAME communities throughout this pandemic. Restricting Eid celebrations is painful, but it pales into comparison beside the disproportionate number of deaths from Covid-19 among black and minority ethnic people in Britain, with people of Bangladeshi origin facing the greatest danger. The first four doctors to die of coronavirus while working on the frontlines, Adil El Tayar, Alfa Sa’adu, Habib Zaidi and Amged el-Hawrani, were Muslim and from ethnic minority backgrounds, a fatal pattern which persisted with six in 10 UK health workers killed by coronavirus being recorded as BAME.
As the Public Health England report into coronavirus found, racism and social inequality may have exacerbated disproportionate BAME deaths. This provided part of the context in which the Black Lives Matter protests emerged, giving new life to conversations about institutional racism and discrimination. By shifting the blame – and implicitly whitewashing its own failures, from poor communications to failing to combat the exploitation of BAME workers toiling under lockdown, as seen in Leicester – the government has shown just how important the movement is.
This Eid, I will not get to see my grandmother, or my cousin and her newborn son as I had planned. My story is undoubtedly a common tale of woe for British Muslim families living in the north. Let’s not use this moment to point the finger at each other, but to recognise that we are where we are because of failures at the top.
• Aina Khan is a writer and playwright