• Saturday, Oct 23, 2021
  • Last Update : 08:58 pm

A cultural negligence?

  • Published at 08:05 pm May 10th, 2020
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Why British Bangladeshis are more prone to contracting Covid-19

When nations went into lockdown around the globe, many European countries, the UK included, provided a one hour window for people to come outside and exercise and move about to get some fresh air. Doctors have persistently highlighted the need for a robust immune system to fend off the virus or, in case of infection, to fight it off. 

When news came out from the UK that people from the South Asian communities are more prone to getting infected, the issue about exercise or the lack of it stood out as one of the major factors. 

Aversion towards exercise is entrenched

When several international TV channels were showing people running outside to stay in shape, the images hardly showed any person from a South Asian background, indicating that people from minority communities have, in most cases, decided to stay indoors. Now I cannot say if people are exercising in their homes or not but several channels which went into the homes of general people to find out what they were doing rarely showed people from South Asian backgrounds. 

Again, we cannot say if this was deliberate or not, but one thing is for sure, among South Asian households in the UK, there is often an aversion towards physical exertion. This culture to shun exercise is rather high among the British Bangladeshi community where utmost emphasis is put on academic brilliance. 

I may not be wrong to say that a similar pattern may emerge from all Bangladeshi diaspora in other countries. Hence the prevalence of high blood pressure and diabetes which make people vulnerable to the virus. 

But it would be wrong to say that the nature to avoid physical activity is a problem with the diaspora section only. In truth, the Bengali culture does not provide a place for exercise. It has time for music, poetry, dance, and drama but the matter of keeping active to keep the body fit has diminished in the post-colonial period. 

At the height of the civil disobedience movement in India against the British Raj, nationalist leaders vociferously underlined the need for physical fitness, which triggered a bodybuilding mania across Bengal. The countless “akhra” that developed in Indian cities and suburbs aimed to inspire the young to be strong, not only in mind but in body. It was felt, not wrongly, that to overcome a sense of inferiority injected by centuries of colonial rule, bodybuilding plus involvement in sport were essential. 

This practice faded away, replacing the need to be physically strong with an almost clinical obsession to be academically brilliant. For some odd reason, a symbiosis between the two was never thought of.  

During my youthful days spent in London, I found to great dismay that hardly any Brit-Bangladeshi family encouraged sport or nurtured the sporting aptitude in their children. My friends with exceptional skills in football and cricket gave up the games and turned all attention to studies, only to regret much later when diagnosed with heart problems, obesity, and diabetes. 

Are the channels avoiding South Asian communities? 

A keen follower of international channels, I came across quite a lot of programs showing efforts made by people in the UK to make their lockdown time a period to stay in shape through amazing endeavours. Charlie Hardbord and Harry Richards, two Londoners, climbed the height of Mount Everest, which is 8848 metres, using the stairs in their home. 

They not only tested the endurance levels of their bodies but also bolstered their immunity by pursuing their goal. Then there is of course, Captain Tom Moore, who finished 100 laps of his garden just before his 100 birthday and this was done to raise money for the NHS. In true Dunkirk spirit, the captain’s gallant campaign made more than 32 million pounds.

Obviously, these episodes stand out for being extraordinary but general people have been shown to be involved in a wide variety of activities to make their times indoors a little less tedious. However, in the coverage of what people were doing to remain active, the TV channels seem to have forgotten the South Asian diaspora communities. Now either they were not allowed or they simply did not venture to go there. 

When there is substantial information that people from South Asian countries, including Bangladesh, are more vulnerable to contracting the virus, there has to be an attempt to go into the homes in East London to find out if the residents are remaining active or not.

Joint family turns into a bane

The other reason why Brit Bangladeshis are susceptible to getting the virus is because of their joint family custom, under which more than five people live in one house. While there are benefits of close-knit families, in times like these, close proximity can turn into a disadvantage. 

The practicality of living in a joint family can also be attributed to the housing crisis in London plus the limited income, which compels many to opt to remain with their parents or in-laws.

The Indian restaurants in London are mostly owned by people with Bangladeshi ethnic background and in these establishments, most chefs and waiters are also Bangladeshis, often staying within the restaurant premises.

Hats off to Brits from minority communities working as front-line crusaders, though more focus on the lockdown lifestyle of South Asians is essential.

Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka

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