Consultation burnout and a fear of being forgotten. This is what COVID-19 ‘recovery’ feels like for many marginalised communities

One positive outcome of the pandemic should have been a greater commitment to supporting UK communities – including my own – who have been especially vulnerable. But all that many of us feel now is consultation fatigue and growing frustration

Mariko Hayashi

COVID-19 has placed a harsh spotlight on the pre-existing inequalities and discrimination faced by some of the UK’s most invisible communities and groups – including those which I belong to and represent: the East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) community and migrants.

It would be heartening to think that a positive outcome of the pandemic would be a greater commitment to supporting communities including my own which have been especially vulnerable. However, with most COVID-19 related restrictions now lifted and things ‘getting back to normal’, I fear that many marginalised communities will be forgotten again.

To make matters worse, while many continue to experience fatigue following exposure to COVID-19, marginalised communities are also feeling another form of exhaustion: the weariness that comes from having been engaged in multiple consultations which seem to have led to no discernible improvements in their lives – leaving many feeling even worse off than before.

‘COVID-19 is like an x-ray’

It is said that COVID-19 is like an x-ray, revealing the fractures and fragile parts of society. Along with other Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, LGBTQI+ people, women and girls, and people with disabilities, ESEA people including migrants and refugee communities have been highlighted as being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Furthermore, COVID-19 has highlighted the impact of systemic racism in the workplace and within the UK’s immigration system. Working at an organisation supporting migrant workers, I heard a number of testimonies of migrant essential workers who were unfairly pressured to perform tasks with higher risks of infection. They often felt unable to challenge these orders due to the fear of losing their jobs or income while living under a ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) condition. Some have even lost the immigration status that was tied to their work.

Yet in the early stages of this extraordinary public health crisis – when apparently ‘no one was safe until everyone was safe’ – people in positions of power, including policymakers, national and local authorities, think-tanks and donors, began to realise that they would have to engage with the most vulnerable in order to protect society as a whole.

And this is what happened: since the first national lockdown began, there have been numerous consultation meetings with community leaders, hosted by national and local authorities and other decision-makers. And so, representing a community organisation led by and for ESEA migrants, I sat in meetings with representatives of institutions such as the Cabinet Office, the National Police Chief Council, Public Health England, the NHS, the Mayor of London’s Office, the Greater London Authority and some London boroughs – all mostly hosted separately. On occasion, there were separate meetings held with different departments within some of these institutions.

‘I have never sat in so many roundtables in so short a time’

I have never sat in so many roundtables in so short a time, and many of my colleagues said the same thing. At the beginning, I was hopeful that voices from our community were finally being heard directly by policymakers and those who have considerable influence.

However, as we attended more consultation meetings, we grew increasingly frustrated. Many community representatives who have the most relevant and timely lived experiences are from user-led organisations with very little – or zero – funding, meaning they are often volunteers who have day-jobs elsewhere. However, all of these consultation meetings were held during office hours, based on the schedule of people who were consulting with us.

Because of this, many community representatives had to take time off work to attend these meetings; otherwise it was simply impossible for them to attend. Even for organisations with some financial resources, the limited funding they receive is all used providing direct support to those who have been affected by the crisis.

In hindsight, I think the time and resources we spent preparing, attending and following up these consultations could have been used to help vulnerable members of our community face the various challenges and deteriorating circumstances brought on by the pandemic.

‘These consultations required heavy emotional labour’

Additionally, these consultations have required heavy emotional labour. Being constantly asked to talk about the devastating impact of COVID-19 in our own communities – including deaths of undocumented people who could not seek medical care due to fear of immigration enforcement, destitution and homelessness; and experiences of physical and verbal racist attacks – takes a heavy toll. Despite the emotional and time-consuming contributions made for these consultations, there has, as far as I am aware, been no compensation for consulted community representatives or organisations.

We repeatedly talked with different departments about issues such as the lack of data on, and representation of, ESEA people even within assessments of the experiences of BAME people. We highlighted the deadly impacts of Hostile Environment policies on precarious migrants, the lack of culturally sensitive and accessible information and support, and the lack of funding for community organisations. Consultation fatigue and burnout continue, while there are not enough follow-ups and updates from the policymakers and experts who have consulted with us.

Despite the urge from our communities to improve data collection and representation throughout the year, the UK Government’s report on racial disparities misrepresented our community; there wasn’t a single East or Southeast Asian person sitting on the Commission on Race and Ethic Disparities.

We know very little about how the information we shared during our consultation meetings was considered, used and reflected in any policymaking and implementation. What we do know is that many members of our communities still continue to face similar challenges to the ones they faced this time last year.

‘A community-informed approach to COVID recovery’

Not all the attempts at outreach during the pandemic have gone to waste. Personally, I welcome and appreciate any efforts that are going towards a community-informed approach to recovery from COVID-19, as it is more culturally responsive and less likely to re-traumatise people. For example, the efforts of the Greater London Authority to continuously engage with local communities to support them as they lead their own initiatives and strengthen capacities – as outlined in the London Recovery Programme – are encouraging for me as a Londoner.

However, in order to come up with real community-informed and community-led solutions to the pandemic’s impact on existing inequalities – and to implement these solutions – our communities need to be included in more sustainable and meaningful engagement with other stakeholders.

Marginalised communities should never again be made to feel exploited for the sake of tick-box exercises. We want to make our work more sustainable, in order to empower our communities and enable meaningful participation that helps shape more inclusive policies and better long-term outcomes for those who have suffered so much.

To achieve this, we need equitable funding, opportunities and representation. Above all, we cannot afford to be forgotten again, once things ‘get back to normal’ for those who enjoy the privilege to feel that way.

Mariko Hayashi is Executive Director of the Southeast and East Asian Centre (SEEAC) and an independent researcher on migration and human rights.