Comfortably Numb? Low Vaccine roll out and Tower Hamlets

Vaccine roll-out
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The latest statistical release from the NHS released on the 4th of March shows that Tower Hamlets in terms of vaccine roll-out is below the national average in all priority age groups and, in all wards, in some areas 20% below the national average.

What do these numbers say, and why are some people comfortably numb about it?

Behind the BBC Story

Over the weekend, the BBC published a story stating that Tower Hamlets had the lowest vaccine uptake in the entire United Kingdom. There were accusations and counteraccusations flying throughout social media. With the ‘usual suspect’ of outriders doing their bit for the Tower Hamlets Council. To ascertain the veracity of the claims by the BBC, I looked at the raw data published on the NHS statistics website. With the help of a friendly statistician, crunch the numbers for myself. What we discovered was, that Tower Hamlets has consistently underperformed in all priority age groups, with massive discrepancies within the borough in terms of geography.

The above graph is from data released by the NHS, accurate till Feb 28 2021, relating to COVID-19 vaccination in Tower Hamlets. These plots display the difference between vaccination rates in each MSOA (Middle Layer Super Output Areas – The minimum population is 5000 and the mean is 7200) in Tower Hamlets and the national vaccination rate. The rates are calculated as the percentage of those entitled to be vaccinated in each age cohort. So that among 75 to 79-year-olds in Aldgate, the rate of vaccination was 25% less than the national average. As you can see; in every MSOA and in every age cohort in Tower Hamlets fewer people entitled to vaccination were vaccinated when compared to the national average.

A Tale of Two Cities? Let’s look at Oldham

Now some people will argue, that due to the high levels of poverty, bad housing and large minority communities, nothing can be done. Tower Hamlets is a special case, that the normal rules or expectation elsewhere in the United Kingdom don’t apply. The intergeneration poverty and worst life outcomes unacceptable elsewhere in the country is somehow a fact of life here, and we should just get on with it. Or do we?

The nearest comparison with Tower Hamlets, is Oldham, with similar levels of deprivation and the second largest Bangladeshi community outside of London. Here we see a different picture, with all the priority groups vaccinated at rates near the national average. Oldham Council was an early pioneer of a localised track and trace, and it seems that the lessons learned, have fed through to the vaccination program. In both vaccination and testing, Oldham has outperformed us. Compared to Oldham, Tower Hamlets has the lowest testing rates of all London Boroughs.

Vaccine roll out statistics from Oldham showing vaccinations levels near the national average.

Comfortably Numb – the effects of the Underclass Ideology

Last night I attended a presentation by Tower Hamlets Council, the picture presented was a rosy picture with no mention of the stats published by the NHS. In fact, at one point in the meeting, we were told, that the BBC were going to publicly apologise to the good people of Tower Hamlets for their ‘misleading’ report. Reading between the lines, the common theme in the presentation is, we have an underclass population here, this is as good as it gets.

Underclass Ideology, is the idea, resting on fuzzy and disturbing assumptions about poor people, poverty, and the world in which both are reproduced. Those assumptions amount to tacit and sometimes explicit claims regarding the defective nature of poor people’s motivations, moral character and behaviour. Rather than looking at the practice and nature of institutions that perpetuate poverty, focusing the blame on the victims of such poverty.

Such an idea has permeated the comms about COVID-19 in Tower Hamlets from people ‘need to behave properly’, that somehow COVID-19 is the result of bad etiquette and uncivilised behaviour. To the endorsed messaging in the mainstream press, that Tower Hamlets is part of some ‘COVID-19 Triangle’, just like the Sunni Triangle, with an insurgent, suspect population. All things COVID-19 are due to an underclass, not due to poor delivery of public services. There are no solutions, just mitigation. No distributive transformative political agenda, just plodding along with more of the same. With an ‘establishment’, comfortably numb.

As Oldham has shown, it does not have to be like that.

Hello? (Hello? Hello? Hello?)

Is there anybody in there?

Just nod if you can hear me

Is there anyone home?

Pink Floyd – ‘Comfortably Numb’

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Written by Cllr Puru Miah

I am the Councillor for Mile End ward in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

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