ENVIRONMENT AND LAND – United KingdomEquitable access to nature is more important than ever since the pandemic
In the first weeks after lockdown started in the United Kingdom (UK), reports began to emerge that Visible Minority Ethnic (VME) people were dying from COVID-19 in increased numbers. Yet at the time there was not sufficient public data available for the government to determine how many exactly: while information about the ethnicity of the deceased was being collected by health care providers, this did not appear on death certificates. So, while it was possible to calculate the percentage of those dying in hospitals and care homes who were VME, this data was not being formally collected or made publicly available.
Nevertheless, it was evident that VME people were being disproportionately affected: a study published in early April 2020 found that, despite making up 14 per cent of the population in England and Wales, 35 per cent of almost 2,000 people in intensive care at that time were VME. This disparity was not only visible among patients but also among health workers who themselves became infected: all of the first 10 National Health Service (NHS) doctors to die from COVID-19 were VME. While VME NHS staff were contracting and dying from the virus in greater numbers, they also had to contend with the effects of structural racism in their workplace – the impact of bullying and harassment, longer and more dangerous shifts, personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages, isolation and lack of translated information on how to avoid contracting COVID-19.
By the third lockdown, we knew that people of Bangladeshi and Pakistani ethnicity, like my family, were twice as likely to die of COVID-19 compared to a white person. With 30 per cent of UK Bangladeshi families living in overcrowded conditions, this was not so surprising. Many non-NHS frontline workers were also VME, such as bus drivers, taxi drivers, take-away staff, shopkeepers, supermarket staff and care workers.
It has been well known for many years that VME communities are affected by mental health issues at much higher rates and are far more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health illness, including serious conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Of those admitted into mental health wards, a significant proportion are VME. The reasons are thought to be poverty, overcrowding, racism, mental health stigma and other factors associated with inequality. However, I believe that one reason not considered by white researchers is the lack of access to green spaces, which is known to be essential for helping anxiety, depression and well-being.
Most VME communities live in the centre of our towns and cities, where the green spaces are degraded and parents have concerns about their teenagers going out alone, due to worries such as their children being labelled as troublemakers by the police or getting involved in drug running. During the pandemic, VME people talked about their narrow roads being blocked by neighbours working from home and parking on pavements, making it harder for people to move out of each other’s way.
Of those admitted into mental health wards, 60 per cent are Visible Minority Ethnic. The reasons are thought to be poverty, overcrowding, racism, mental health stigma and other factors associated with inequality.
I have been birding all my life and have always understood how being outside in nature helps my mental health. When I was 13 years old, I organized my first birding camp for VME teenagers from inner-city Bristol, who loved being in the countryside. Until then, I had thought my British-Bangladeshi cousins did not want to go into nature because they thought it was boring, rather than because they had never had the opportunity and never had it made relevant to them. Many events later, I have had a 100 per cent success rate in getting VME children and young people engaged with nature. The work of Black2Nature, the charity I set up soon afterwards, has become even more important during lockdown. This is why we have organized numerous activities and tree-planting days for VME families and young people: getting VME people out into the countryside and getting them engaged with nature has been essential for their mental health.
Black2Nature has had to change the way we run our camps due to COVID-19. As we have been unable to run overnight camps, we ran VME family nature days in August 2020. Family bubbles joined us for nature activities including bird ringing, nature walks and pond dipping. The children, parents and grandparents learnt a lot about nature and wildlife. They were able to see birds up close during the bird ringing, and some even released them from their hands afterwards. The nature walks included bird watching from the local hides. Black2Nature helped the families, especially the children, to identify some of the different bird species. The pond dipping allowed the children to look at minibeasts up close and, using identification cards, they were able to work out what each creature was.
The families who came to our nature days had been particularly struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic. One Pakistani family who attended had been hit financially. The father was a taxi driver and the sole earner for the family. His employment had been directly affected by the pandemic, causing him to lose the family income. None of the families that joined us had had opportunities to engage with nature in this way before. The families were also treated to halal fish and chips and ice-creams. With family incomes reduced to social assistance, the mums told us that this was their treat of the summer, their summer holiday. Another Bangladeshi family who attended had an autistic teenage son with high support needs. They had felt trapped, unwelcome and unable to go anywhere without being judged and feeling ill at ease. On the nature walk, they were able to go at their son’s speed so that he was able to learn and participate as well.
Black2Nature ran two tree-planting days in December 2020 and four more days in March 2021 at the Strode Valley Land Project. We planted 1,000 trees, some of which were marked by ribbons so that returning volunteers could identify them.
Black2Nature ran two tree-planting days in December 2020 and four more days in March 2021 at the Strode Valley Land Project. We had more than 250 people attend, with both lunch and transport provided. The majority of our tree-planting volunteers were from VME communities, many of them in groups of three generations who had come together to plant a tree for a family member who had passed away from COVID-19. We also had VME home-schooling families who struggled to find free activities to take part in. The children were eager to learn about nature and the benefits of trees.
We planted 1,000 trees, some of which were marked by ribbons so that returning volunteers could identify them. We are organizing tree-care days for the summer so people can return and help with the aftercare of the trees, and also to remember their loved ones. The impact of the pandemic and lockdown has been huge on everyone, but especially on VME people, often trapped inside high-rise flats. Getting outside and engaging with nature is so important, especially for supporting all our mental health and well-being.
Photo: A portrait of Mya-Rose Craig.