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In the UK, people of color are hit harder by COVID-19. Here’s the story of 1 family’s loss

Correction: Due to an editing error, we incorrectly said the United Kingdom was now second to the United States in per capita rate of deaths due to COVID-19. The UK is second in total deaths to the United States, per official counts. The NewsHour regrets the error.

Newly released data show that the United Kingdom has Europe’s highest COVID-19 death toll: at least 32,000, second globally only to the United States. But people of color there are being both infected and killed at higher rates than are whites. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant visited a community whose death rate is among Britain’s highest and shares an intimate portrait of one family’s loss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    New data released today shows that Britain now has the worst COVID-19 toll in Europe, at least 32,000 dead. That's second worst per capita in the world, after the United States.

    Amid the crisis, health authorities there are probing why people of color are being disproportionately infected and dying in greater numbers than whites.

    Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant visited a community with one of the highest death rates in Britain, and he has this intimate portrait of how tragedy struck one family.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Rukshi Lee has said goodbye to her husband of 14 years. Dave Lee was a 62-year-old martial arts instructor with a formidable reputation.

  • Aidan Lee:

    Just weeks before his death, Lee was sparring with men half his age.

  • Man:

    For someone who was so fit and healthy to be a victim of this disease, it was shocking to me. Even when he first went in, I thought he would — at least in the initial stages, I thought he'd recover. There was no reason or no underlying health condition.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Youngest son Aidan, also a martial arts instructor, carrying his father's mantle.

  • Aidan Lee:

    Just to give you some context, at the start, there was only him and one other person in the ICU ward. And then towards the end of week, before he passed, there was 21. And at that point, they had said no more visitors. So from that point, up until he passed, I couldn't see him.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Besides being a deeply personal tragedy for family and friends, Lee's death adds to the growing list of fatalities amongst people of color.

    British health authorities have launched an urgent inquiry into the apparent disparity between races.

    Latest figures show that black, Asian and minority ethnic Britons are two-and-a-half times more likely to die from the virus than whites. Forty percent of all doctors, 20 percent of all nurses are from those backgrounds.

    Organizations representing surgeons and nurses have urged Britain's National Health Service to withdraw them from front-line duties. Conscious of the strain this would place on emergency units, the NHS has not issued a decree, but has told individual hospitals to do what they think is the right thing.

  • Trevor Phillips:

    You are just as likely to get this thing and indeed to die from it if you are an Indian hospital surgeon as if you are a hospital porter.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Veteran racial equality advocate Trevor Phillips is a lead member of the inquiry team, asking questions such as, why are those with Caribbean heritage most at risk?

  • Trevor Phillips:

    Caribbean Britons are way older than the average. So we think age is part of it.

    And the other thing which we think is probably very significant here is occupation. The groups who work in customer-facing occupations, like people who work on the public transport systems or retail, are probably more vulnerable.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Slough, just west of London, a town of 160,000 people, has Britain's fourth-highest rate of COVID-19 infections.

    It has 100 different ethnic minorities. Many live in crowded accommodation and work in front-line services, such as London's nearby Heathrow Airport, which is still receiving thousands of passengers.

  • Sabia Akram:

    our town demographics make us particularly vulnerable.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Sabia Akram is deputy leader of the local council. She validates new government statistics which show the deprived zip codes are hardest hit by the pandemic.

  • Sabia Akram:

    The households are made up of large families, particularly those with houses of multiple occupation. That obviously increases the chances and the likelihood of people bringing the virus back home.

    We also have a high number of people that would be now classified as the key workers, but the lower end of the income thresholds.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The Lee family still doesn't know how Dave became infected.

    Before the funeral, they opened their hearts to us to show the humanity behind the faceless statistics of death.

    Eldest son Ryan only managed to talk to his father on phone.

  • Ryan Lee:

    Once or twice, just before he had lost his voice due to the virus.

    So, yes, just before that. It was a very brief conversation. It sounded like things were moving quite quickly on the ground in the hospital. So it was a very, very brief chat, unfortunately.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Were you able to say goodbye?

  • Ryan Lee:

    No. I seriously thought he'd make it out. So it didn't cross my mind to even say such a thing.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    By the time Aidan reached the hospital to say goodbye, it was too late.

  • Aidan Lee:

    He was already cold to touch. But I spent some time there, just trying to make the most of seeing him one last time.

    And I guess one thing that allowed me to have some form of peace was that he was restful, he looked calm, he looked in peace, and he didn't look as in distress as he was before, when I used to see him when he was intubated and on the ventilator.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Rukshi and Dave married in Sri Lanka. This was his second marriage.

    How do you want people to remember Dave?

  • Rukshi Lee:

    He's a good husband to me. He looks after me so well. And he loved the lord. Those are the memories that I will have.

    And the last memory I want to keep is that he said bye to me in the hospital. That's the only memory I have, sir.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    As a kickboxing trainer, Lee propelled some to national and world titles, mentored others away from crime, and empowered young women in deprived neighborhood, among them, Sabia Akram.

  • Sabia Akram:

    For me, it was about building my resilience, really being confident as a woman, breaking glass ceilings, reaching for the stars.

    He always made us believe that, actually, anything was possible,

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Dave Lee's pastoral work in an evangelical church cemented his legacy as a role model and a keystone of modern Britain.

  • Dave Lee:

    As parents, we make many promises to our children. But when we break them, they will grow up thinking every adult, not just their parents, every adult is the same. They will — they will never keep their promises.

    But God is different. Hallelujah.

  • Man:

    May your soul rest.

  • Rukshi Lee:

    I really love you rest of my life, I promise you. That is the promise I give you. I will live for you. With all your memories, I will live.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Dave Lee, born Sri Lanka December 1958, died Wexham Park Hospital April 2020, one British life among more than 3,2000, and rising.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Slough.

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