As Omicron is detected in a deprived London borough, fears rise

Newham, in east London, is home to a large ethnic minority community, and has suffered significantly in previous waves.

Newham's Green Street is a cultural melting pot, making it one of London's most diverse boroughs [Daniel Adhami/Al Jazeera]

London, United Kingdom – On an overcast day in Newham, a London borough, it looks like business as usual on Green Street as customers buy groceries, jewellery and new South Asian outfits.

But a sense of stoicism is sometimes interrupted by fear as people worry about what another coronavirus wave could mean.

By January this year, COVID-19 mortality rates were about three times higher in Newham – 441 deaths per 100,000 people – the worst-hit London borough, compared with 150 deaths in Camden, the least affected area of the capital.

Everyone’s face here is now covered in line with recent government guidance that made mask-wearing in shops and public transport mandatory once again, as COVID resurges.

On Wednesday night, the borough, one of London’s poorest, suffered a large dose of bad news.

A local health official announced on Twitter that a case of COVID with the new Omicron variant had been detected, and encouraged people to get their vaccines and take regular COVID tests.

Newham has recorded a high rate of COVID deaths during all stages of the pandemic [Daniel Adhami/Al Jazeera]

During the height of the second wave, Barking and Dagenham, Redbridge, and Newham, three neighbouring boroughs in east London, saw the country’s highest infection rates.

They were dubbed the “COVID triangle”.

At the time, Barking and Dagenham reported that one in 16 people was said to be infected with the virus.

Between March and April 2020, the first wave of the pandemic, Newham, a historically multicultural hub made up of Asians, Africans, and Afro-Caribbeans, recorded the highest age-standardised rate with 144.3 deaths per 100,000.

COVID has had a severe effect, but people are now trying to adapt.

Many residents do front-line jobs – in health services, public transport, as cleaners or caregivers – and cannot work from home. There is a housing crisis in the area and overcrowding affects 25.2 percent of households.

Vaccine uptake was worryingly slow, but has since picked up.

Shops in Newham call on customers to follow government mask-wearing guidelines [Daniel Adhami/Al Jazeera]

The mayor of Newham, Rokhsana Fiaz, told Al Jazeera: “We can’t underestimate the devastating impact that the new Omicron COVID-19 variant could have, and so we all need to play our part.

“We are asking our residents and businesses to do three things. Firstly, get tested. Regular testing is easy, quick and appropriate for everyone in our borough. Secondly, get vaccinated and, where appropriate, have a booster. We can be confident that the vaccine is our best and safest defence against the pandemic.

“Thirdly, wear face coverings when in public places.”

As the winter cold sweeps through Green Street, shop windows are adorned with signs in various languages urging people: “Please wear a mask covering.”

Singh, who owns Colours, a clothes shop on Green Street, told Al Jazeera: “I’m not as worried about the variant as last year, because everyone is vaccinated.

“The pandemic was a dramatic change in our life. Everything has completely changed, from business to relationships with the landlord, because you make a statement, you make a commitment, and the next month is a lockdown.

“What I want is no more lockdowns. We should live with this.”

Newham was meant to enter a phase of regeneration after the 2012 Olympics, but much of the area remains unchanged [Daniel Adhami/Al Jazeera]

Singh said he and his team members are all vaccinated. He has booked a booster shot for this week.

Shaila, who worked in a shop further down the street, said she is not hugely worried about the new variant because “we’re used to it [Covid] now, we just have to be careful”.

One sexual health professional Al Jazeera interviewed in Newham, who requested anonymity, said that in the first wave, patients opened up about unrelated concerns because other social services were under pressure.

“In these conversations we were having with people, they’re disclosing issues around domestic violence, mental health, suicidal ideation, just really high levels of vulnerability,” they said.

It was “really stressful, really uncomfortable and really unsettling because you’re experiencing the first-hand anxiety of this virus in your local community,” they said, adding that the experience was one reason why they left the profession.

While the wider area was set up to be a regeneration project after hosting the 2012 Olympics, much of Newham is yet to benefit.

When the pandemic started at the beginning of 2020, a Shelter report found that in the borough, one in 24 people was homeless – one of the country’s highest rates.

For underprivileged areas such as Newham, where COVID has had a devastating effect, many are now trying to adapt [Daniel Adhami/Al Jazeera]

Mariam Dawood, a Labour councillor in Newham, told Al Jazeera that while the government has acknowledged that COVID has disproportionately affected the borough, the context of austerity measures in working-class communities should not be forgotten.

“Since 2010, the government has slashed Newham Council’s budget by 50 percent,” she said. “Despite pledges to help those on low incomes … the government has not taken adequate measures to tackle social inequality, and austerity cuts continue. This has made it more challenging to combat COVID.”

Even so, Dawood remains hopeful.

“The pandemic has shown that when there is a crisis, people do come together to support one another, especially in Newham.

“We saw this in the emergence of mutual aid groups and community-led food banks.”

In light of the discovery of the new variant, Dawood said more people have been wearing masks.

“There has also been an uptake in local people getting their first vaccine, which suggests that those who may have felt uneasy about taking the vaccine previously are worried about the emergence of new strains.”

Posters in several languages urge people to wear face coverings and observe social distancing [Daniel Adhami/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera