‘The Bangladeshi community was embarrassed talking about Covid deaths but I helped people open up’

Ripon Ray believes his outsider status as a gay Bangladeshi has allowed him to research London’s Bangla community in a different way from everyone else. Now 42, he found himself ostracised by his community when he came out at just eight years old, but he has since found himself campaigning on its behalf for better health outcomes.

Over the past two years, the financial advisor has spoken to Bangladeshi people in various stages of ‘ Covid acceptance ‘, as he calls it, while campaigning to increase vaccine uptake. In 2020 a Public Health England report found Bangladeshis were the most at risk of death, being twice as likely to die of Covid compared to other ethnic groups. Fortunately, the Hackney man’s campaign was a success and the December 2021 Covid disparities report shows Bangladeshis had the highest vaccine uptake of any ethnic minority group in London.

“The Bangladeshi community is pretty much a hidden community, you do not hear about it unless you hear about Jihadi brides,” said Ripon. “The reality is the community is hidden and closed knit. Bangladeshis are an internal and inward-looking community. It’s a way to defend themselves like the Jewish community has done in the past.”

READ MORE: The Bangladeshi brothers who started with a curry house and went on to change the face of the East End

As part of Ripon’s project, he met Dabir Chacha, 102, who raised over £420,000 for Covid relief doing charity walks while fasting during Ramadan 2020, and started another 1.5 million step walk last summer

Ripon thinks ‘looking inward’ might have been an advantage when trying to convince people to take the vaccine. Though it took a while for people to come to terms with the dangers of Covid, the sociability of Bangladeshis meant once one person took the vaccine it was not long before everyone else was. “Once you persuade one person others will follow,” he explained.

Ripon says he knew the pandemic would hit hard like austerity had, in his experience, and so decided to interview Bangladeshis to make sure their experiences were recorded.

“The project was to try to understand what it was like during the pandemic,” he said. “It’s one of the poorest communities, malnutrition is also widespread. I know that overcrowding is normal. You do not get big houses, flats these days have two to three rooms. If you have a huge family you cannot live near the city.

“I did not realize when I was interviewing people I would come across so many deaths. As I was having the conversations the recurring theme was that they said their parents had died, their neighbours had died, and weirdly enough they were embarrassed to talk about death. They thought if you tell others there was something wrong with you… so they kept it to themselves.”

“The first wave the Afro-Caribbean community was hard hit, then during the second wave Pakistani and Bangladeshi were also hard hit. During the first round, people would not accept it was caused by Covid. Then there was acceptance of the fact Covid was killing them.”

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Ripon spoke to women such as Mrs Nessa (pictured) who were empowered by the effects of lockdowns and those who had lost loved ones

Ripon’s project – BritBanglaCovid – emerged from this period of upheaval, recording the stories and anecdotes of Bangladeshis over Zoom and asking participants to fill out a survey to better understand the effects of Covid on the community. Some of the key recommendations from the ensuing report include government intervention ‘in the language’, engaging with the community verbally, and reviewing the language and cultural requirements of ethnic minorities when dealing with mental health issues.

Ripon spoke to some remarkable people in the course of his interviews, including East London councillor Mumtaz Khan who could not leave her flat because of racist attacks when she was younger. Ripon says race is a “big thing” for the Bangla community ever since people came to the UK in the 1970s and found themselves face to face with racism.

He also met 102-year-old Dabir Chacha who saw the fall of the British Empire and the independence of Bangladesh. The centenarian raised over £420,000 for Covid relief doing charity walks while fasting during Ramadan 2020, and started another 1.5 million step walk last summer.

Speaking to Brick Lane chef Atikur Rahman, it emerged people would not dine at curry houses because of the so-called Indian variant, now known as Delta. Ripon points out most Indian restaurants are run by Bangladeshis. Rahman also revealed the Indian restaurant market is in decline as rents go up and people want better hours. Immigration rules around earnings also make it harder to get top chefs.

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Salam Jones, one of the people Ripon interviewed, told him: ‘We tend to bottle it up, we don’t talk about it, we see it as a weakness’

Ripon was equally struck by the women he spoke to who had found a new lease of life amidst the destruction brought by Covid. He spoke to one woman whose husband lost his job and so she became the breadwinner. Another woman got a job in the NHS shortly before she divorced her husband during the pandemic. During the lockdown, she suddenly became a source of advice about the virus for her ex-husband, which empowered her and gave her confidence.

While Ripon’s interviews may have struck some light at a time of incredible pain, he’s more blunt about the outlook for London’s Bangla community. There are still massive disparities in health outcomes for Bangladeshis. Bangladeshi babies are 1.5x more likely to die during birth than white British babies, while the rate of overcrowding was the highest among any ethnic minority group at 24% compared to White Brits at 2%.

“Trauma of coming to the UK, of poverty, of racism, trauma in the family system. The only nice thing I can say is that regardless of the trauma, we have had a high level of vaccine uptake. But, it has been devastating, there’s no fairy-tale ending, it’s proper dire poverty,” he said.

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Hello, I am a news reporter for MyLondon. I cover stories across the capital every day.

I qualified as a journalist last year and studied English and History at university, with a special interest in medieval London.

I love London because you’ve never seen it all. Also – all the food.

Some recent stories I am most proud of are this report on the killing of a restaurant owner in Elephant and Castle, this weird situation a Kings College student found herself in, and my review of eating a pig’s ear salad in Bloomsbury.

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