LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Catholic leaders in England are urging the UK government to tackle the “known structural inequalities” that are causing ethnic minorities to suffer disproportionately from the effects of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) says “the age-standardized mortality rate of deaths involving COVID-19 in the most deprived areas of England was 55.1 deaths per 100,000 population compared with 25.3 deaths per 100,000 population in the least deprived areas.”

Ethnic minorities have been overrepresented among those who have been admitted to intensive care units and among those who have died from the disease. In addition, minorities have made up a higher proportion of medical personnel and support staff who have succumbed to the disease.

Public Health England has announced it will launch an inquiry into the disproportionate impact of the disease.

Bishop Paul McAleenan, who heads the bishops’ conference Migration desk, said Catholic charities and clergy have experienced the same thing: Minority communities “are being harmed particularly by this pandemic.”

“Public Health England’s inquiry is much needed, and our Church will be engaging with it. However, an inquiry alone is not enough,” he said.

“The government needs urgently to tackle the known structural inequalities that have left some communities paying such a high price. We also need to recognize the disproportionate sacrifice made by people from minority backgrounds in frontline services,” the bishop added.

Sarah Teather, the Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service UK, said the large disparity in death rates from different ethnic groups makes it critical to remove obstacles that are disproportionately affecting some segments of society.

In particular, she pointed to the fact that the government doesn’t let many immigrants have any access to public funds.

“That is why the Jesuit Refugee Service UK and around 30 other organizations are calling on the government to grant a period of leave to remain for all with insecure immigration status and to end its use of No Access to Public Funds policies denying migrants access to services and welfare,” she said in a statement.

“There is a huge amount we don’t know about why some ethnic groups are more severely affected than others. But we do know that insecure immigration status and NRPF restrictions are a barrier for accessing safe housing, a barrier to the health service and that deny many the basic essentials needed to live,” Teather said.

She said denying access to essential services and support to so many people who are likely to be disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus “is an act of negligence.”

“We must continue to work to understand the risk factors underlying this stark difference in death rates between people of different ethnicities. And in the meantime, the government must act quickly to do what it can to reduce the impact on people’s lives. Now is the time for the government to grant a period of leave for all and to immediately lift NRPF restrictions,” Teather said.

McAleenan added the coronavirus pandemic has presented British society with serious questions about racial justice.

“Pope Francis has called on the Church to help tackle ‘intolerance, discrimination or exclusion, that seriously undermine the dignity of those involved as well as their fundamental rights, including the very right to life.’ His words are especially resonant amid the challenges we face today about racial discrimination in our society,” the bishop said.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome