How ‘Detroit of the U.Ok.’ went from thriving suburb to Covid hotspot

LONDON – The city of Dagenham was once a flourishing symbol of modern Britain. In the decades after World War II, when the UK was still an industrial powerhouse, rows of terraced houses were built to house the thousands of workers employed in the largest Ford factory outside Detroit.

Today Dagenham is one of the UK’s most deprived areas, a forgotten suburb on the very edge of East London, full of shabby shop windows and boarded-up pubs. Behind this is the industrial heyday that has given way to poverty and racist tensions in recent years. And now, alongside neighboring Barking, it is also home to one of the highest coronavirus rates in the country.

Hospitals in the region are facing “unprecedented strain,” Margaret Hodge, an MP who represents Barking, said last month. Oxygen supply systems, which are vital for Covid-19 patients with infected and damaged lungs, are “unable to handle it,” she said.

“Demand exceeded supply, putting hospitals out of service and moving sick patients to another location,” Hodge told NBC News.

At King George Hospital in nearby Ilford, 44-year-old Simone Margerison said “a steady stream of people” was coming into and out of the 24-bed ward where her parents were both treated. Magerison said doctors and nurses were stretched thin and beds were never empty for long.

Her mother, Carol, aged 79 and suffering from terminal cancer, was hospitalized with coronavirus late last year and died eight days later on December 27th. Her father Dave, who had dementia, contracted coronavirus in the hospital. He died two weeks later on January 10th at the age of 76.

A former Burger King restaurant is boarded up in the boroughs of Barking and Dagenham.Oli Scarff / Getty Images File

The UK’s most recent national lockdown, in place since early January, has resulted in the number of coronavirus cases falling across the country. Officials at the Barking, Havering, and Redbridge University Trust, which manages hospitals in the area, say patient numbers are slowly stabilizing and are working to increase the potential flow of oxygen when demand is high.

But even if the UK welcomes the introduction of Covid-19 vaccines and contemplates a possible end to lockdown restrictions, the situation in Dagenham remains precarious. It was one of the worst hit areas in the UK during the pandemic – the result, according to some residents, is the government’s failure to provide adequate support, which has forced them to choose between their lives and livelihoods. Local infection rates remain well above the national average, according to the latest government data.

“In some ways this is a story of the poor working class left to its own devices,” said Darren Rodwell, chairman of the Barking and Dagenham Council, blaming the marginalization felt by many in the area at the feet of both major parties and the establishment in general.

“The poor working class who took to the streets and waited for tables had to go to work because they had no other choice. It cost us coronavirus. “

Price of poverty

Such dire circumstances were difficult to imagine in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Ford plant employed at least 40,000 people and thousands more worked in the surrounding industries. However, the last car ran off the Dagenham production line in 2002, and today around 2,400 people work in the automaker’s engine plant.

The region has been plagued by poverty for years. The level of education in Barking and Dagenham is the lowest among the London boroughs and one of the lowest in the UK, while the level of income deprivation in the region is among the highest in England, according to the Government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation, an official local rating Living conditions across the country. The unemployment rate in Barking and Dagenham is highest in London at 6.8 percent and almost two points above the national average, according to the National Statistics Office.

“They still have white working-class children who are ill in school generations,” Hodge said.

The Multiple Deprivation Index uses data on income, education, employment, crime, and other topics to measure how deprived areas compare compared to other parts of the country. While terms such as “poverty” and “deprivation” are often used synonymously, deprivation as a statistical framework is intended to measure a lack of resources more generally.

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Racial tension also emerged as the demographics of the community began to change. Black and Muslim residents flocked to Dagenham in the first decade of the 21st century. Eastern Europeans also settled in the area, which is dotted with Romanian businesses. From 2001 to 2011, the UK’s white population in Dagenham fell from more than 80 percent to less than 50 percent, according to the latest UK census.

This combination of de-industrialization, increasing poverty and rapid demographic change polarized the community, Rodwell said.

A truck displays a placard urging voters to support the British National Party (BNP) in Dagenham, UKOli Scarff / Getty Images File

The British National Party (BNP), a successor to the neo-Nazi National Front, won 12 out of 51 seats on the local council in 2006. While the party’s influence in the community and across the country has waned, it currently runs out of seats at every level of government, frustration at the lack of economic opportunity and dislike of traditional political elites in Dagenham.

Nigel Farage, the populist former leader of the UK’s right-wing Independence Party, which campaigned for Britain’s withdrawal from Europe, “used these frustrations very astutely,” said Richard Courtney of the University of East London, who has studied the rise of right-wing extremism in of the region.

UKIP’s message about Europe’s failure to combat immigration was well received by dissatisfied workers. It wasn’t about “I don’t like black people,” said Courtney, but about “migrants who are considered poor or get something for free”.

Official Metropolitan Police figures show that racial and religious hate crimes in the region increased by more than 22 percent over the past year. A hate crime report by the Barking and Dagenham Community Safety Partnership, a multiagency group focused on the fight against crime, also acknowledged that numerous studies indicate that the vast majority of hate crimes go unreported.

In 2016, Barking and Dagenham voted overwhelmingly for Brexit, which went into effect earlier this year.

Brexit was a “symptom of being left behind,” said Hodge. “The BNP was a protest vote, and Brexit is a protest vote against everything else that’s going on in your life.”

Not good options

These feelings of forgetfulness persisted. Today, Dagenham residents say their options were limited in the midst of the pandemic. Many residents work in low-paying jobs, such as shops or security guards, and cannot work from home. Some have to use public transport to get to central London.

“If you have to pay your rent, go to work, coronavirus or not,” said Reema Huzair, a Dagenham health worker who occasionally has to commute for an hour from her London home to the south London hospital where she works. “The level of disadvantage is not their fault. They have been neglected by a system that was not set up to take care of them. “

In January, a health department report said only 17 percent of people with coronavirus symptoms across the UK requested tests as they feared they would suffer a loss of income if they tested positive and had to self-isolate. The newspaper suggested that the government pay everyone in the country who tests positive for them £ 500 (about $ 700) so they can afford to stay home. The prime minister’s office said in January that the government was not considering the idea.

Ford Transit vans sit loaded on a van train at the Ford Motor Co. engine assembly plant in Dagenham, UKLuke MacGregor / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Additionally, health workers in Dagenham say the government hasn’t made enough contact with the community to explain the importance of things like wearing face masks and maintaining social distance.

“The government just said, ‘These are the rules, just follow them,” said Huzair. “The people who live here only hear the rules, but they have no reason to obey them. For it is a kind of space. “

Joanne Ellery, a supervisor at a Covid-19 testing center in Dagenham, agreed that the message was not received by local residents. Part of the problem, she said, is that most of the government’s communication was in English, which means the safety instructions “didn’t get through to people who don’t read and watch the news,” especially immigrants.

Rodwell said the ward council worked with the Citizens Alliance Network, a coalition of 85 different voluntary and religious groups, to help more than 30,000 families and individuals during the pandemic.

A Brexit party supporter campaigns for the upcoming European elections on the street in Dagenham, UKVickie Flores / In Pictures via File Getty Images

Still, the economic pain caused by the coronavirus crisis is likely to continue. The UK economy is expected to shrink 4.2 percent in the first three months of 2021, and the unemployment rate is expected to rise to 7.8 percent this year, according to the Bank of England’s latest monetary policy report released in February .

While the country’s launch of the vaccine could help the economy recover, the report said the outlook remained “unusually uncertain”. Hodge said she also feared Brexit would “exacerbate” the poverty her constituents are already grappling with.

Rodwell, for his part, remains optimistic. He said a Los Angeles-based developer signed a contract to build a new film studio in the region in November and plans have been made to relocate three of London’s wholesale markets to the region as well. The district expects an influx of more than 100,000 new residents over the next two decades in order to create a new identity as a creative center and “gateway to London”.

“We have a lot of similarities with Detroit,” Rodwell said. “What we’re doing is rebuilding.”

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