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Hard-hit and fighting back: How British Muslim charities took the lead in the Covid-19 response Open in fullscreen

Kamal Afzali

Hard-hit and fighting back: How British Muslim charities took the lead in the Covid-19 response

MCF have identified 175 local charity and mutual aid groups responding to Covid-19

Date of publication: 1 July, 2020

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Despite how hard British Muslims have been hit by the pandemic, the relief response from their community has been among the strongest.
In June, data released by the Office for National Statistics showed that from the start of March until May the mortality rate from Covid-19 was highest among Muslims compared to any other religious group.

"A substantial part of the difference in mortality…between religious groups is explained by the different circumstances in which members of these groups are known to live; for example, living in areas with higher levels of socio-economic deprivation", the ONS report, cited by Reuters, said.

According to the Muslim Council of Britain, 46 percent of the UK's Muslim population reside in ten percent of the poorest local authorities in England. In contrast, only 0.9 percent live in the ten percent most affluent. 

People of Bangladeshi descent - the second largest Muslim community in the UK – are twice as likely to die from Covid-19 than people of white British ethnicity.

Among the general population, the death rate from all causes in the period between 21 March to 8 May 2020, compared to the average for the same period in 2014-18, was found to be 1.7 times higher.

When comparing deaths in 2020 for people born in Central and Western Africa, that figure is 4.5. For those born in the Middle East it is 3.2. Both these regions are home to some of the world's largest Muslim communities.

People of Bangladeshi descent - the second largest Muslim community in the UK - are twice as likely to die from Covid-19 than people of white British ethnicity

Some of the first lives lost amongst NHS staff were Muslim, and several high-profile Muslims, from councillors to other respected members of the community, have also lost their lives.

Despite how hard British Muslims have been hit by the pandemic, the relief response from their community has been among the strongest.

MCF and British Muslim charities

The Muslim charity sector in the UK has witnessed rapid growth in the past ten years and now consists of over 1,000 registered charities.

The Muslim Charities Forum (MCF), established in 2007, operates as the primary network for British Muslim charities. MCF has described its role as "aiming to collectively build a more accountable, transparent and efficient British Muslim charitable sector".

Their mission to drive up standards stems from their leadership of the sector. They provide guidance on emerging challenges through working groups which focus on areas of international aid and development programmes, as well as facilitating training programmes and peer-to-peer support.

MCF also works to strengthen its members' relationships with a wide range of external stakeholders, such as policymakers, governmental bodies, and research institutions.

The international INGOs who operate in the UK, which last year raised around £450 million pounds, have amassed decades of experience in emergency crisis response, both at home and abroad.

'Campaign for National Solidarity'

Fadi Itani, the CEO of MCF who spoke to The New Arab, describes how the picture emerging that the UK was only two weeks behind Italy in its trajectory of Covid-19 deaths galvanised his network's mission unlike ever before.

In late March, following days of discussion with leaders of the UK's Muslim community, MCF launched a "Campaign for National Solidarity" - a national coalition of Muslim charities and aid groups to respond collectively to the crisis.

Data released by the Office for National Statistics shows that the mortality rate from Covid-19 was highest among Muslims compared to any other religious group

With the heads of 20 charities, and supported by national Muslim bodies, such as the Muslim Council of Britain, diverse streams of what Fadi calls the "national Muslim response" took shape. These addressed the full range of urgent issues: the crushing economic impact on vulnerable households, mental health challenges and concerns pertaining to burial and support for the bereaved, among others.

Over weeks and months, MCF continued to search for and identify the rapidly growing numbers of local charities and mutual aid groups responding to Covid-19 in towns and cities across the UK.

With a view to streamlining collaboration, MCF allowed them to connect with one another to find support in terms of volunteers and resources, as well as pointing them to large, national funding sources. MCF have profiled 175 active grassroots organisations to date.

A key element of the network's campaign has been guidance for Muslim charities navigating new uncertainties. These have included detailed PDF guides for members, outlining safety guidance for volunteers and offering best practices in relief services, such as food provision.

MCF have also provided logistical guidance for charities, recently offering a webinar on the UK government's furlough scheme to ensure charities are able protect their business. Fadi tells The New Arab that his network holds regular zoom meetings involving up to 60 participants, where charities discuss issues and chart their way forward, putting solidarity into practice.

Grassroots impact

The work of local Muslim aid groups involved in MCF's Campaign for National Solidarity has been substantial.

In April, the Muslim Welfare Association in Kent worked with its local authority to provide a buddying system for the vulnerable affected by the loneliness of isolation, offering prescription delivery services. Around the same time, Muslim Hands in Nottingham provided disaster response training to local mutual aid groups.

In Manchester, the Human Relief Foundation's office partnered with the city's pharmacy to assist in the same-day distribution of essential prescription and supplies – such as hand sanitisers, masks, paracetamol, multi-vitamins, and prescriptions - to households containing high-risk, elderly and otherwise vulnerable people.

While the crisis has shown us the ugly face of suffering, it has shown us the shining face of what we can achieve when we come together

The Bradford Council for Mosques and Bradford Foundation Trust co-ordinated a community response to support refugees and asylum seekers which included fifty local businesses and thirty voluntary sector organisations. To date, the Bradford-based NGO has managed to recruit 1,000 volunteers, working in a wide range of roles, to support a group who are often denied access to public funds.  

Muslim Hands, in partnership with FareShare, the UK's longest running food redistribution charity, has managed to deliver almost 4,000 daily meals to disadvantaged communities across the country. Their partnership has combined different areas of the food distribution process, such as depot work, distribution, sorting, driving and delivery. The charity also set up a Coronavirus Muslim Burial Support Line and Muslim Burial Fund to cover burial costs for needy families.  

Human Appeal, a large international development and relief charity, has worked to support the growing number of victims and survivors of domestic abuse during the pandemic, some of whom have been temporarily relocated. As part of their hot food distribution project, the charity supports an organisation which offers help and support to women, men and children affected by domestic abuse, through access to hot meals on a weekly basis.

Professional organisations have also mobilised to support frontline workers as part of MCF's campaign, with the British Islamic Medical Association providing training to medical students in the form of webinars covering practical and guidance including dealing with emergencies, as well as spiritual and self-care.

A narrative of unity and hope

Conspiracy theories surrounding Muslims' supposed role in the transmission of the virus have circulated among far-right groups in the UK. The organisation Tell Mama, which supports victims of anti-Muslim hate, has recorded dozens of incidents of far-right groups spreading such theories.

Tan Singh Desi MP, a vice chair of Westminster's all-party parliamentary group (APPG) for British Muslims, warned of a rise in Islamophobic attacks as mosques began to reopen across England in mid June, The Guardian reported. Wes Streeting MP, the co-vice chair for the APPG, called on police to increase security at mosques.

Fadi says that part of the vision of MCF's campaign is to send a strong signal of active participation in the national Covid-19 response, one which counters Islamophobic narratives. Offering support to anyone and everyone in need, many volunteers for Muslim charities are not themselves Muslim, Fadi adds.

A video shared to MCF serves as a powerful, visual testimony of this. Volunteers of all backgrounds donning high-vis jackets, headphones and facemasks, and working in small teams, record snapshots of their day-to-day work.

Some set up free-food stalls outside shuttered community kitchens in London, while others unload parcels from vans which they distribute to Bradford hospitals. There are also volunteers who distribute PPE to nursing homes – places which have recorded some of the highest deaths in the UK.

One charity worker draws attention to a defining aspect of his experience:

"I saw people from different communities, different backgrounds, people that on a normal day, in a normal course of life wouldn't actually meet each other, they wouldn't even maybe stop to talk to each other but they're working together".

Fadi tells The New Arab that MCF's campaign has shown the "power" of humanity.

"While the crisis has shown us the ugly face of suffering, it has shown us the shining face of what we can achieve when we come together."

Kamal Afzali is a journalist at The New Arab

Follow him on Twitter at @KNIAfzali

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