Is the Becontree estate in Barking and Dagenham really a Covid hotspot?
- Credit: Archant
It was estimated earlier this month that more than half (54 per cent) of residents in Barking and Dagenham could have already had coronavirus.
Early on in the pandemic, experts were rushing to link the rapid spread of the virus to various reasons and causes, including how densely populated an area is.
East London has been one of the hardest hit parts of the country during the devastating second wave, with the borough of Barking and Dagenham among those consistently leading the charts for new infections in recent months.
However, numerous national media reports have referenced the Becontree estate as being a particular hotspot, which poses the question - is the estate rife with the virus and, if so, why?
The Office of National Statistics (ONS) breaks the ward down into five smaller areas - Becontree East, Becontree West, Becontree North, Becontree South and Becontree Heath.
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Despite more than two-thirds of the estate, which celebrates its 100th anniversary since opening in 1921 this year, being aged 44 or under, it has been lost 69 residents to Covid since March, according to ONS data. Some 18 people died in December alone.
Becontree East, which includes the iconic Valence Circus, has had the most deaths (19 people) in the borough, apart from Marks Gate ward (22 people).
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Sara Willcocks is head of external affairs at the charity Turn2us, which helps people in financial hardship to gain access to welfare benefits, charitable grants and support services.
She told the Post that people who live in areas like Becontree, many who work in frontline, customer-facing jobs, have been left without enough government support during the Covid crisis.
"The one thing we’ve learned during the course of this pandemic is that coronavirus does not affect us all equally," she said.
"Those of us on low incomes are far more likely to live in crowded housing, work in jobs with increased likeliness of transmission, and travel on public transport - all factors which contribute to catching Covid.
"There are a number things we urge the government to do to provide more equitable support and stop people being pushed into poverty."
According to the last national census in 2011, 70 per cent of households in Becontree are classified as living in some form of deprivation.
This is worked out using a model which considers indicators including unemployment, level of education, health and disability, as well as whether a house is 'overcrowded' or without central heating.
It is a complex way of evaluating an area's deprived status but 9.7 per cent of households in Becontree are classed as be deprived in three of those areas - higher than the borough average of 8.6 per cent.
And, according to Turn2us, there are three steps that need to be taken in order to ensure areas like Becontree do not suffer anymore during the pandemic.
Ms Willcocks said: "Firstly, fix the issues with self-isolation payments so people on low incomes can afford to isolate when needed. Secondly, review the vaccination priority list, so it includes factors such as income.
"Thirdly, create long term structural changes, such as a solution to the housing crisis, which leaves areas of east London at a continual disadvantage."
Becontree also has one of the highest ward percentages of self-employed people in Barking and Dagenham, representing 9.5 per cent of all residents aged 16 to 74 years.
New figures released by the ONS today suggest that as many as one in 20 people in Barking and Dagenham may have had the virus between January 12 and January 17 last week.
But, despite the seriousness of the situation, there is some cause for tentative optimism as the number of cases across Becontree have started to decrease.
The seven-day rolling rates of cases per 100,000 currently stand at 1,006.5 (Becontree Heath), 904.6 (Becontree West), 835 (Becontree North), 829.3 (Becontree East) and 804.6 (Becontree South). All figures, along with total number of cases, are down on the previous weekly figures.
For Councillor Muhammad Saleem, a Labour councillor in the ward, the drop in rates represents the cyclical nature of the virus.
He said: "I think you can see this virus moving around different parts of the borough - it's the same as it is in the rest of the country, some weeks it is higher in Liverpool, others it is Birmingham or London.
"We are a deprived borough. We are London but we are one of those where income is quite down - people here are frontline workers.
"We are Uber drivers, bus drivers, nurses and shop workers and because, financially, our community in Becontree needs to work to put food on the table."
As well as those frontline workers who have to travel from Becontree each day to work, 9.4 per cent of people aged from 16 to 74 are unemployed. More than a quarter (26.4 per cent) of people aged 16-24 are out of work.
Becontree sits above the borough average in both of those categories.
But Cllr Saleem said, despite the fear of the pandemic and knowing people who have suffered from the virus, the community has come together to help each other.
"There is a good sense of community here and people have really been helping one another," he said.
"We are able to get shopping for people who cannot leave the house and leave it on the doorstep, for example. People have pulled together."
A spokesperson for Barking and Dagenham Council said there had been a "high concentration of cases is in an area of Whalebone and an area of Becontree" earlier this month.
They also echoed the views of Turn2us and Cllr Saleem that the number of key workers living in the area has contributed to the high proportion of Covid cases.
"Many of the characteristics that make Barking and Dagenham and the rest of east London such a unique place have also contributed to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on our residents," they said.
"Yet despite this, our communities have shown great resilience, community spirit and generosity in continuing to support each other through what’s been a really challenging period for everyone."
They added: "For some weeks, the north east London cluster has seen the highest case rates of the virus in the country - due to various reasons like overcrowding, deprivation, health inequality, and the fact that lots of our residents work in crucial frontline roles that don’t have the luxury of working from home.
"East London residents are often the care workers, NHS staff, bus drivers and construction workers who are all continuing to go to work because they can’t work from home and have families to feed."
While Barking and Dagenham continues to hit the headlines for its number of coronavirus cases, Becontree residents can be buoyed that numbers are going down at last.
It has been one of the worst-hit areas of one of the most badly affected parts of the country and much of that can be attributed to the working demography, which includes many different types of key workers.
Cllr Saleem summed up: "There are more affluent parts of London and the country where people can stay at home more easily.
"But here, our workers are on the frontline and that makes it more difficult."
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