LONDON—For more than a century, John Harris’s family-run funeral home has buried people from London’s working-class East End. He says he has never seen death on the scale wrought by Covid-19.
He has been getting 20 calls a day and has hired more staff to cope. “My father, who is 92, was doing burials during the Blitz in the 1940s,” when German bombers flattened much of the area, Mr. Harris said. “He did not experience this level of mortality.”
The outbreak here offers a stark warning to the U.S. and others about what lies in store if more-contagious variants of the new coronavirus—like the one sweeping through this densely populated and ethnically mixed community—take hold.
In the east London borough of Barking and Dagenham earlier this month, one in every 16 residents was estimated to be infected with Covid-19. The local hospital in nearby Romford rationed oxygen as beds ran short. It recently passed a grim milestone: more than 1,100 patients dead from the virus.
The local government has four cars cruising the streets with megaphones blaring the words “Coronavirus kills.” Religious leaders have agreed to stop holding in-person services in an effort to stem the pathogen’s spread.
“It is like being in the middle of a whirlwind,” said Pastor Tobi Adeola, who runs a church in the area.
The new U.K. variant of the virus, which scientists say is 50% to 70% more contagious than previously dominant strains, has sent cases and deaths surging since December. A new national lockdown has started to curb transmission. But over the past week, Covid-19 deaths have been running at more than 1,000 a day, a 50% increase from the week before. The hospital system is creaking under the strain.
A dense mishmash of new apartments, public-housing blocks and bustling commercial streets, Barking and Dagenham—part of what has been dubbed the Covid Triangle—has proven to be the perfect incubator for the virus.
Barking and the neighboring borough of Newham have the lowest median family incomes in London. Many of the residents work in front-line jobs that require them to commute and mix with other people. There are numerous multigenerational households.
Infected residents “could not afford to take the time off because they couldn’t get paid,” said Darren Rodwell, leader of the Barking and Dagenham council. “Covid disproportionately hits poor areas and we happen to be the poorest.”
The areas have the two highest Covid-19 infection rates in the country. Barking and Dagenham recorded 1,632 new cases a week per 100,000 people earlier this month, while Newham recorded 1,482 per 100,000.
The fishmongers, Jamaican jerk chicken outlets and Halal butchers that make up Queen’s Market in Newham are quieter than normal these days.
Naveed Choudhry, 44 years old, who sells fruit and vegetables, said he lost a friend to the virus two days earlier, a fellow Pakistani street trader who used to work at the market. He is worried, too. “But if you don’t work you get no food,” he said. Government support for struggling businesses like his own doesn’t even cover his rent of 1,800 pounds, equivalent to about $2,400.
Hejratullah Azizi, 23, a butcher at the market who arrived as a refugee from Afghanistan in 2019, lives with his uncle’s family in a household of nine. He hasn’t had Covid-19 and thinks the government is overreacting. “That lockdown is a bad idea. It’s bad for business,” he said.
The new variant has been traced back to an asymptomatic individual in southeastern England tested on Sept. 20 and to another in London on the following day, though scientists think it first emerged in someone else.
In east London, health officials began to notice something was wrong when, despite a short national lockdown imposed in November, cases kept rising—even when they were falling elsewhere in the country.
Large numbers of schoolchildren and teaching staff began testing positive, said Jason Strelitz, the director of public health in Newham. “Something different was going on,” he said. People’s behavior hadn’t changed. “The one thing that changed is the strain of the virus.”
School-age children account for a third of the population in the area, resulting in school-based transmission back to multigenerational families, said Mr. Rodwell, the Barking councilor. He said he urged the government to tighten restrictions. Instead, they were loosened in the run-up to Christmas.
In Barking, there is no main shopping center so people traveled to other boroughs for Christmas shopping, locals said, catching and spreading the virus in the process. Visits to extended families in nearby boroughs during the holiday season accelerated the spread further.
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In Queen’s Hospital, which serves Barking, the situation began to spin out of control. After Christmas, ambulances lined up to discharge Covid-19 patients and wards became clogged with the sick.
At around the same time, Margaret Hodge, a local lawmaker in the opposition Labour Party, was briefed by hospital officials that demand for oxygen in the hospital was outstripping supply. About 10% of hospital staff fell ill and family doctors were called in to help. A pediatrics ward was converted to treat adults with Covid-19.
About 300 nurses and other health-care staff were redeployed into critical care and other wards, the hospital said, adding that critical-care capacity was 95% full.
Deaths are roiling the community. Ash Siddique, secretary of Al Madina mosque in Barking, said a prayer Thursday for a 52-year-old father of five who died three days after falling ill. Seven people in his Muslim community have died in recent days.
“We certainly didn’t have that in the first and second lockdown,” he said.
Front-line workers are being hit hard. Abdul-Razaq Abdullah, who fled Iraq and set up a medical practice in the area, survived the first wave. But in November, two of his patients caught the virus and the 68-year-old doctor himself became unwell. He died a month later, said his daughter, Ayat Ali.
“They never gave him any PPE,” Ms. Ali said, adding that she had to buy her father masks from hardware outlets. “I feel let down.”
“We are working tirelessly to make sure our [National Health Service] and care staff are protected,” said a spokesperson for the U.K.’s Department of Health and Social Care, which oversees the National Health Service. The government has followed independent expert advice saying health and care staff should be made a priority in the Covid-19 vaccination program, the spokesperson said.
Authorities have responded by rolling out mass testing. In Newham, people who work outside their homes are encouraged to be tested twice a week.
Enforcement of the lockdown is also being ramped up. Police recently shut down two large house parties and shops are asking people to wear masks. A McDonald’s in Barking agreed to shut its doors in November after patrons flouted rules.
To combat the virus, Britain has accelerated its vaccine rollout. However, east London was one of the last areas in the capital to get shots, said Mr. Rodwell. And another wrinkle is presenting itself: Some people in ethnic-minority communities are reluctant to be inoculated, said Mr. Strelitz.
“There is lots of evidence that would suggest that there is a level of vaccine hesitancy in our population,” he said, adding that this fear has been confirmed as the vaccine is delivered. “We are going to have to work really hard.”
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