In Britain, the freely accessible and comprehensive public health system – known as the National Health Service (NHS) – has long been a source of patriotic pride for citizens of all political persuasions.
But as COVID-19 coursed through the country last year, a system already reeling from years of neglect and funding cuts was on the verge of collapse – exacerbated by a government response which led to the highest death toll in Europe. (At the time of publication, the United Kingdom is seventh in global rankings of case numbers, behind Russia and marginally ahead of Italy.)
It soon emerged that, for a wide range of socioeconomic reasons, ethnic minority communities were disproportionately affected by coronavirus – both among the general public and the medical profession. More than 20 percent of the NHS workforce comes from minority backgrounds, including 40 percent of medical staff.
However, according to a study published at the peak of the first wave in April, a shocking 94 percent of doctors and 71 percent of nurses who died from the virus belong to that group.
Dr Mohammed Abbas Khaki could easily have become one of those statistics. The young general practitioner from north London caught COVID-19 while working on the front lines in early 2021, shortly after production of this documentary was completed – and he thankfully went on to make a full recovery.
But it served as a reality check for both “Dr Mo” and the filmmaking team. And it brings our core question into sharper focus: What does the tragedy of the pandemic teach us about social justice and economic inequality in Britain today?
As a right-wing government tightens migration laws in the aftermath of Brexit, the COVID crisis has catalysed fierce debate over the status of key workers who keep the country running. Dr Mo, himself, is the son of a Gujarati-Tanzanian pharmacist who migrated to the UK in 1968, studied at university, started a business and raised several children who now dedicate their lives to public health.
During a long summer lockdown, the viral “Clap for Carers” movement saw millions applaud the NHS in towns and cities across the land. But many of the same people backed Prime Minister Boris Johnson to lead Britain out of the European Union – a populist policy which has divided the nation and crushed any hope of a swift post-COVID economic recovery.
That potent contradiction is the nexus of our film, which tells Dr Mo’s inspiring personal story of faith and service with the aim of painting a picture of life in the UK at such a crucial moment for the country.
A film by: Ana González & Frederick Bernas
Editor: Ala Alhussan
Producer: Ala Alhussan
Executive Producer: Andrew Phillips
An Eye Rise Films production for Al Jazeera Close Up
With thanks to the Who Is Hussain Foundation.