Forty-seven year old Belly Mujinga was a ticket controller at London Victoria Station. She was married with one eleven year old daughter. Back in March, Belly was understandably extremely concerned about going to work during the coronavirus outbreak. Not only did she have a respiratory condition which put her at higher risk of becoming seriously ill should she contract the disease, it was becoming apparent that black people were more likely to die from it than their white counterparts. It is still not known exactly why that is – one theory is that it is literally due to the colour of their skin (something to do with vitamin D absorption) but even if this is correct it is unlikely to be the whole truth. Black people are also more likely to work in low paid, low status jobs which cannot be done from home or without contact with members of the public. They are more likely to have overcrowded homes. They may even receive inferior medical treatment due to poverty and preconceptions.
Belly knew she was in danger and begged her employers to let her work reduced hours, or use a plastic screen or a respirator mask. All her requests were refused. On 22nd March, Belly and a colleague were spat at by an irate passenger who then proceeded to tell them that he was suffering from coronavirus. Belly and her colleague both fell ill in the next week, and Belly never recovered. She died on April 5th.
The man who spat at the two women was soon identified, but no charges were brought against him. The British Transport Police said there was not enough evidence because the spitting was not recorded on CCTV and the man had not had a positive coronavirus test, so it could not be proved that she contracted it from him. While I understand that a prosecution for murder may have been difficult to obtain, I wonder just how hard it would have been to bring some kind of charge against him – surely spitting in someone’s face in the midst of a pandemic in front of witnesses would gain a prosecution for something!
Belly has become “the face” of British Black Lives Matter. Racism may or may not have been a factor in her attack, but it almost certainly was in her death. Systemic racism placed her in a low status public facing job, where her pleas for her safety were ignored, where she was more vulnerable to becoming ill and to dying, and it cost her her life. Belly’s family feel her employers treated her as an expendable commodity. Nearly two million people have signed a petition calling for justice for Belly. As we stand, the British Transport Police have agreed to review the case, and while her family remain realistic about the unlikeliness of a prosecution, they have pressed for greater protection for transport workers from their employers. It is now mandatory for all public transport users and staff to wear masks, hand sanitiser is in place and one way systems are in place.
“Black lives do matter. Belly’s life mattered. It mattered to me, to our daughter, our friends and family, to Belly’s colleagues and now it matters to many thousands of you out there.” – Lusamba Katalay, Belly’s husband.