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This Disabled Mother Said That The Coronavirus Outbreak Is Making Her Overcrowded Flat Unbearable

“In the house we feel like we're in a prison, trust me, suffocation,” Rekha Begum told BuzzFeed News.

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“In the house, we feel like we're in a prison — trust me, suffocation,” Rekha Begum, who lives in Tower Hamlets, east London, tells BuzzFeed News.

Two years ago, Begum had what was initially thought to be a stroke, but was then diagnosed with a neurological functional disorder, which has left her needing help with personal care. She also has mental health problems, which she said her living situation is exacerbating.

Begam, a disabled mother of four, is stuck with her family inside an overcrowded two-bedroom flat. Her 20-year-old daughter, who works as a professional carer as well as providing personal care for Begum, doesn’t even have a bed and sleeps on the sofa, while Begum sleeps in a bed with her 6-year-old, youngest son. She has two other sons, an 18-year-old, who also has some health problems, and a 14-year-old, who share the second bedroom.

A report out this week from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre (ICNARC) suggested that ethnic minority groups are already being impacted more by the novel coronavirus, and one Tower Hamlets councillor has told BuzzFeed News that the Coronavirus pandemic is drawing attention to existing inequalities.

Rabina Khan, a Liberal Democrat councillor, said she can see the “impact on the ground of high infection rates amongst the BAME community who are already struggling on the breadline, overcrowded households, poor health, [and] to bury their loved ones.”

In Tower Hamlets, where Begam lives, overcrowding has historically been a problem and it remains so. A recent strategic report from the council said that “reducing overcrowding is a main aim of the council's housing service”, which a research briefing from the local authority in 2018 said that “37 per cent of households on the housing waiting list are living in over-crowded.”

Begam’s daughter goes out to work and, alongside paid carers, provides care for her elderly mother who lives two blocks away. The children clean the flat twice a day to try to prevent the spread of infection — but she says their situation is incredibly difficult.

“The government say we have to stay indoors,” she said. “Our house is [a] more unsafe place actually, more than outside, because in the house, me and my children [are] living in a… very tiny two-bedroom flat. We can smell each other’s breath.

“My children are trying to disinfect the house every day, twice… The toilet is very tiny, the bathroom is very tiny, and the bin has been [left] outside of my [front] door, the smells come into my house.”

She also worries about the impact her situation has on her children, who see her suffering as the coronavirus makes their already difficult living situation much harder.

“I was a working mother all these years and I've been looking after my children,” she said. “We were in overcrowded [accommodation] all the time, but I wasn’t that unwell [for] my children to get stressed, because we were quite happy that time, but now like they're seeing me suffering mentally in the house, it is like it's like a cage, an animal cage.”

She added: “When I was working, I spent about two grand on my house... I bought new furniture, I painted the house, everything because I don't like living in dirty and messy place.

“But in 2018 when I had a stroke and they actually first thought stroke, another diagnosis if they neurological functional disorder, and after since then, I’ve been having one problem and then another… It is very difficult to explain how painful my life is.”

With her younger children no longer attending school, the family are trapped inside the two-bedroom apartment for most of the time.

“My 14-year-old is very big,” she said. “His shoe size is 14, he wears 4XL clothes, he’s 6-foot-3. He sleeps in the single bed because the room is tiny... Sometimes [in the] middle of the night, he falls from the bed… In the middle of the night, they start fighting over snoring.”

“The house is giving me so much anxiety,” she added, “and I'm getting suffocated just like I'm inside the water…. I'm [an] OCD person for me it's like hell.”

Khan told BuzzFeed News that the coronavirus pandemic had highlighted existing inequalities between different communities.

She said: “Following the research indicating that BAME communities are being disproportionately affected by coronavirus, the government needs to think about how it addresses this as a matter of urgency.

"The government should create a BAME Community Coronavirus Strategic Group which should be cross-party and include community leaders and the BAME voluntary sector community.

"I see for myself the devastating impact on the ground of high infection rates amongst the BAME community who are already struggling on the breadline, overcrowded households, poor health, [and] to bury their loved ones.

"This pandemic is evidence of the greatest divide of health inequality locally, nationally and globally.”

A spokesperson for Tower Hamlets Council said: “Like many inner-city areas in the UK, Tower Hamlets is dealing with a housing crisis. We are committed to increasing significantly the number of new council homes but we recognise that many of our residents will still face a housing challenge. Many, including Ms Begum, live in overcrowded homes and we understand why, in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, that becomes even more of an issue.

“The council has been working with Ms Begum for some time in an effort to identify a larger and more suitable home. In 2013 she refused an offer on a three-bedroom property. Her daughter has also been offered a home which would have helped to relieve the overcrowding, but that offer was also refused.”

The spokesperson added: “We operate a choice-based lettings system which means people looking to be rehoused need to express an interest in properties as they become available. In Ms Begum’s case, she is in the highest priority group for rehousing but she has not submitted many bids for suitable properties — only four since September 2018. We understand this is because she only wishes to be rehoused in a specific part of the borough to be close to family.

“Our officers will continue to work with Ms Begum but she will also need to be flexible and understand that with larger homes in short supply, the best offer may be one that requires a degree of compromise.”

Begum disputed the council's statement, saying that she had not been offered a property in 2013, and that her daughter had not received the correspondence offering her a flat.

She said that the number of properties she was able to bid on was limited by her circumstances, including a need for disabled access, adding that few suitable homes in the area had come available.

She said: "They didn't offer me the house, I was the second person to view the house and I didn't receive any offer or anything, and my daughter didn't receive a letter to offer her the house."

Hannah Al-Othman is a political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Hannah Al-Othman at hannah.al-othman@buzzfeed.com.

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