Nazir Afzal on life, loss and COVID-19

I spoke to Nazir Afzal shortly after the release of his much-awaited memoir and after his older brother’s passing from COVID-19, both occurring almost simultaneously in the midst of a global pandemic.

Nazir Afzal, former Chief Crown Prosecutor for the Northwest of England, told me that his older brother’s body had been kept in an industrial fridge for six days after he died from coronavirus, due to a ‘300-body backlog’. Afzal said his brother, Umar, a former Home Office interpreter, died at his Birmingham home on April 8th. His family were unable to observe the Islamic tradition of burying the body within 24 hours of death.

In a podcast interview for The Guardian, just a few days after his brother’s passing, Afzal talked about his grief, and his pride in his brother. ‘In the few days he has been gone now I can’t begin to tell you how many messages I’ve had. It’s a great shame that he can’t see what people are saying about him right now and I wish I had said to him more frequently that he made me immensely proud and still does,’ his voice trailing off, overcome with emotion. ‘He was probably the healthiest of us all, he didn’t look his age at all,’ he added.

Afzal told me his mother had seen her son for the last time through a window. I asked how his mother was coping: ‘She had double pneumonia. She is skin and bones, and is now nursing a broken heart. We can try and repair the skin and bones but can’t repair the broken heart. She is on oxygen 24/7. She’s at home. We’re just making her comfortable. She is 92 years old and, MashaAllah, she has done really well but we know we haven’t got very long with her.’ This can’t be an easy realisation.

The launch of Afzal’s memoirs were shrouded in grief and uncertainty. A video clip released on the day of his book launch somberly captured his conflicting emotions: ‘This should have been a great day as my memoir, The Prosecutor, was published. It has been darkened by the premature death of my eldest brother from COVID-19 and the harm that has been suffered by millions of families throughout the world. My life and career working to bring justice would not be possible without the encouragement I’ve received from him and my family. Families, as always, are the unsung heroes of personal successes. I’m reminded that after the hopelessness there is hope; after the darkness there is a brighter sun.’

The Prosecutor by Nazir Afzal

While many book launches were postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, publisher Ebury went ahead with the planned release date. Within five days of release, Amazon sold out. ‘We live in strange times. I’m very fortunate that I’ve been covered in national papers. We’ve serialized the book in the Daily Mail. The Times newspaper has written about it quite extensively. I have had a bit of a digital campaign. It’s a shame I couldn’t do the talks this spring and summer but they will be rearranged and I’ll be able to do them later on in the year. I feel very honoured by the reception it has been given, it has been extremely well received by the people who read it and it is doing very well. I can’t really complain at all despite the horrible times we are in.’

I asked him how the early experiences documented in the memoir had shaped his life. ‘It’s only during the process of book writing that it became a form of self-reflection. I hadn’t appreciated how much the first twenty years of my life had shaped the rest of my journey. Being a victim of racist abuse and bullying as I was, in a very difficult time where racism was overt. Being the child of immigrants, when my parents were constantly thinking that at some point we would be kicked out. All of that clearly played on my mind. The experience of losing my cousin, Yasmin, in my arms, as I did on that journey back from Pakistan, gave me the realisation that I didn’t want any women or girls to die on my watch. So much could have been done then.’ Afzal was referring to a road trip he made to Pakistan with his parents, siblings and younger cousin, Yasmin. She fell ill during the return journey back to the UK and died in just a few hours from acute dehydration. Afzal cradled her body in his arms until officials in Dover carried her away.

This trauma obsessed Afzal for years after and contributed to his choice of the legal profession as his career. ‘Having thought back to those events, it made me realise that I do not want to carry dead bodies in my hands. I want to be able to prevent them happening in the first place. I think that journey did more than just open my eyes to Pakistan. It also opened my eyes to vulnerability.’

The car journey alone could have been a book in itself – a fascinating account of how the entire family managed to drive from the UK to Pakistan in 30 days for his brother’s wedding. It was 1970: a world with open borders, where that car journey was a fairly smooth undertaking. It was also a defining moment for the then eight-year-old Afzal whose first interaction with white people was not in Birmingham, where he lived, but in Saleh Khana, a remote family village in Northern Pakistan.

‘I tried to explain and describe what it was like for me experiencing Pakistan for the first time. In the village my family lived in, there were all these German and Swiss hippies who had come to live the life. My interaction with them was literally my first interaction with white people. I went to Pakistan for my first interaction with white people. It taught me a tremendous amount. I met my extended family for the first time, experiencing how people did justice there, i.e. by throwing stones at each other, with land disputes settled by a little battle. That’s the way things were back then.’

Nazir Afzal reiterates the importance of listening. ‘My book is about listening. The one thing that leaders are really generally bad at is listening. I’m not an expert, but I listened to experts such as victim support groups and I acted upon what they told me. Leaders are also really bad at admitting when things go wrong. They always find an excuse or someone to blame. I hope that going forward people begin to realise that the first step to take before you can rebuild public confidence is to admit that you have got something wrong. But the important thing is to actually do something about it and not just simply say I’m sorry.’

Afzal remains an optimist. That sense of hope is evident in his book. ‘Despite people being in the most horrible circumstances, there is some element of hope. Whether it’s justice or whether it is being able to move on. I also have hope around the pandemic. One thing we have done is we have realised how important low-paid people are. We call them low skilled and now we are relying upon them to keep us alive. I’m hopeful that moving forward we won’t just be clapping every Thursday, we will be showing our recognition for people who are doing these roles, who keep us alive even when there isn’t a pandemic. It has brought communities together. Strange as it may sound being locked in your home, you actually switch to online activity and through joint experiences, you share something with other parts of the world and with other people in the country. I hope that sense of enablement  and community sustains us into the future. But I also hope that we learn what we could do differently.’

Instances of racism and domestic violence spiked during lockdown. Afzal expresses his dissatisfaction with the absence of an effective national strategy. ‘The very first tweet I did when we became aware of the lockdown, was to ask what the government’s strategy for dealing with the increase in domestic abuse would be and there wasn’t one. Anyone with any understanding would have known there was an issue there. We also know that hate grows at times like this. You look for a hate figure, someone to blame. Again, there was no strategy to deal with the hate. We’ve got major consequences to deal with. When we come out of this pandemic, when the children go back to school, for example, hundreds if not thousands will have been abused, neglected, sexually abused. Have we got a strategy to deal with that? Our teachers, educational welfare officers and the education system need to be geared up and to have a strategy to deal with and encourage young people and children to share what has happened to them and then to deal with the information they’re given. And I’m telling you, we haven’t got anything lined up. The focus is entirely on keeping children two metres apart.’

I asked him whether he was able to exercise any influence on government level decisions, considering his experience. ‘The problem with any government is that they sometimes don’t want to listen. I’m very lucky that I have a voice, that I have access to the media and social media and have more than 300 MPs follow me on Twitter. I have the opportunity to tell people, either directly or indirectly, what I have learnt and what they could be doing differently. The problem is that I don’t have the power to do something about it myself other than to hold people to account.’

With this pandemic largely affecting people from the black and minority ethnic (BAME) community, and having seen his brother fall victim to it, Afzal feels strongly about this stark disparity.  ‘Evidence speaks for itself, doesn’t it. I think something like 80% of the doctors who died are from BAME communities, a huge percentage of nurses who have died, a huge percentage of those in the care homes who have died were from BAME backgrounds. The Office of National Statistics last week suggested that if you’re black or Asian you are three times more likely to die from COVID-19. We need to understand now why BAME people are so at risk. All of the possible causes can be quickly analysed and we can have some early view as to why it is what it is. How do we keep BAME communities safe during this pandemic and in any future pandemic unless we really understand what the causes are?’

Afzal feels the government’s response to the pandemic was too slow and flawed, resulting in a far larger number of avoidable fatalities. ‘Why is it that a country like South Korea has so few deaths and in the UK we can have something like over 50,000, despite a similar population size? So you have to ask, what could have been done differently and you have to be more challenging of those that made those decisions. You’ve got to also be much more supportive of people who have lost loved ones. Every number is a human family. If it was a terrorist attack and say, God forbid, ten people were killed, you would read about those ten people and their lives. Six hundred people died today due to the pandemic and you hear nothing about them yet the impact is exactly the same. I think it’s important to put a face to the number.’

Boris Johnson’s chief advisor, Dominic Cummings was at the heart of a controversy when during lockdown he travelled 260 miles from London to Durham. Despite clear evidence of wrongdoing, Conservative politicians defended Cummings. Nazir Afzal spoke for many across the country who felt cheated. ‘My mother is on an oxygen tank in Birmingham. My brother died of COVID-19 and I wasn’t able to go to his funeral. We’ve all had to make sacrifices. This is a shared responsibility and when one person breaches that shared responsibility all of us are affected by it.’

As a consequence, Afzal has now joined a legal campaign for a new investigation into Dominic Cummings’ alleged breaches of the coronavirus lockdown rules. He has urged his former employers at the Crown Prosecution Service and the police to pursue a case against Cummings over his trips to Durham and Barnard Castle during the peak of the outbreak. He warned that if this was not investigated then he would consider launching a private prosecution on ‘behalf of every citizen whose goodwill and generosity led them to make painful sacrifices in order to comply with the law and protect their fellow citizens.’

As far as future plans are concerned, Afzal is rewriting his memoir for the paperback edition ‘because I want it to be up to date with my thoughts, for example, about how things need to improve. It’ll probably include things like the pandemic.’ Add to this, amongst numerous other commitments, the impending legal campaign against Dominic Cummings and Mr Afzal is busier than he was as The Prosecutor. He is determined to keep on fighting the good fight.