LONDON — Belly Mujinga was working at London Victoria train station March 22 when a man approached her and a colleague and spat and coughed at them. He said he had the novel coronavirus.
Days after the attack, both women became sick, according to British media reports. Two weeks later, Mujinga, 47, died of the coronavirus. She left behind an 11-year-old daughter, Ingrid, who her father says has barely said a word since.
Because of the coronavirus restrictions in place in Britain, only 10 people were allowed to attend Mujinga’s funeral.
The assault on both rail workers and Mujinga’s death became the subject of a flood of public grief and anger in the United Kingdom, amid a national conversation about when and how to reopen after almost two months of lockdown.
British Transport Police confirmed Tuesday it had launched an investigation into Mujinga’s death, calling on anyone with information about the incident to come forward. Her photos plastered the front pages of British newspapers Wednesday as donations spiked on a fundraising page created to help support her family.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson called her death “tragic” and said the incident was “utterly appalling.”
Speaking to ITV News, Mujinga’s husband said she returned from work on the day of the assault “feeling very sad.” While it is impossible to say for certain when or how she contracted the virus, her job, like that of many deemed essential, put her in harm’s way. Her family told the broadcaster that in the days before her death, she was moved from the ticket office to a more public-facing role on the station concourse, despite preexisting health conditions.
Mujinga’s union, the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association, said she was “a vulnerable person” and classified as high risk because of health issues “known to her employer.”
The union is now questioning why Mujinga remained assigned to work on the front lines of the pandemic in the days before she died. “There are serious questions about her death; it wasn’t inevitable,” the union said in a statement.
Mujinga’s cousin also claims the bosses knew of her health condition. “They didn’t take any notice,” she told ITV London, adding that Mujinga reported the spitting incident to her employer after it happened.
Govia Thameslink Railway, the company for which Mujinga worked, said it was “devastated” by her death and offered its sympathies to her family. In a statement released Tuesday, it said that at the time of the spitting incident in March, the company was following the government advice that personal protective equipment for workers “was not required.”
It is now reviewing its guidelines on rail staff protection.
Reports of deliberate spitting and coughing at others in public during the pandemic are not limited to the U.K.
In the United States, Detroit bus driver Jason Hargrove complained about a female passenger whom he said openly coughed while onboard his vehicle. He began feeling ill days after the incident and died of the coronavirus a week later.
His death occurred as bus drivers in Detroit and across the United States were expressing concern over whether officials were doing enough to protect public transportation workers from the virus.
In Britain, Mujinga’s family says they are worried about the health and safety of other staff members who continue to work on the front lines during a global pandemic that has so far claimed over 33,000 lives in the United Kingdom — putting the country second behind the United States in terms of total deaths worldwide.
A total of 26 bus workers in London have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to the BBC. With Britain preparing to begin to emerge from its nationwide lockdown, questions of workplace safety will only become more pressing.
On Sunday, Johnson began encouraging those who work in construction and manufacturing to return to their jobs but maintained that public transport should be avoided.
Video shared on social media in recent days shows hundreds of commuters cramming into train carriages — some wearing face coverings, others opting not to. The scenes have sparked outrage and arguments that England is moving too fast, too soon. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all rejected Johnson’s change in messaging — from “stay at home” to “stay alert” — a clear sign they are going to follow their own path when it comes to easing lockdown restrictions.