parPar Caroline Pailliez
PARIS (Reuters) – At the start of the French COVID-19 crisis in February, epidemiologist Cyrille Delpierre encountered a problem trying to find out which groups of people were getting sick.
While other countries had data showing a worrying and disproportionate infection rate among ethnic minorities, France did not have such information due to a long-standing taboo on the compilation of the race of citizens aimed at prevent discrimination.
In the end, Delpierre, 42, turned to data compiled by Imperial College London on the epidemic in Britain for clues as to how the disease could also affect France.
“They knew who was going to die and who was surviving – we were still studying,” said Delpierre, who began his career studying the social factors of AIDS and now leads a team of researchers in Toulouse at the Institut National State of Health and Medical Research. (INSERM).
French governments have long cherished their policy of “color blindness”. Census questionnaires, job applications and medical records avoid references to ethnicity or religion.
But now – on the back of the global Black Lives Matter movement and the increased suffering of coronaviruses in immigrant communities – some activists in France say that politics can harm rather than protect minorities.
“We are too politically correct in France,” said Ghyslain Vedeux, who heads the defense group for the Council representing black associations. “Blacks, Arabs, immigrants and the poor in general have been the hardest hit. Why not make it official? ”
Medical researchers believe that a strategy to manage the coronavirus, which killed more than 30,000 people and infected more than 200,000 in France, would have better targeted vulnerable people if there had been more data on the origin ethnic.
The national statistics agency INSEE only published data last week showing that deaths among people born abroad increased more than twice as much as those born in France at the height of the pandemic.
“We were three to four months behind the rest of the world,” said Delpierre about the release of the data.
Even in this case, the information did not allow ethnic origin to be recorded, which means that second generations of immigrants would not be included.
Delpierre and his colleagues interviewed 5,000 people to assess the impact of the socio-economic context on the virus. They have permission from the French privacy watchdog to ask questions about ethnicity – while keeping identities anonymous – but are still awaiting permission to delve into broader medical records.
A representative from the Ministry of Health said that although there may be a correlation between infections and minorities, data on ethnic identity was not necessary to identify clusters of coronavirus, the geographic area being the important factor.
Despite faster ethnic data, Britain and the United States have lost far more lives than France due to COVID-19, approximately 45,000 and 136,000 respectively.
Founded on the spirit of equality of its 1848 revolution, France attempted to foster a common vision according to which identity is above all centered on the French citizen.
The collaboration of the Vichy regime with Nazi Germany during the Second World War in the deportation of the Jews reinforced the beliefs that the state should not favor ethnic categories.
But in late May, as the coronavirus challenged ideas from around the world, French government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye wrote in Le Monde that it might be a good time to debate the place of ethnic data. .
The response from President Emmanuel Macron’s office was frank: “This is not a debate that the President wishes to open at this stage,” informed a journalist.
Ndiaye, born in Senegal, has since left the government in a reshuffle, but there was nothing to suggest that she was linked to her comments.
Nowhere in France has the coronavirus been felt more intensely than Seine-Saint-Denis, an impoverished suburb north of Paris with a large immigrant population.
There, the deaths of people born in France have almost doubled, while they have almost tripled among those born in North Africa and more than quadrupled among those from sub-Saharan Africa, showed published INSEE data. last week.
Jean-Sébastien Cadwallader, a general practitioner in the Aubervilliers district of Seine-Saint-Denis, said he received 50 calls a day at the height of the epidemic from people infected with the virus or worried about having it.
Some were social workers, security guards and public transport workers who feared losing their jobs if they were locked out.
The narrow apartments were also a source of concern among migrants, he said, echoing the lack of research on why communities like his were so badly affected.
“With regard to COVID-19, we were much more affected, and we felt it,” said Cadwallader, 38, whose clinic welcomes many people from sub-Saharan Africa.
“It was very difficult for many of them because social assistance (such as food distribution) had to be partially interrupted during the lockout. The migrants were unable to renew their documents either. These people have been completely forgotten. ”
(Reporting by Caroline Pailliez; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)