The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare racial disparities that have long plagued France and its health system, with minorities experiencing disproportionately higher mortality rates.
“[Minorities] have very clearly been hard hit. That is undeniable,” said Sylvie le Minez, head of the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies’s department of demographic studies.
A recent study by the institute revealed that throughout the pandemic mortality rates rose disproportionately among Africa- and Asia-born people in France compared with the France-born populations.
There are many reasons why African immigrants in France experienced higher mortality rates, according to the study: They were more exposed to infection because they live in more crowded apartments; they make greater use of public transportation to get to work; and the majority are essential workers who continued their jobs while white-collar workers stayed home during the two-month lockdown.
The findings were particularly alarming for the densely populated and underprivileged northern neighborhoods of Paris. Compared to March through April 2019, deaths in the area increased by 134% among North African immigrants and by 219% for people born elsewhere in Africa. The increase was less marked among people born in France at 78%.
Seine-Saint-Denis, on the northern outskirt of Paris, experienced the highest rises in mortality rates in the country. The area, which long has been troubled by poverty and overcrowding, saw deaths increased by 95% among the French-born, by 191% among people born in North Africa, and by a staggering 368% among those from sub-Saharan Africa.
This was because the department has a disproportionate rate of people with co-morbidities, such as the highest rate of diabetes in the country, said Marie Pastor, a health official for Seine-Saint-Denis.
In addition, there is a scarcity of general practitioners, who have been decreasing in recent years despite a growing population. That has generated a “feeling of distance from institutions” and discouraged people from seeking treatment, Pastor said.
The area also has twice the unemployment rate of the national average and a high concentration of essential workers, which made it difficult to stay safe and isolate.
The mortality rates “did not surprise” Abdelaali el Badaoui, the founder of Banlieues Santé, an organization of doctors, health officials and social workers that has been working for 15 years in 300 French immigrant neighborhoods. They deliver food and basic protective gear, as well as help people navigate the French healthcare system.
El Badaoui said he hopes to “plug people back to health care routes” and help overcome racial disparities.
The National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies study broke with a tradition whereby France is colorblind, refusing to categorize or count people by race or ethnicity.
“France doesn’t do ethnic-racial statistics, but we have the country of birth,” Le Minez said. “That is already very, very illuminating.”
For others, the study only scratches the surface of racial disparities in the country.
“I’m delighted, and I know colleagues are delighted, because we have been waiting for this data,” said Solene Brun, a sociologist specialized in race and inequality. “But our enthusiasm is tempered by the fact that this concerns only countries of origin. It’s not looking at Black populations or North African and Asian populations in their entirety.”