African immigrants hardest hit by COVID-19, French study shows

Death rates among immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa doubled in France and tripled in the Paris region at the height of France’s coronavirus outbreak, according to a study from the French government’s statistics agency released Tuesday, AP Europe reports.

The INSEE agency’s findings are the closest France has come yet to acknowledging with numbers the virus’s punishing and disproportionate impact on the country’s Black immigrants and the members of other systemically overlooked minority groups.

The study was the first in France to cross-reference deaths that occurred in March and April, when intensive care units were swamped with COVID-19 patients, with the regions of origin of the people who died. By highlighting dramatic increases in deaths among immigrants born in Africa and Asia, the research helps fill some of the gaps in France’s understanding of its minority communities.

Mounting evidence from the United States and Britain pointing to greater COVID-19 mortality risks for Black residents than whites has increased pressure for French studies. Researchers bemoaned that their hands were tied by French taboos against identifying people by race or ethnicity and by legislation that regulates the scope of research and data collection.

“France doesn’t do ethnic-racial statistics, but we have the country of birth,” Le Minez said. “That is already very, very illuminating.”

INSEE researchers drilled down into data gleaned from France’s civil registry of births, deaths and marriages to look at the birth countries of people who died during the March-April peak of the country’s outbreak. France has reported about 30,000 virus-related deaths in all since the pandemic started.

The research findings were particularly alarming for the Paris region, especially in the densely populated and underprivileged northern reaches of the French capital. Compared to March-April of 2019, Paris-region deaths during the same two months this year shot up by 134% among North African immigrants and by 219% for people born elsewhere in Africa.

The region’s increased March-April mortality in 2020 was less marked among people born in France: 78%.

Skewed death rates were even more pronounced in Seine-Saint-Denis, the northern outskirt of Paris long troubled by poverty and overcrowding. There, deaths increased by 95% among the French-born but by 191% among people born in North Africa and by 368% among those from sub-Saharan Africa.

The study suggested that African immigrants were more exposed to infection because they live in more crowded conditions, make greater use of public transport to commute to work and are more likely to have been among the key workers who continued at their posts when white-collar workers stayed home during France’s two-month lockdown.

Sociologist Brun said the study, by exposing limits in France’s knowledge about minorities, offered compelling arguments for broader research.

“Once you wedge a foot in the door, it becomes easier to open it,” she said. “What’s precious about this data is that, roughly put, it gives us a glimpse of what we could learn if we agreed to really look at racial inequalities in health. So not just immigrants, but also their descendants and even perhaps their grandkids, that’s to say all those people who are racialised as non-white in France and live with discrimination because of that.”

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