A migrant camp in Saint Denis, north of Paris, in Jan. 2019 | Photo : InfoMigrants
A migrant camp in Saint Denis, north of Paris, in Jan. 2019 | Photo : InfoMigrants

COVID-19 death rates were twice and sometimes three times higher among foreign-born French nationals or residents compared to their French-born counterparts at the height of the pandemic, according to a landmark study. The research, the first of its kind in France, where the collection of ethnic statistics is officially prohibited, found African and Asian immigrant groups were hit hardest by the virus.

Are immigrants more vulnerable to coronavirus? A study by the Paris-based INSEE (National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies) published July 7 reveals that the mortality rate at the height of the COVID-19 crisis in France among foreign-born nationals and residents increased more than twice as much as the rate for those born in France.

In March and April, 129,000 people died (from all causes) compared to 102,800 at the same time last year, an increase of 25% attributed to the pandemic. At the same time, deaths of foreign-borns rose from 22% in 2019 to 48% this year.

Ban on 'ethnic' statistics obscures discrimination trends

The high death rate among these groups can be explained in part by the fact that immigrant populations in France tend to settle in poorer, more densely populated areas, especially in the Paris metropolitan area of Île-de-France, home to impoverished banlieues, or suburbs. "For people born in France and living in a densely populated commune, deaths between March 1 and April 30, 2020, increased by 39% compared to the same period in 2019," the study noted.

This rate jumped by 76% for North Africans and 158% for sub-Saharan Africans because of their "over-representation in this type of municipality, in Île-de-France as in other regions," the study found.

The case of the northern Parisian suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, where many immigrants live in underprivileged neighborhoods, perfectly illustrates the trend: the mortality rate between spring 2019 and 2020 increased by 95% among people born in France but by 191% for those from North Africa and a massive 368% for those born in sub-Saharan Africa.

The collection of so-called "ethnic" statistics is prohibited in France since the French republic is officially color-blind, refusing to categorize or count people by race or ethnicity. It may, however, be authorized on a case-by-case basis, particularly for scientific purposes such as the study carried out by INSEE. Minority rights activists have long believed that the absence of ethnic statistics has made the French state blind to the problems of racism and discrimination.

Mounting evidence from the US, Britain and Canada pointing to greater COVID-19 mortality risks for non-white groups increased pressure on French researchers to do the same. While the study pointing to high death rates among their foreign-born parents suggest that minorities, especially from sub-Saharan African groups, were disproportionately affected by the pandemic, it shed no light on the situation among French-born children of immigrants. 

For the researchers though, the use of available data showed valuable findings. "France doesn't do ethnic-racial statistics, but we have the country of birth," said Sylvie le Minez, head of INSEE's department of demographic studies. "That is already very, very illuminating."


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