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.
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.
The topic has become an increasingly hot-button issue for French administrators in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the death of George Floyd. French researchers hailed the study as an important step but also said it only begins to scratch the surface of how the pandemic is impacting France’s minorities, who often live in crowded, underprivileged neighborhoods,.
French Black rights activists have long pushed for more and better ethnic-specific data. Officially, the French republic is colorblind, refusing to categorize or count people by race or ethnicity. For critics, that guiding philosophy has made the state oblivious to discrimination and put minorities at additional risk during the pandemic.
“I’m delighted, and I know colleagues are delighted, because we have been waiting for this data,” Solene Brun, a sociologist specializing in issues of race and inequality, said. “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.”
Most glaringly, the study shed no light on how the French-born children of immigrants are faring in the pandemic. Still, its findings pointing to high death rates among their foreign-born parents suggest that minorities, especially Black people from Africa, may have disproportionately borne much of the brunt in France.
“They have very clearly been hard hit. That is undeniable,” said Sylvie le Minez, who heads INSEE’s department of demographic studies.
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 transportation 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 racialized as non-white in France and live with discrimination because of that.”