PARIS (Reuters) – Back at the start of France’s COVID-19 crisis in February, epidemiologist Cyrille Delpierre encountered a problem when trying to find out what groups of people were falling sick.
While other nations had data showing a worryingly disproportionate infection rate among ethnic minorities, France had no such information due to a long-standing taboo on compiling citizens’ race intended to prevent discrimination.
In the end, 42-year-old Delpierre turned to data compiled by Imperial College in London on Britain’s epidemic for clues about how the disease could also be affecting France.
“They knew who was dying and who was surviving – we were still putting studies together,” said Delpierre, who began his career studying social factors in AIDS and now heads a team of researchers in Toulouse at the state National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM).
French governments have long cherished their “colour-blind” policy. Census questionnaires, job applications and medical files avoid references to ethnicity or religion.
But now – on the back of the global Black Lives Matter movement and heightened coronavirus suffering in immigrant communities – some campaigners in France say the policy can harm rather than shield minorities.
“We’re too politically correct in France,” said Ghyslain Vedeux, who heads advocacy group the Representative Council of Black Associations. “Blacks, Arabs, immigrants, and more broadly poor people, were the hardest hit. Why not make it official?”
Medical researchers believe strategy to handle the coronavirus, which has killed more than 30,000 people and infected more than 200,000 in France, would have better targeted vulnerable people had there been more ethnicity data.
Only last week did national statistics agency INSEE publish data showing deaths among people born abroad increased more than twice as much as those born in France at the pandemic’s height.
“We were three to four months behind other countries,” said Delpierre of the data’s publication.
Even then, the information stopped short of recording ethnicity, meaning second generations of immigrants would not be included.
Delpierre and colleagues are surveying 5,000 people to gauge the impact of socio-economic context on the virus. They have permission from France’s state privacy watchdog to ask about ethnicity – while keeping identities anonymous – but are still awaiting authorization to delve into wider medical records.
A health ministry representative said that although there may be a correlation between infections and minorities, data on ethnic identity was unnecessary to identify coronavirus clusters, with geographical area the important factor.
Despite having quicker ethnicity-based data, both Britain and the United States have lost far more lives than France to the COVID-19 disease, about 45,000 and 136,000 respectively.
Founded on the spirit of “égalité” (equality) from its 1848 revolution, France has tried to foster a common vision that identity is centred on being a French citizen above all else.
The collaboration of the Vichy regime with Nazi Germany during World War Two in the deportation of Jews deepened convictions that the state must not foster ethnic categories.
But in late May, as the coronavirus challenged ideas around the world, then French government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye wrote in Le Monde newspaper that it might be the right time to debate the place of ethnic data.
The response from President Emmanuel Macron’s office was blunt: “This is not a debate that the president wishes to open at this stage,” an official briefed reporters.
Ndiaye, born in Senegal, has since left government in a reshuffle, though there was no suggestion it was linked to her comments.
Nowhere in France has the coronavirus been felt more acutely than Seine-Saint-Denis, an impoverished north Paris outskirt with a large immigrant population.
There, deaths among French-born almost doubled, while they nearly tripled among those born in north Africa and more than quadrupled among those from sub-Saharan Africa, the INSEE data released last week showed.
Jean-Sebastien Cadwallader, a general practice doctor in Seine-Saint-Denis’ Aubervilliers neighbourhood, said he took 50 calls a day at the height of the outbreak from people with the virus or worried they had it.
Some were care workers, security guards and public transport workers fearful of losing jobs if they went into lockdown.
Cramped apartments were also a worry among migrants, he said, echoing concern at lack of research into why communities like his were so badly-hit.
“In terms of COVID-19, we were much more affected, and we felt that,” said the 38-year-old Cadwallader whose clinic receives many people from sub-Saharan African origins.
“It was really hard for a lot of them because social help (like food distribution) had to be partially stopped during the lockdown. Migrants could not renew their documents either. Those people were completely forgotten.”
(Reporting by Caroline Pailliez; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)