The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How France’s aversion to collecting data on race affects its coronavirus response

Bondy, a Paris suburb, runs a coronavirus testing center out of its municipal sports arena. (Romuald Meigneux/Sipa/AP)

PARIS — Just days after Karim Allouache ran in France's municipal elections in March, he was in a medically induced coma and on a ventilator, fighting for his life.

It took more than three weeks for his condition to stabilize. And more than three months later, he is still recovering — and wondering what made him especially susceptible to the novel coronavirus.

Allouache assumes he must have picked up the virus while campaigning for a seat in the Paris suburb of Bondy. Indeed, the poor and multiracial communities north of the capital have been hit especially hard, with the department of Seine-Saint-Denis recording a 120 percent increase in deaths compared with the same period last year.

But Allouache and others say understanding who is getting the virus and why has been hindered by France’s aversion to collecting data on race and ethnicity. While the United States and Britain have come to recognize that their racial minorities are dying disproportionately of covid-19, France inhibits itself from making that sort of assessment. Critics say that may limit the country’s ability to identify and protect vulnerable populations, especially in the event of a second wave of the pandemic.

“For me, I dream of ethnic statistics,” Allouache said. “We are scared of the reality.”

French law largely bans the collection of data on an individual’s race, ethnicity or religion. That’s in reaction to World War II, when French authorities classified Jewish citizens in a way that enabled deportation to Nazi concentration camps.

France, which relinquished its last colonial holdings only in the 1960s, also sees itself as an exemplar of human rights, and especially of universal equality. The French political establishment tends to dismiss any attention paid to race — even in the service of fighting discrimination — as a means of essentializing race and jeopardizing equality.

But the killing of George Floyd in the United States and the migration of Black Lives Matter protests to France have ignited calls for an officially colorblind society to recognize the pervasiveness of racial discrimination.

The woman behind France’s Black Lives Matter movement wants a race-blind society to recognize its racism

Sibeth Ndiaye, the chief spokeswoman for the French government and an immigrant from Senegal, suggested in Le Monde this month that it was time to reconsider the country’s knee-jerk “no” to racial data of any kind. “Why not pose — in a calm and constructive manner — the debate over ethnic statistics?” she wrote.

Another government spokesperson told reporters that President Emmanuel Macron did not wish to open the debate “at this stage.” Macron is “favorable to concrete actions in the fight against discrimination, more than to a new debate that will be difficult to translate into rapid and visible results,” according to an Élysée Palace statement. Several government ministers objected to a proposal they saw as threatening France’s universalist culture.

But advocates say the absence of official statistics makes it harder for France to address such issues as housing and employment discrimination — and amounts to negligence in the context of the pandemic.

Patrick Simon, a senior researcher focusing on immigration and discrimination at France’s National Institute for Demographic Studies, said France would be in a better position to save lives if it knew whether certain ethnicities were overrepresented among coronavirus cases and deaths.

“Not to see minorities as a means of protecting them doesn’t hold,” he said. “It’s necessary to bolster the information we have to protect people.”

Jennifer Kauffmann, an emergency room doctor at Jean-Verdier Hospital in Bondy, said the absence of statistics means screening strategies might not be focused on the right groups.

She said the vast majority of the covid-19 patients she had treated were people of color, but because the area is home to many people of North and West African heritage, she didn’t know whether the covid-19 patients represented a different mix than the usual patient population.

“We already survey those with diabetes more, so it’s not completely insane to say that black patients or patients of African origin may be more susceptible to catching the coronavirus,” she said, adding that if collecting statistics on race is “in the means of prevention, why not?”

Other countries, including some of France’s neighbors, have been stunned by the racial disparities in their data.

Britain’s Office for National Statistics concluded that black citizens were more than four times as likely to succumb to the coronavirus as white citizens, and citizens of Bangladeshi and Pakistani heritage were more than three times as likely to die as their white counterparts.

Why is coronavirus hitting Britain’s minority doctors so hard?

The findings have influenced British health officials’ thinking about which populations may need particular attention, as well as emerging hypotheses about how the disease spreads and kills. Researchers are looking at whether the racial disparities can be explained by factors such as underlying health conditions, crowded living situations, vitamin D deficiencies or insufficient access to protective equipment. Meanwhile, British National Health Service leaders advised hospitals to “risk-assess” staff, and some have considered moving minority health workers away from the pandemic front lines.

In the United States, a federal government analysis released Monday, based on Medicare billing records, showed that income and race were important factors in determining which members of the aging population contracted the coronavirus.

After the city of Chicago recognized in April that black residents were accounting for almost 70 percent of covid-19 deaths, despite making up just 30 percent of the city’s population, the mayor created a Racial Equity Rapid Response Team to target deliveries of personal protective equipment and address misinformation about the virus.

“It was really quite breathtaking,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) told The Washington Post, “when you see the level of disparity that was initially reported in our data.”

On the whole, France has not been as devastated by the coronavirus as either Britain or the United States. But it has reported more than 29,750 deaths, making it the fifth hardest-hit country in the world.

French researchers say data pertaining to ethnicity does exist, in the context of the coronavirus and otherwise, even if it is not often publicized as the basis of public policy.

In May, the French government launched EpiCOV, a giant survey of more than 150,000 people, which seeks to measure the prevalence of coronavirus antibodies and aims to “represent the diversity of social groups and in particular people in precarious economic situations.”

François Héran, the chair of EpiCOV’s scientific jury, said the survey includes questions about “migrant trajectory,” which allows authorities to ascertain details about an individual’s background without asking direct questions about race.

France’s highest court has authorized the country’s national statistics institute to address ethnicity obliquely. Researchers can ask survey participants “objective” questions, such as their names, their geographic origins or whether they have claimed citizenship in any other country. Certain “subjective” questions — such as those about personal feelings on national belonging — are also permitted, but each type of question requires the approval of France’s national data protection authority before the study can proceed.

Ghislain Vedeux, the head of France’s largest black community organization, said the need to ask coded questions is a problem in itself.

“This practice is already utilized every day in France. We can’t even say it’s forbidden. The problem is that it’s not politically correct to discuss it,” he said. “This is so France. This is the French mentality.”

Héran, who is also a professor of migration studies at the Collège de France in Paris, expresses similar frustration about the limitations on question framing. And he said that although it’s possible to collect some ethnic data, drawing too much attention to it tends to elicit outrage from across the political spectrum. “This will not be acceptable from a political point of view,” he said. “Only the extreme left would accept it, and also the extreme right.”

“The instruments are all there, but we don’t use them sufficiently,” he said.

Others fear what French unease over ethnic statistics may mean in the event of a second wave of the pandemic. The most susceptible citizens may not be protected in time, said Simon, the demographic researcher.

“When we don’t know their origins,” he said, “and we leave them without protection, we are incapable of putting in place measures for protection and communication about covid-19.”

Europe said U.S. influence had waned under Trump. Then Black Lives Matter protests rocked the continent.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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