As an intensive-care resident in a hospital in Seine-Saint-Denis, a region of mainly poor Black and Arab people outside Paris, Dr. Tona Tchoubou has seen some of the worst of what the COVID-19 pandemic has done to France.
At the crisis’ peak in April, Tchoubou’s ICU at Hôpital Delafontaine was quickly overwhelmed and ran out of beds, and his department had to transfer patients to emptier hospitals. That meant longer wait times for an already-vulnerable community that includes a high percentage of essential workers.
“It was remarkable in all ICUs,” he said. “Even in other areas of France, lots of Black people had been more severely affected by COVID because of risk factors that affect more Black people. But we don’t have the data with the identity and race in France, so it’s just my impression and feeling.”
In the U.S. and the U.K., data from COVID-19 cases was abundantly clear: Black people were dying at higher rates than their white counterparts, and that information shaped health and social policies. But in France, and across Europe, collecting data on race is inconsistent and sparse, meaning that governments and public health officials cannot easily measure or respond to disparities in mortality rates in different communities.
For example, in France, the only study that hinted at this racialized disparity in COVID-19 showed through death registries that Seine-Saint-Denis experienced the highest mortality rate in the Paris region in March and April. For Patrick Simon, a senior researcher at France’s National Institute for Demographic Studies, showing geographic disparity is not enough.
“If there is over-mortality in this district and it’s predominantly minority, it means that there is COVID-19 [predominantly] hitting minorities harder,” Simon said. “But we don’t have, like in the U.S. or in the U.K., the capacity to demonstrate that with strong data.”
'It's totally taboo'
As he wrote in a recent paper calling for race data collection, “This data would be valuable to better understand the pandemic and its impacts, as well as racial inequalities when it comes to health in general.”
“We just don't talk about that in France; it’s totally taboo,” Tchoubou said. “It’s a lot of history to carry. Long and uncomfortable, So we don't talk about that. We just say Seine-Saint-Denis is most affected because they're poor, they’re fat, and they didn't lock down as they should.”
In France, public statistical agencies refuse to collect data on race in the national census due to legally restrictive interpretations of what constitutes “sensitive data.” Such data can be collected only for limited, small-scale, and supervised studies, so there are no national statistics.
The French reluctance to collect this data goes back to the country’s idea of national identity as “one and indivisible,” as its constitution states. The National Assembly even removed the word “race” from the constitution in 2018.
"In France, what we don’t name does not exist,” said Ghyslain Vedeux, president of the Representative Council of Black Associations, France’s main national Black advocacy organization, which has been pushing for race data collection since the early aughts. “We want to completely get out of this euphemism and hypocrisy. When we say we need data collection, it isn’t to create provocation, but prevention. We need data collection, sanctions, and policies to fight against discrimination in housing, health, and police violence.”
The role of the Holocaust
This isn’t unique to France. The European anxiety toward collecting racial data stretches back to Nazi Germany, where authorities used available population registers to organize mass genocide against Jews.
“They think that because of the Holocaust, we can not count nonwhite people ever again. We are saying of course we can have data about racial discrimination,” said Daniel Gyamerah, the chair of Each One Teach One, a Berlin-based community group that’s conducting the Afrozenzus, the first large-scale survey of Germans of African descent. “What we must never happen again is that people are discriminated against, persecuted or even killed with the help of data.”
This traumatic history, along with stringent data protection and consent laws, feed the persistent notion that collecting data explicitly referring to race is illegal. But this is a myth, according to Ojeaku Nwabuzo, senior research officer at the European Network Against Racism, and the greatest hurdle to overcome for member states to provide consistent data.
Dragging their feet
EU legislation mandates its member states implement anti-discrimination policies, and the European commission has issued guidelines on how to collect race/ethnic data, but member states continue to drag their feet. As of 2020, the U.K. and Ireland are the only EU members with public institutions that collect data explicitly using racial categories.
“Without the evidence, I don't see how policymakers at the national level can design proper anti-discrimination, anti-racism policies that address the issues,” Nwabuzo said.
In lieu of racial data, European countries collect a variety of data on language, parents’ birthplace, and migration background, which are often used as proxies for ethnic and racial statistics.
Besides the U.K., the Netherlands, Portugal, and Belgium are the most advanced countries when it comes to pursuing comprehensive national data collection on discrimination. Others, like Sweden, Poland, and Hungary, have started reform initiatives, collaborated with NGOs to improve data collection, or organized methodological discussions.
But in practice, the vast majority don’t collect data on skin color or racial origin. It’s so minimal in Romania and Estonia that only one ethnic origin can be selected in the census.
The European Parliament took the unprecedented step of declaring support for Black Lives Matter in June, but advocates, statisticians, and doctors across the EU think this is merely lip service until countries consistently collect race data.
The protests sweeping Europe, sparked by U.S. Black Lives Matter marches, have revived that debate, and now could be the turning point.
The lack of race data has made it harder to fight the pandemic effectively. Dr. Marie-Rose Moro, a researcher and psychiatrist at France’s Assistance Publique–Hôpitaux de Paris, had been calling for race data collection long before the COVID-19 pandemic.
To circumvent the French prohibition on racial categories, her lab has studied geographical and language disparities in access to psychiatric treatment, and for decades she has pushed for race data to create public health policies that effectively fight against racial disparities and discrimination.
“We’re ‘colorblind,’ so we don’t know, and then there’s no policy for these populations or these problems,” she said. “If we want to fight against vulnerability, discrimination, and to make medical policy to [achieve equality], we need to know where are the vulnerabilities.”
Available statistics show those vulnerabilities extend well beyond the realm of health. In Germany, reports of racial discrimination rose by 59% from 2016 to 2019, according to the German Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency.
“Data alone won't solve the problem, as we can see in the U.S. and the U.K.,” Gyamerah said. “There needs to be substantial positive action based on data. But we are even behind in the sense that we are first trying to establish that racism as a structural phenomenon actually is a problem in Germany.”
And in France, a rare official study on police racism conducted by the government’s human rights watchdog in 2017 showed that people perceived as Black or Arab were 20 times more likely to be stopped and searched.
BLM protests in France have given way to a nationwide examination of racialized police violence. In typical French fashion, however, official data barely exists. The ministry of the interior announced in April that Seine-Saint-Denis experienced over double the national average of stops and searches during quarantine.
French police killed roughly one civilian every two weeks in 2019, an upward trend since 2005, with a spike to 36 deaths in 2017 due to the Yellow Vests protests that lasted months across the country, according to the most exhaustive independent analysis of police victims. But the slain aren’t categorized by race. Amal Bentounsi, founder of Emergency, the Police Murders!, which has been gathering data on French police killings since 2005, says one look at the victims’ names betrays the police’s institutional racism.
“It’s not up to the families to do this job; it’s up to institutions,” said Bentounsi, a Moroccan whose brother Amine was unarmed when he was fatally shot by police in 2012. “We are filling an institutional void.”
As the protests sparked by George Floyd’s death continue across Europe, countries are experiencing unprecedented reckonings with the racism within their own borders.
Belgium removed a statue of King Leopold II; in Britain, protesters took down a monument of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston; and in France, the government’s spokesperson, a immigrant from Senegal, even called for reopening the debate on ethnic statistics in a widely read op-ed. After decades of institutional color-blindness, advocates are hoping this moment will finally push countries to take up data collection seriously.
“Sometimes it can seem that the announcements by political leaders are nothing more than announcements and resolutions are nothing more than pieces of paper, but actually they are more than that,” said Nwabuzo. “It’s a moment for us in the movement to really make claims, because people are listening and people are responding.”
Still, after decades of making these demands and seeing only incremental progress, some are doubtful this momentum will translate into actual change.
“It’s one thing to have gained awareness,” Vedeux said, “and it’s another to actually follow through with the work.”
Cover: Hawa Traore, twin sister of Adama Taore, during the protest on the Vieux Port and the streets of Marseille against racism and police violence at the call of the Justice Committee for Adama Traore as part of the "Black Lives Matter" world protests. Marseille, France, on 13 June 2020. Photo by Julien Poupart/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)