Every week, Mamadou Diagouraga goes to the Muslim section of a cemetery near Paris to watch over the grave of his father, one of the many French Muslims who died from COVID-19, writes Caroline Pailliez.
Diagouraga looks up from his father’s land to the freshly dug graves next to it. “My dad was the first in this row, and in a year it’s filled,” he said. “It’s incredible.”
While France is estimated to have the largest Muslim population in the European Union, it does not know how badly this group has been affected: French law prohibits the collection of data based on ethnic or religious affiliations.
But evidence gathered by Reuters – including statistical data that indirectly captures the impact and testimony from community leaders – indicates that the COVID death rate among French Muslims is much higher than in the general population.
According to a study based on official data, the excess mortality in 2020 among French residents born in predominantly Muslim North Africa was twice as high as among people born in France.
The reason, according to community leaders and researchers, is that Muslims tend to have lower than average socioeconomic status.
They are more likely to hold jobs such as bus drivers or cashiers that bring them closer to the public and to live in cramped multigenerational households.
“They were (…) the first to pay a heavy price,” declared M’Hammed Henniche, head of the union of Muslim associations in Seine-Saint-Denis, a region near Paris with a large immigrant population.
The uneven impact of COVID-19 on ethnic minorities, often for similar reasons, has been documented in other countries, including the United States.
But in France, the pandemic highlights the inequalities that are helping to fuel tensions between French Muslims and their neighbors – and which are expected to become a battleground in next year’s presidential election.
According to polls, President Emmanuel Macron’s main opponent will be far-right politician Marine Le Pen, who campaigns on issues of Islam, terrorism, immigration and crime.
Asked about the impact of COVID-19 on Muslims in France, a government official said: “We don’t have data related to people’s religion.”
While official data is silent on the impact of COVID-19 on Muslims, one place where it becomes evident is in French cemeteries.
People buried according to Muslim religious rites are usually placed in specially designated sections of the cemetery, where the graves are aligned so that the deceased faces Mecca, Islam’s holiest site.
The Valenton cemetery where Diagouraga’s father, Boubou was buried, is located in Val-de-Marne, near Paris.
According to Reuters figures compiled from the 14 cemeteries of Val-de-Marne, in 2020, there were 1,411 Muslim burials, against 626 the previous year, before the pandemic. This represents an increase of 125%, compared to an increase of 34% for burials of all faiths in this region.
The increase in mortality from COVID only partially explains the increase in Muslim burials.
Pandemic border restrictions have prevented many families from returning deceased loved ones to their countries of origin for burial. There is no official data, but funeral directors said about three-quarters of French Muslims were buried abroad before COVID.
Undertakers, imams and non-government groups involved in the burial of Muslims said there were not enough plots to meet demand at the start of the pandemic, forcing many families to call desperately to find a place to bury their loved ones.
On the morning of May 17 of this year, Samad Akrach arrived at a morgue in Paris to recover the body of Abdulahi Cabi Abukar, a Somali who died in March 2020 from COVID-19, without a family that can be traced .
Akrach, president of the Tahara charity which organizes Muslim funerals for the poor, performed the ritual of washing the body and applying musk, lavender, rose petals and henna. Then, in the presence of 38 volunteers invited by Akrach’s group, the Somali was buried according to the Muslim ritual in the cemetery of Courneuve on the outskirts of Paris.
Akrach’s group carried out 764 burials in 2020, up from 382 in 2019, he said. About half had died from COVID-19. “The Muslim community has been affected enormously during this period,” he said.
Statisticians are also using data on foreign-born residents to paint a picture of the impact of COVID on ethnic minorities. This shows that excess deaths among French residents born outside of France increased by 17% in 2020, compared to 8% for residents born in France.
Seine-Saint-Denis, the region of metropolitan France with the largest number of inhabitants not born in France, experienced a 21.8% increase in excess mortality from 2019 to 2020, according to official statistics, i.e. more than double increase for the whole of France.
The excess deaths among French residents born in Muslim-majority North Africa were 2.6 times higher, and among those from sub-Saharan Africa, 4.5 times higher, than among those born in France.
“We can deduce that (…) immigrants of Muslim faith have been much more severely affected by the COVID epidemic,” said Michel Guillot, research director at the French Institute for Demographic Studies, funded by the state.
In Seine-Saint-Denis, the high mortality is all the more striking because in normal times, with its population younger than the average, it has a mortality rate lower than that of France as a whole.
But the region scores below average on socio-economic indicators. Twenty percent of homes are overcrowded, compared to 4.9% nationally. The average hourly wage is 13.93 euros, almost 1.5 euros less than the national figure.
Henniche, head of the Union of Muslim Associations in the region, said he first felt the impact of COVID-19 on his community when he began receiving several phone calls from families seeking help. help to bury their dead.
“It’s not because they are Muslims,” he said of the COVID death rate. “It is because they belong to the less privileged social classes.
White collar workers could protect themselves by working from home. “But if someone is a garbage collector, or a housekeeper, or a cashier, they cannot work from home. These people have to go out, use public transport,” he said.
“There is a kind of bitter taste, of injustice. There is this feeling: ‘Why me?’ and ‘Why always us?’ “