© Reuters. Mamadou Diagouraga, who lost his 71-year-old father Boubou Diagouraga in March 2020 after being infected with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), stands by his grave during an interview with Reuters, in the Muslim section of the cemetery in Valenton, n
By Caroline Pailliez
VALENTON, France (Reuters) – Every week, Mamadou Diagouraga comes to the Muslim section of a cemetery near Paris to guard the grave of his father, one of many French Muslims who have died of COVID-19.
Diagouraga looks up from his father’s plot to the newly dug graves next to it. “My father was the first in this line, and in a year, he was full,” he said. “Is incredible.”
While France is estimated to have the largest Muslim population in the European Union, he doesn’t know how hard that group has been affected: French law prohibits the collection of data based on ethnic or religious affiliations.
But the evidence compiled by Reuters, including statistical data that indirectly captures the impact and testimony of 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 of deaths in 2020 among French residents born in North Africa, mainly Muslims, was double that among people born in France.
The reason, say community leaders and researchers, is that Muslims tend to have lower than average socioeconomic status.
They are more likely to do jobs as bus drivers or cashiers that bring them closer to the public and live in crowded multigenerational households.
“They were … the first to pay a high price,” said M’Hammed Henniche, director 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 inequalities that help fuel tensions between French Muslims and their neighbors, and which appear to become a battlefield in next year’s presidential elections.
The main opponent of President Emmanuel Macron, polls indicate, will be far-right politician Marine Le Pen, who campaigns on issues of Islam, terrorism, immigration and crime.
When asked to comment on the impact of COVID-19 on Muslims in France, a government representative said: “We have no data related to people’s religion.”
IN FRONT OF MECCA
While the official data is silent on the impact of COVID-19 on Muslims, one place where it becomes evident is in the cemeteries of France.
People buried according to Muslim religious rites are typically placed in specially designated sections of the cemetery, where graves are lined so that the dead person faces towards Mecca, the holiest site in Islam.
The Valenton cemetery where Diagouraga’s father, Boubou, was buried, is located in the Val-de-Marne region, on the outskirts of Paris.
According to figures compiled by Reuters from the 14 cemeteries in Val-de-Marne, there were 1,411 Muslim burials in 2020, up from 626 the year before, before the pandemic. That represents a 125% increase, compared to a 34% increase for burials of all denominations in that region.
The increase in mortality from COVID only partially explains the increase in Muslim burials.
Pandemic border restrictions prevented many families from sending their deceased relatives back to their home country for burial. There is no official data, but funeral homes said that around three-quarters of French Muslims were buried abroad before COVID.
Undertakers, imams and non-governmental groups involved in the burial of Muslims said there were not enough plots to meet demand at the beginning of the pandemic, forcing many families to call desperately to find a place to bury their relatives.
On the morning of May 17 this year, Samad Akrach arrived at a morgue in Paris to collect the body of Abdulahi Cabi Abukar, a Somali who died in March 2020 from COVID-19, with no family to whom he could be reached. to locate.
Akrach, president of the Tahara charity that gives Muslim burials to the homeless, 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 Muslim ritual in the Courneuve cemetery on the outskirts of Paris.
Akrach’s group conducted 764 burials in 2020, up from 382 in 2019, he said. About half had died from COVID-19. “The Muslim community has been greatly affected in this period,” he said.
Statisticians also use data on foreign-born residents to build 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 mainland France with the highest number of non-French residents, had a 21.8% increase in excess mortality from 2019 to 2020, official statistics show, more than double that of rise for France as a whole.
The excess deaths among French residents born in Muslim-majority North Africa was 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 affected by the COVID epidemic,” said Michel Guillot, director of research at the state-funded French Institute for Demographic Studies.
“WHY ALWAYS US?”
In Seine-Saint-Denis, the high mortality is especially surprising because in normal times, with its younger-than-average population, it has a lower mortality rate than France as a whole.
But the region performs worse than average on socioeconomic indicators. Twenty percent of households are overcrowded, compared to 4.9% nationwide. The average hourly wage is 13.93 euros, almost 1.5 euros less than the national figure.
Henniche, director of the union of Muslim associations in the region, said he first felt the impact of COVID-19 in his community when he began receiving multiple phone calls from families seeking help to bury their dead.
“It is not because they are Muslim,” he said of the COVID death rate. “It is because they belong to the less privileged social classes.”
White collar professionals could protect themselves by working from home. “But if someone is a garbage collector, a cleaning lady 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?’ ”