Virus exposes racial divide in French health care

Dr. Idriss Abdallah of the health activism group called Banlieues Sante, left, nurse Caroline Andoum, center, talk inside a tent in Bondy, north of Paris, Thursday Aug. 6, 2020. Festering beneath France's promise of guaranteed health care for all lie deep disparities across economic and racial lines – differences laid painfully bare by the COVID-19 crisis.

Festering beneath France’s promise of guaranteed health care for all lie deep disparities across economic and racial lines — differences laid painfully bare by the COVID-19 crisis.

Two recent studies have documented these gaps, but government officials haven’t issued new proposals in response. However, as France records a new uptick in virus cases, a health advocacy group called Banlieues Santé — Suburbs Health — is trying to help, offering medical care and guidance in poor and migrant-heavy suburbs and neighborhoods.

After the pandemic broke out, they set up daily food and hygiene kit distribution points, and launched a phone application to coordinate NGOs distributing food — as well as translating public health information into the multiple languages spoken in the diverse communities.

Jacqueline Mendy, a Black mother of two, was among the fifty or so people who came to a tent that Banlieues Santé set up last week in her local park in the Paris suburb of Bondy, whose surrounding Seine-Saint-Denis region saw France’s highest mortality rate from the virus. She came with her son to ask some health questions, and learned about a free medical checkup for young women that she didn’t know about.

“I hadn’t thought of asking the question” about preventive health to her family doctor, Mendy told The Associated Press. Usually, she said, “when I go to my doctor, it’s because there’s an illness, or (the children) have a fever or something like that.”

Banlieues Santé attracted people to their tents with a Moroccan percussion and trumpet band that sang to curious onlookers. The nurses and social workers spoke French but also five other languages, and handed out masks, gel and other basics to families.

The COVID-19 crisis has re-focused attention on the health care challenges that have long plagued areas like Seine-Saint-Denis.

Last month, a study from the national statistics agency revealed mortality rates rose disproportionately higher for Africa- and Asia-born people in France compared to the France-born populations during the first months of the pandemic. Another study by French economists showed France’s poorest cities in high-infection regions suffered more deaths than richer cities. The study pointed to “a higher share of workers frequently in contact with the public and a higher share of overcrowded housing.”

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