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French Muslims pay heavy price in COVID pandemic

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Volunteers of the Tahara association pray for 38-year-old Abukar Abdulahi Cabi, a Muslim refugee who died of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during a burial ceremony in a cemetery in La Courneuve, near Paris, France, May 17, 2021. Picture taken May 17, 2021. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
Volunteers of the Tahara association bury the casket of 38-year-old Abukar Abdulahi Cabi, a Muslim refugee who died of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during a burial ceremony in a cemetery in La Courneuve, near Paris, France, May 17, 2021. Picture taken May 17, 2021. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Every week, Mamadou Diagouraga comes to the Muslim section of a cemetery near Paris to stand vigil at the grave of his father, one of the many French Muslims to have died from COVID-19, writes Caroline Pailliez.

Diagouraga looks up from his father's plot at the freshly-dug graves alongside. "My father was the first one in this row, and in a year, it's filled up," he said. "It's unbelievable."

While France is estimated to have the European Union's largest Muslim population, it does not know how hard that group has been hit: French law forbids the gathering of data based on ethnic or religious affiliations.

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But evidence collated by Reuters - including statistical data that indirectly captures the impact and testimony from community leaders - indicates the COVID death rate among French Muslims is much higher than in the overall population.

According to one study based on official data, excess deaths in 2020 among French residents born in mainly Muslim North Africa were twice as high as among people born in France.

The reason, community leaders and researchers say, is that Muslims tend to have a lower-than-average socio-economic status.

They are more likely to do jobs such as bus drivers or cashiers that bring them into closer contact with the public and to live in cramped multi-generational households.

"They were ... the first to pay a heavy price," said M'Hammed Henniche, head of the union of Muslim associations in Seine-Saint-Denis, a region near Paris with a large immigrant population.

The unequal 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 throws into sharp relief the inequalities that help fuel tensions between French Muslims and their neighbours - and which look set to become a battleground in next year's presidential election.

President Emmanuel Macron's main opponent, polls indicate, will be far-right politician Marine Le Pen, who is campaigning on issues of Islam, terrorism, immigration, and crime.

Asked to comment on the impact of COVID-19 on France's Muslims, a government representative said: "We don't have data that is tied to people's religion."

While official data is silent on the impact of COVID-19 on Muslims, one place it becomes apparent is in France's cemeteries.

People buried according to Muslim religious rites are typically placed in specially-designated sections of the cemetery, where graves are aligned so the dead person faces Mecca, the holiest site in Islam.

The cemetery at Valenton where Diagouraga's father, Boubou, was buried, is in the Val-de-Marne region, outside Paris.

According to figures Reuters compiled from all 14 cemeteries in Val-de-Marne, in 2020 there were 1,411 Muslim burials, up from 626 the previous year, before the pandemic. That represents a 125% increase, compared to a 34% increase for burials of all confessions in that region.

Increased mortality from COVID only partially explains the rise in Muslim burials.

Pandemic border restrictions prevented many families from sending deceased relatives back to their country of origin for burial. There is no official data, but undertakers said around three quarters of French Muslims were buried abroad pre-COVID.

Undertakers, imams and non-government groups involved in burying Muslims said there were not enough plots to meet demand at the start of the pandemic, forcing many families to call around desperately to find somewhere to bury their relatives.

On the morning of May 17 this year, Samad Akrach arrived at a mortuary in Paris to collect the body of Abdulahi Cabi Abukar, a Somali who died in March 2020 from COVID-19, with no family who could be traced.

Akrach, president of the Tahara charity that gives Muslim burials to the destitute, 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 at Courneuve cemetery on the outskirts of Paris.

Akrach's group conducted 764 burials in 2020, up from 382 in 2019, he said. Around half had died from COVID-19. "The Muslim community has been affected enormously 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 excess deaths among French residents born outside France were up 17% in 2020, versus 8% for French-born residents.

Seine-Saint-Denis, the region of mainland France with the highest number of residents not born in France, had a 21.8% rise in excess mortality from 2019 to 2020, official statistics show, more than twice the increase for France as a whole.

Excess deaths among French residents born in majority Muslim North Africa were 2.6 times higher, and among those from sub-Saharan Africa 4.5 times higher, than among French-born people.

"We can deduce that... immigrants of the Muslim faith have been much harder hit by the COVID epidemic," said Michel Guillot, research director at the state-funded French Institute for Demographic Studies.

In Seine-Saint-Denis, the high mortality is especially striking because in normal times, with its younger than average population, it has a lower death rate than France overall.

But the region performs worse than average on socio-economic indicators. Twenty percent of homes are over-crowded, versus 4.9% nationally. The average hourly wage is 13.93 euros, nearly 1.5 euros less than the national figure.

Henniche, head of the region's union of Muslim associations, said he first felt the impact of COVID-19 on his community when he began receiving multiple phone calls from families seeking help burying their dead.

"It's not because they're Muslims," he said of the COVID death rate. "It's because they belong to the least privileged social classes."

White collar professionals could protect themselves by working from home. "But if someone is a refuse collector, or 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?'"

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EU response lessens COVID-19 economic blow

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Had the EU institutions not intervened during the COVID-19 pandemic, the bloc’s economy would have seen much worse, says the World Bank report, writes Cristian Gherasim.

The report titled Inclusive growth at crossroads pointed to the governments of member states as much as to the EU institutions stepping in to dampen the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on the very poor. The economic response meant that the most serious effects of the pandemic on employment and income were avoided.

According to the World Bank document, the pandemic exposed and increased deep inequalities, halting progress in multiple areas, including gender equality and revenue convergence in all EU member states. Today, it is estimated that between three and five million people in the EU are "at risk of poverty" on the basis of national value thresholds compared to pre-crisis levels.

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“A green, digital and inclusive transition is possible if economic policy is increasingly geared towards reforms and investment in education, health and sustainable infrastructure,” said Gallina A. Vincelette, director for the European Union Countries at the World Bank.

The report shows that some of the economic support systems in place can help with ongoing reforms happening across the European Union. There is also need for a continued approach with government support schemes and vaccination key to the strengthening of companies, employees and households.

As we seen across Europe, given the fact that the pandemic isn’t over, governments respond to the prolonged crisis by continuing to offer state aid even throughout 2021.

Yet, regardless of the response, the COVID-19 pandemic triggered EU's strongest peace recession since World War II, with an economic contraction of 6,1% in 2020.

The World Bank report calls for governments to make sure that sound and well-thought policies are in place as well as active labor market policies to support an inclusive recovery. The report stresses that special attention should be given to vulnerable pre-pandemic workers, such as young people, and the self-employed. These groups are more vulnerable to adjustments in employment in times of crisis and may face longer periods of unemployment or periods when they are out of work and lacking a source of income.

A particular attention in the report is given to women who have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. The report found that at least one in five women will have difficulty returning to work, compared to one in ten men.

The hardest hit areas of the EU by the pandemic’s economic fallout have been the emerging economies. In the case of Romania, the World Bank report shows that the number of people at risk of poverty increased significantly at the beginning of the pandemic, as a result of the substantial decrease in incomes in the first wave of the pandemic.

In emerging economies, despite rapid introduction of government support measures combined with job adjustment policies contributing to moderating poverty levels, the poverty rates are still expected to remain above pre-crisis levels.

The World Bank's Global Economic Outlook report suggests that we will have strong but uneven growth in 2021. The global economy will grow by 5.6% - the strongest post-recession rate in 80 years. The outcome largely reflects a strong recovery in some large economies, yet sluggish in others.

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EU health body warns against visiting popular Greek islands over COVID-19

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People stand on Elli Beach, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, on the island of Rhodes, Greece, April 12, 2021. REUTERS/Louiza Vradi/File Photo

Greece's south Aegean islands were marked 'dark red' on the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control's COVID-19 map on Thursday (29 July) after a rise in infections, meaning all but essential travel to and from the region is discouraged, writes Karolina Tagaris, Reuters.

The cluster of 13 islands includes Greece's most popular destinations for foreign tourists - Mykonos, Santorini and Rhodes - which, combined, draw millions of people every summer.

Greece had relied on promoting "COVID-free" islands to draw visitors back this summer, hoping a rebound in international travel would resuscitate its vital tourism industry after its worst year in decades in 2020. Despite a strong June in terms of arrivals, uncertainty remains over how the season will unfold. Read more.

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"We're waiting to see how the (tourist) markets will react," said Manolis Markopoulos, president of the hoteliers association of Rhodes, where more than 90% of tourists are from abroad, referring to the ECDC decision. The ECDC is an agency of the European Union

Germany and Britain are the biggest sources of visitors to Greece.

The dark red zones on the ECDC map help distinguish very high-risk areas and also helps EU member states uphold rules requiring testing on departure and quarantine upon return.

Last week it downgraded Crete, Greece's biggest island and another popular destination, to the dark red zone.

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France calls UK quarantine rules discriminatory and excessive

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A passenger looks at a departures board with cancelled flights from Paris to London and Bristol at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport in Roissy near Paris, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in France, December 21, 2020. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

England's decision to keep quarantine measures for travellers coming from France and not for those coming from other European Union countries is discriminatory and not based on science, a French minister said on Thursday (29 July), writes Michel Rose, Reuters.

England said on Thursday it would allow fully vaccinated visitors from the EU and United States to arrive without needing to quarantine from next week, but that it would review rules for travellers from France only at the end of next week. Read more.

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"It's excessive, and it's frankly incomprehensible on health grounds ... It's not based on science and discriminatory towards the French," French Europe Minister Clement Beaune said on LCI TV. "I hope it will be reviewed as soon as possible, it's just common sense."

Beaune said France was not planning tit-for-tat measures "for now".

The British government has said it is keeping quarantine rules for travellers from France because of the presence of the Beta variant there, but French officials say the bulk of cases comes from the island of La Reunion in the Indian Ocean.

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