For the EU to effectively address racial injustice, we need data

EU countries continue to avoid collecting data on ethnic minorities and ignore persistent problems they face.

Residents line up to get free food from the ACLEFEU association in Clichy-sous-Bois near Paris during a coronavirus lockdown in France on April 22, 2020 [File: Reuters/Charles Platiau]

Protests against racial injustice and the COVID-19 pandemic have exposed racial inequalities rife within social and economic systems around the world. Fed up with police brutality and systemic racism against African Americans and other racialised groups, people staged protests against racial injustice in all 50 states across the United States.

Anti-racism protests also took place across European capitals including London, Dublin, Amsterdam, and Berlin, and cries for racial justice ricocheted around the world. While these uprisings were sparked by the police killing of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, the outpouring of pain and anger in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic is about so much more.

White supremacy is, of itself, a lethal public health issue that predates and exacerbates the impacts of COVID-19. The data, where available, are clear.

International media have reported shocking health disparities in the US where COVID-19 death rates for racial minorities are disproportionately high, most dramatically for African Americans who, on a national average, are dying at 2.4 times the rate of white people.  

In Europe, there is reason to expect similar trends. According to data from the British government, Black men and women are more than four times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people when taking age into account. South Asians also face significantly heightened risks compared with their white counterparts.

Norway’s public health experts found that people born in Somalia are contracting COVID-19 at rates more than 10 times the national average. Similar trends have emerged in Sweden and Finland.

Apart from these examples, however, there is surprisingly little data or discourse about the impact of the disease on racial and ethnic minorities in the rest of Europe. This silence speaks volumes about Europe’s approach to racism.

The vast majority of EU member states do not use the concept of race or ethnic origin in data collection, in spite of policies like the European Racial Equality Directive and the Employment Equality Directive which prohibit racial or ethnic discrimination. France outright prohibits it.

Without disaggregated data, it is virtually impossible to quantify the extent of discrimination experienced by racial and ethnic groups or the impacts of COVID-19 on their lives.

Most evidence on racial health disparities points to the persistence of structural racism as a driving force for the social determinants of health. In the US and UK, minority populations are more likely to be poor, overrepresented in precarious and front-line work, have less access to quality healthcare, information and healthy food options, and are more likely to live in densely populated housing. Much of the same is true for Somalis in Norway and other Nordic countries.

Given the scarcity of reporting from other European countries, you could be lulled into believing that these trends are unique.

While there are no official figures, racial and ethnic minorities, including Roma, Muslims, and people of African descent, make up at least 10 percent of the EU’s total population. Independent surveys by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency and research by anti-racism activists reveal experiences of widespread racial and ethnic discrimination in labour, education, health, housing, and criminal justice.

The European Network Against Racism has also mapped accounts of recent rights violations, including racial profiling and hate crimes, reflecting heightened risks for minorities during the COVID-19 crisis.

A 2017 report by the European Commission cites sources of resistance to collecting racial and ethnic equality data including fears, based on historical precedent, that it will contribute to discrimination and essentialise minority groups, or that education and poverty data, for example, are not effective proxies for measuring discrimination. Many also cite data protection concerns. Interestingly, these concerns have not prevented states from collecting equality data on the basis of gender and age.

The truth, however, is perhaps best reflected in quotes from Member State reports included in the European Commission’s research. A Danish report acknowledged that “there is currently little political support … as there is little recognition that discrimination is a problem in Denmark”. In its report, the Portuguese Ministry of Justice similarly noted “an official and institutional discourse that problems of discrimination are not applicable to the Portuguese”.

However, anti-racism activists and scholars disagree. Benjamine Laini Lusalusa of the Belgian decolonisation collective KUMBUKA has spoken of a pervasive and “calculated ignorance” which prevents Europeans from acknowledging or effectively addressing structural racism. Critical race scholar Alana Lentin similarly has written about a European silence that enables states to not only avoid the issues, but to proclaim themselves nonracist, or even anti-racist, in the face of evidence to the contrary.

As politicians debate how to rebuild in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, European leaders have an opportunity to reverse, rather than entrench, existing inequalities.

Stimulus and recovery packages should include measures to address the needs of Europe’s most disadvantaged racial and ethnic minority groups who bear the brunt of the crisis. In addition, the EU must impose new funding conditions that require public bodies in member states to collect equality data based on race and ethnic origin, using methodologies guided by minority groups, and to report on efforts to eliminate inequality under the Directives. This will be critical to ensure an inclusive and sustainable recovery for Europe.

Only equipped with this knowledge can Europe meaningfully address systemic racism to forge a more inclusive and enduring Union.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.