Chancellor Angela Merkel (right) and Integration Minister Widmann-Mauz and Hamidou Bouba of the Verband für interkulturelle Wohlfahrtspflege, Empowerment und Diversity e. V. during the 12th Integration Conference, which took place in October 2020 and focused on the effects of the corona pandemic on migrants in Germany/Photo: Screenshot/Phoenix

Covid-19: Why there are many patients of migrant origin in German hospitals

A controversy has broken out about the number of Covid-19 patients with a migration background in German hospitals’ intensive stations. The mass-circulating BILD-Zeitung had on Tuesday (3 March) reported on a meeting between the head of the Robert Koch Institute and doctors at which, among other issues, the disproportionately high number of Covid-19 patients of migrant origin were discussed.

According to a BILD-Zeitung report, the issue came up for discussion during a recent informal virtual meeting between Prof Lothar H. Wieler, head of the Robert Koch-Institut (RKI), Germany’s centre for disease control and prevention, and head doctors of hospitals in the country.

BILD-Zeitung reported Wieler as saying that over 50 per cent of patients in intensive stations were of migrant origin as a result of which one of the participating doctors remarked that government was not reaching a section of the population with its public awareness campaign on the pandemic ostensibly because of “language barriers”. And Wieler himself also spoke of “parallel societies” that were not being carried along by government in its management of the pandemic.

People of migrant origin account for about 20 per cent of Germany’s population.

The purported statements by Wieler and the other physicians are causing controversies.

Green party leader Katrin Göring-Eckardt said instead of using religion and supposed parallel societies as reasons for full intensive care units, a serious discussion was needed on what could be done to counteract the connection between social status and severe covidity.

The SPD member of parliament Karamba Diaby expressed similar views while his Left Party colleague Niema Movassat said it was “disgusting” to turn the issue into a “racist campaign”.

The RKI has meanwhile partly denied the BILD-Zeitung report, pointing out that the observation of the disproportionality of migrants in intensive stations was made by only three of the participating doctors, one of whom said more than 90 per cent of patients in his hospital, located in a big city, were patients with migration history.

The BILD-Zeitung’s report has thrown open the debate on the fact that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on the migrant populations across Europe.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported in October 2020 that the pandemic was hitting people of migrant origin particularly hard in many countries. The infection, hospitality and mortality rates were higher among minorities than the native populations, the report says.

According to the report, the reasons for this are cramped living conditions and jobs in which customer contact is high or where keeping a social distance is hardly possible – for example in nursing care or retail businesses.

However, there is no data on the social identities of Covid-19 patents in Germany as such information is not collected. It’s however generally assumed that the situation is not different in Germany.

Editors of the “Handbook Germany” project, a multilingual information platform for refugees and new immigrants, point out that “A disproportionately large number of people with a migration background work in sectors with an increased risk of infection, for example, in care, healthcare or factories. And delivery drivers and cashiers are also on the front line of the virus. And it is precisely here that many employers apparently do not comply with hygiene regulations.”

The German Centre for Integration and Migration Research sees other explanations besides housing and working conditions for the assumed higher numbers of COVID-19 patients with a migration background in Germany.

Cihan Sinanoglu, head of the Racism Monitor office at the centre, sees a need for improvement in prevention work. “The question is: Are state institutions able to reflect the realities of an immigration society? The institutions would have to offer information in different languages and also be present in residential areas, he demanded. At least the latter is not happening, he said.

Sinanoglu does not see a connection with the cultures of people with a migration background. “I think it is problematic when the problem is culturalised,” said the social scientist. It is true, for example, that family has a higher value in some cultures and that there have been larger family celebrations – but in the same way, many people have met in Ischgl (Austria) and at raves and parties in Berlin parks, and the cultural question is not raised.

However, the federal government runs a website providing information on the pandemic in Germany in 19 languages, including English, French, Turkish and Arabic. And governments at all levels also support community initiatives working to raise awareness on the pandemic.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the editors of “Handbook Germany” have been providing target group-specific information for new immigrants on all health-related topics, with a focus on Corona protection measures in Germany.

The African Network of Germany or TANG has also carried out an awareness campaign on the pandemic in the African community.

“There is information about Covid19 in every language. Those who simply claim that migrants in Germany have not realised that they have to be careful because they do not understand German are deliberately fuelling the image of retarded migrants – a typical example of racism in the media. If the head of the RKI, Wieler, said and meant what he said in the BILD newspaper, it is unobjective. It should be more important to him that all people are offered quality health care and basic services, regardless of residence status, origin, skin colour, nationality and language,” Ms Ferda Ataman, chairperson of the Neue deutsche Medienmacher (a group of German journalists with a migration background, said.

While the issue of gathering data on the social and cultural backgrounds of Covid-19 patients in Germany is controversial, it is being done in some other European countries such as the UK, France and Portugal. In Germany, it’s feared that such data could be exploited to fan ember of hatred against the non-native population groups in the country.

However, such data may be useful for the different communities to know how the pandemic affects them and how they better can protect themselves against the disease.

Femi Awoniyi

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