(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The first wave of the Covid-19 epidemic hit especially hard in the most affluent cities of Europe, including Paris, London, Madrid and Milan. The virus seemed to be a “great leveler” that did not distinguish between the rich and the poor.
The continent’s latest string of outbreaks appears very different. Most flare-ups are now occurring in some of Europe’s most deprived neighborhoods, often those inhabited by minorities or immigrants who work in low-paid jobs that are crucial to buttressing the economy.
This pattern raises the question of whether governments are doing enough to ensure all citizens understand the basic precautions to take to protect themselves, and have the means to do so. It also underlines the failings of several European states to ensure that even the poorest parts of society have access to decent housing and benefit from job safety. The situation could risk fanning social and racial tensions if immigrant communities get blamed for being carriers of the virus.
Five different outbreaks across Europe tell a very similar story. In Germany, the authorities locked down the municipality of Guetersloh, in North-Rhine Westphalia, after hundreds of workers in one of Europe’s biggest meat-processing plants tested positive for the virus. The group was largely made up of poorly paid Eastern European immigrants, who lived together in accommodation for the plant’s workers. Germany’s meat industry has been able to circumvent strict rules on working conditions by using subcontractors, something new legislation is meant to change.
In the U.K., as the country emerges from lockdown, Leicester, a city in the East Midlands, had non-essential shops and some schools shut for two more weeks. Leicester ranks in the bottom 10% in terms of income deprivation in England. According to the Leicester City Council, 37% of the population is Asian and an estimated 40% of people living there were born outside of the U.K. As in the U.S., the epidemic has brought into relief racial inequalities in the U.K., with Public Health England finding the risk of dying from Covid-19 is higher in poorer areas and higher in Black, Asian and other minority groups.
In Italy, the epidemic has had its biggest impact in Lombardy, one of the wealthiest regions in the country’s industrial north. But over the past week, the town of Mondragone, not far from Naples in the south, has seen a spike in cases in a high-rise compound hosting a group of Bulgarian immigrants, who work in seasonal agricultural jobs. The government has not enforced a lockdown in town, but has sent in the army to put the housing complex under strict surveillance. Mondragone ranks in the top 10% of Italian towns with the largest share of immigrants, and in the bottom 10% of those with the highest per capita declared income.
Such clusters of virus cases have also appeared in Greece and Portugal, countries which had a remarkable success in containing the epidemic. In Greece, a local “smart lockdown” was applied to the northern town of Echinos, which is home to many from the country’s Muslim minority, while in Portugal 19 neighborhoods in the Lisbon region were affected. These areas are home to groups of very poor immigrants, especially from Africa.
These localized outbreaks have several plausible explanations. Some immigrants may have carried the virus from countries where it has not yet been contained. Poorer communities may have worse access to health care, and a poorer understanding of the severity of the virus and how to protect against it. And some people are probably avoiding testing or seeking treatment because of the fear of going into quarantine and losing their jobs. In Mondragone in Italy, a handful of individuals who had tested positive ran away for just that reason.
Europe’s governments are paying a steep price for years of neglect of these communities, which often provide a very cheap source of labor. That’s allowed a whole host of inequalities to build up in terms of education, job opportunities and access to housing and healthcare that have always been a threat to prosperity and social cohesion. The novel coronavirus is bringing such inequalities to the surface again, this time driving home how the vulnerabilities of these groups can be a threat to public health too.
There is also a risk that these outbreaks cause deep divisions within the population as a whole. In Mondragone, tensions arose when some people accused the immigrants of failing to respect the rules and spreading the virus. In attempt to take political advantage of the situation, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the hard-right League party, went to the area this week for a rally but he had to cut it short when he was interrupted by a rival left-wing crowd.
Governments must strike a difficult balance. They need to keep citizens informed about where the virus is circulating the most, but they must do so without undermining the privacy of individuals or demonizing entire groups, especially of more vulnerable citizens. And they must work quickly to provide health care and support where it’s needed to keep isolated outbreaks from snowballing into something bigger.
This crisis is providing a much-needed reminder of the many failings in economic and social integration across Europe. It will be very hard to address these problems at a time of profound and widespread insecurity.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ferdinando Giugliano writes columns and editorials on European economics for Bloomberg View. He is also an economics columnist for La Repubblica and was a member of the editorial board of the Financial Times.
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