Study finds 40 percent of homeless in greater Paris test positive for Covid-19

A homeless man sleeps on a bench on Paris's Île Saint-Louis on May 18, 2020.
A homeless man sleeps on a bench on Paris's Île Saint-Louis on May 18, 2020. © Christophe Archambault, AFP file photo

Homeless people in the Paris region have high rates of Covid-19 infection, according to a study published October 6, prompting the medical institute and NGOs behind the report to call on the government to provide more emergency shelter before winter arrives.


Not only are the most disadvantaged worst affected by Covid-19’s economic consequences, they are also especially vulnerable to the disease itself.

In the Paris region “40 percent of homeless people have contracted Covid-19”, Jean-François Delfraissy, the head of France’s scientific council, told radio station RMC, citing data from the study, adding: “This disease has hit the disadvantaged hard.”

The study, which was carried out from June 23 to July 2 by the Institut Pasteur in conjunction with the NGOs Médecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors without Borders, MSF) and Épicentre, used a sample of 818 people at 14 MSF centres – including two food distribution sites, two migrant worker centres and 10 emergency shelters located in Paris and its suburbs.

“We were surprised at just how prevalent the virus was at certain places,” Thomas Roederer, an epidemiologist at Épicentre and co-author of the study, told FRANCE 24.

The figures are indeed alarming: at one of the two food distribution sites 18 percent of those tested had the virus while 35 percent tested positive at the other. At emergency shelters, the figures varied from 23 percent to 62 percent. But the starkest positivity rate was among those tested at the two migrant hostels: 82 percent and 94 percent.  

Among the Paris region’s population as a whole, about 12 percent of the population tested positive for Covid-19 when France emerged from a two-month lockdown on May 11, according to a study by Public Health France.

Packed living or sleeping quarters are a major factor behind Covid-19’s disproportionate prevalence among the most economically vulnerable. “Our figures show there were 4.3 times more Covid-19 cases among people sharing a room with more than five people than among those with a room to themselves,” Roederer said. “There were 3.1 times more cases among those who share a bathroom with more than five people than among those who have their own bathroom.”

The vast majority of participants in the study said they generally followed the recommended measures, such as regular hand-washing, introduced to contain the disease’s spread – although this is not always easy, given their circumstances.

“We said from the outset of the pandemic that it’s impossible to completely follow protective measures in places where homeless people live,” Corinne Torre, head of MSF in France, told AFP.     

Now the NGOs are worried about the onset of winter. Due to the pandemic, hospitals will be unable to play their usual role of providing emergency shelter during the coldest months of the year. Charities in particular are anxious to avoid the “usual” practice of providing urgent winter shelter by sending the homeless “en masse to gymnasiums”, Torre said.

“Our sample is relatively small so we cannot make generalisations about all homeless shelters, but we can conclude that some strategies have not been ideal,” said Roederer.

For her part, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has come up with a series of proposals that are aimed to protect the homeless this winter, including systematically testing people sent to shelters and requisitioning empty hotels and convention centres to provide emergency accommodation.

But these plans must go further, Roederer said: “Ideally, we should put all homeless people in single rooms. And if that’s not possible, we should at least do so for those who are most at risk in this segment of the population.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning