17 February 2021

Every fifth Dane wants to put immigrants with Covid-19 back in the hospital queue


According to a new survey, up to one in five Danes would prioritise hospital beds for COVID-19 patients with severe symptoms born in Denmark over recent immigrants. This is especially true for immigrants with Muslim names. These findings reflect welfare chauvinism and racist stereotypes, researchers say.

Rigshospitalet. Foto: News Øresund, Johan Wessman/Flickr

Should people born in Denmark be given higher priority than immigrants who have only lived in the country for a year if there would, at some point, be a shortage of hospital beds for severely ill Covid-19 patients?

Yes, say up to a fifth of 1,003 Danes who have responded to the scenario in a recently published study conducted by researchers at the Department of Sociology.

Both when it comes to immigrants with Danish/Nordic-sounding names and immigrants with typical Muslim names, a significant number of Danes would not give such immigrants the same access to emergency hospital treatment as people born in Denmark – even though a severe Covid-19 infection is a risk we all face irrespective of race, religion and origin.

The tendency towards discrimination is particularly strong towards immigrants with Muslim names. Almost every fifth would prioritise native born Danes over this group.

Figure: Prioritisation of hospital beds for patients with severe Covid-19 symptoms

The figure shows the proportion who believe that a person who is seriously ill with Covid-19 and are born in Denmark (grey dots) or had immigrated a year ago (green dots) should be prioritised a hospital bed if there is lack of capacity in the hospitals. The bars illustrate the statistical uncertainty. The difference between people born in Denmark with Danish and Muslim names respectively is not statistically significant.

Mikkel Haderup Larsen, PhD student and responsible for the study together with Associate Professor Merlin Schaeffer, sees a form of ‘welfare chauvinism’ behind the reluctance to share equal access to hospital treatment with recent immigrants.

“Access to hospital treatment is something made possible by collective contributions to the welfare state, so it is a question of reciprocity. What this finding basically shows is that some respondents say: ‘If you have not contributed to our collective strong welfare state for very long, then you are less deserving of the benefits of it’.”

This form of welfare chauvinism can also explain why there is no statistically significant difference in attitudes towards people with Danish and Muslim names if they were born in Denmark. Both have contributed to the welfare state for many years. According to the researchers, this finding is reassuring because it shows no blatant racism but reflects that the residents of Denmark regard native born Muslims as equal when it comes to healthcare services.

That said, it is difficult to use welfare chauvinism as an explanation for why some respondents believe that immigrants with Muslim names do not deserve the same hospital treatment as immigrants with Danish-Nordic names. Here, according to Merlin Schaeffer, the difference between the two immigrant groups rather covers stereotypical notions that Muslim immigrants may contribute less to society, are often seen as free riders of the welfare state, etc.

“It may not be racism in its blatant form. But at least in terms of an aversion to immigrants, there seems to be this kind of feeling that Muslim immigrants in particular try to come here to exploit the welfare state. And there is particularly strong aversion to that. This is of course highly problematic given the survey’s scenario that people have acute Covid-19 and a medical doctor has said that the person needs hospital treatment.”

Sheds light on welfare policy and racism

The study contributes to an ongoing scientific debate about people’s reluctance to share the benefits of the welfare state. Does it primarily reflect an attitude that new citizens should 'earn’ their welfare benefits, or does it represent a deeper resentment towards minorities and outright racism?

The question has become even more difficult to answer after there has been increased political focus in Denmark on restricting immigrants' access to welfare benefits as a way to incentivise fast integration and avoiding ‘welfare tourism’. From this perspective, welfare chauvinism can be seen as having have a politically legitimate purpose.

This is where attitudes towards hospital treatment of Covid-19 patients become a particularly interesting litmus test, because the pandemic is an acute and atypical situation for which the individual cannot be held responsible. It is also hard to perceive the case of hospital treatment of an acute Covid-19 infection as a meaningful incentive to find employment and integrate.

That up to a fifth of Danes discriminates Muslim immigrants is a social problem and a warning, Schaffer believes:

“It is one thing to say that refugees should receive lower unemployment benefits because we think they need an incentive to integrate. It is another thing to say that they deserve less Covid-19 treatment. This is a scenario where there, morally speaking, shouldn’t be any differences made between people. Healthcare is a basic human need,” he says.

“So the fact that we do see these differences shows that Danish politicians may have to address these forms of xenophobia and racism in the population and that some their recent rhetoric against Muslims and refugees has potentially gone too far.”