Will a Half-Step by Macron Be Enough to Blunt France's Second Wave?

October 15, 2020 

PARIS -- France thought it had beaten the coronavirus. Its comeback in a roaring second wave left the government scrambling this week for a half-measure that underscored its ugly choices.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, highlighted his own dilemma on Wednesday in announcing a curfew for Paris and eight other major cities. A new lockdown for an already reeling economy would have been "disproportionate," he said, yet the pressure on intensive care beds was intolerable. "Our caregivers are exhausted," he said.

"The virus is recirculating very rapidly in Europe and in our country," Mr. Macron said in an interview on national television. France had to "take back control."

If the virus ever was under control in France, that was before the summer. But, experts say, after that moment, the French, like so many others elsewhere in Europe, let their guard down.

France's attachment to its summer holidays, young people's exuberance in going out and partying, a lack of vigilance in wearing masks and social distancing, the risks of resuming routine life, and the government's failure -- from the very start -- to effectively test, trace and isolate infected people have all contributed to an explosive second wave of infections.

Whether ordering people, starting Saturday, to stay in their homes from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. is the answer -- restaurant owners and young people are already grumbling -- cannot be known immediately. But the dire outlook was undeniable. With an average of nearly 20,000 new cases a day, health experts have been warning all week that the virus is out of control in France, particularly in cities.

"Right now, we've got to put the brakes on it," said Yazdan Yazdanpanah, an infectious disease specialist on the French government's Covid-19 advisory panel. "This curfew will limit contacts," he said. "We've got to lower the rate right away. We don't really have a choice."

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said that the new curfew came in "the last possible week to react" to prevent hospital saturation. He noted that a new study found that a curfew imposed in French Guiana reduced infections by 36 percent.

ImageWill a Half-Step by Macron Be Enough to Blunt France's Second Wave? - merlin 178564992 eb0c866d b5e3 4745 8fbf 61461f01eefb articleLarge
A coronavirus patient in an intensive care unit in Paris on Wednesday. "Our caregivers are exhausted," Mr. Macron said.Credit...Lucas Barioulet/Agence France-Presse -- Getty Images

Until Wednesday night, Mr. Macron's own indecision had emphasized the quandary faced by governments all over Europe caught between faltering economies -- France is facing a recession of nearly 9 percent -- restriction-weary populations and a virus that will not quit.

The government's hesitancy was palpable this week. The prime minister, Jean Castex, chided the French for having "decided a little too quickly" that the virus no longer posed a threat.

The same day, the tourism minister, Jean Baptiste Lemoyne, urged people to go on vacation during the upcoming school break, to prop up the country's vital tourism industry, whose revenues are half what they were a year ago.

Mr. Macron himself acknowledged the impossibility of barring upcoming French vacation-going in his remarks on Wednesday night.

Lulled by a relatively successful handling of the first wave, the government failed to firmly put in place a critical triptych over the summer -- testing, tracing and isolation. The numbers are not as high as they were last spring, but they are bad enough. Nearly 100 people died in the 24 hours ending Thursday morning, far below the 1,000-plus death tolls of mid-April but still alarming.

Cases, flat through June and July, have been rising steadily since August, with 27,000 positive tests reported last Saturday. An infection rate of 5 to 6 cases per 100,000 people over the summer has spiraled to nearly 200 across France. It is up to 800 for 20- to 30-year-olds in Paris. The government has set the red alert limit at 150.

In the interim, bars and gyms have been shut in major cities. Establishments that serve food remain open, even if cafe owners report confusion about what qualifies as enough of a meal to keep the police off their backs.

There have been mixed messages, too, about going back to offices. The president of the region that includes Paris, Valerie Pecresse, appealed for a return last month, even as infections started to rise. The result is that central Paris bustles with office workers, compared with moribund downtowns in the United States, though nearly everybody wears a mask. On Wednesday, Mr. Macron encouraged at least a partial return to telecommuting.


A testing facility in Montpellier on Wednesday. From the start, the government has struggled to effectively test, trace and isolate infected people.Credit...Guillaume Horcajuelo/EPA, via Shutterstock

The gestation of the current infection boom was plainly visible in July, August and September. Visitors packed France's summer watering holes after the government encouraged tourism, anxious also not to get crosswise of the sacred ritual that is the French summer holiday.

A wave of indignation greeted mild suggestions that workers should give up some vacation days to compensate for those lost during the lockdown.

In Paris, as they returned from these hot spots, young people spilled from crowded bars onto the sidewalks in the city's bohemian eastern districts and massed along the banks of the Seine. There was no social distancing and few masks. France thought the virus was tamed.

"There was certainly a lack of understanding in a part of the population that didn't believe in a second wave," said Renaud Piarroux, an epidemics specialist at Pitie-Salpetriere Hospital in Paris. "Some in the younger population abandoned the necessary precautions," he said, like wearing a mask and social distancing.

Before Mr. Macron's announcement on Wednesday, several health experts predicted a severe reckoning in the coming weeks.

"It's all over," William Dab, a former national director of public health who has been critical of the government's response, said earlier this week. "We've lost the fight. It's out of control."

Mr. Dab chided the government for what he called a "strategy deficit" that had not motivated individuals to change their behavior. In the Paris region, he added, "there is nothing left to be done."

On Thursday, the police searched the homes and offices of several current and former officials, including the health minister, Olivier Veran, as part of an inquiry into the government's response to the pandemic. The French Court of Justice, a special court that hears accusations of official mismanagement, opened the investigation in July.

The one ray of hope in France, as elsewhere, is that treatment methods have improved since the spring, allowing more patients to be saved. Still, the head of Paris hospitals, Martin Hirsch, warned on Tuesday that coronavirus patients would most likely fill up to 90 percent of intensive care beds in the capital by next week. Already more than 1,600 of France's 5,000 intensive-care beds are filled.

A report from independent experts, commissioned by the government and released this week, concluded that France had done far better than Britain, Sweden, the United States and Southern Europe, but not as well as Austria or Germany.


Commuters in Paris on Thursday. A curfew of 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. has been ordered in the capital and eight other cities, starting Saturday.Credit...Lewis Joly/Associated Press

The French obeyed the lockdown imposed by the government in March, April and May. Then, with cases flatlining, they flocked back into the streets, stores, cafes and restaurants.

Citizens let down their guard, reinforcing what Bernard Jomier, a member of the French Senate commission examining the government's pandemic response, termed a "collective deficit of public health culture in our country."

"We are a country where the politics of prevention is not part of our culture," he said in an interview this week. "There are elements in French society that are favorable to the development of the virus."

The consequence has been a "hesitation in the government's official line," said Mr. Jomier, a Greens party lawmaker who represents a Paris district. "The governance of public health is not well organized."

"Testing, tracing, isolating -- this has been a failure," he said. "Badly elaborated, badly implemented."

At Charles de Gaulle Airport for example, arriving travelers are tested, but they do not get the results for at least a week.

Contact tracing has also "failed," Mr. Jomier said; Mr. Dab, the former public health director, called it a "fiasco" in an interview in the Journal du Dimanche in September, noting that the five contacts traced per case in July had dropped to two.

"The number of contacts is very far below the actual number of contacts," said Mr. Piarroux, the epidemics specialist. "It's all happening over the phone. So there's less motivation" to divulge the contacts.

Both he and Mr. Jomier also said that isolation, the third part of the triptych, had hardly been enforced, pointing to out-of-control infection rates in shelters that house migrants.

On Thursday, French newspapers grimly recalled the curfew imposed during the German occupation, and industry groups called for new help for struggling restaurants.

"We can't work from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.," said Denis Kouch, the owner of a restaurant off the Champs-Elysees. "People don't even have time to arrive, and then they have to leave right away?"

Constant Meheut and Antonella Francini contributed reporting.

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