In the France of today, it would mean democratising the response to the virus, not imprisoning it in the closed corridors of power.
Chris Myant started as a journalist in 1968 working for the Morning Star and then 7Days. He later worked for the Commission for Racial Equality and Equality and Human Rights Commission. For the last decade he has lived in Paris where he is active in the National Union of Journalists.
Cross-posted from Open Democracy
All that, just to endure this? How can one not ask such a question as the toll of Covid-19 deaths continues and lockdowns tighten across Europe a year after governments let the virus in through the continent’s front door and while a punch-drunk public begins to realise that the current vaccination programme is far from meaning an early end to our pain?
The weekend just gone marked the anniversary of the news of the first registered Covid-19 death, of the publication of the DNA code for SARS-Cov-2 and of the warning from the World Health Organisation to governments around the world that they needed to review their systems for dealing with epidemics making sure that they could test people for the virus and trace the contacts of those infected so they could be isolated and the chain of contagion cut.
No government in Europe or the Americas heeded that advice. Inaction then, and failure to respond properly since, means that the virus continues to spread amid chaotic and half-hearted attempts to control it, alongside accumulating economic difficulties and growing poverty. We celebrated the epidemic’s birthday by notching up the highest daily totals yet of infections and deaths. France can still not deliver on that simple call from the WHO a year ago.
Three remarks made as this anniversary slipped by take us to the heart of the country’s problem.
Lockdown is the first step
Arnaud Fontanet, a member of President Macron’s special Covid era Scientific Council, warned that the new “British” variant was “almost a new epidemic in the epidemic” against which vaccinating even just the most vulnerable would be “a race against the clock”.
Michèle Rubirola, the councillor responsible for health in Marseille where the new variant has now surfaced, asked: “Why not a new lockdown?” As she spoke, test evidence revealed that the variant was being found elsewhere across the country.
But Macron’s government spokesperson Gabriel Attal pushed back any idea that the President might follow Rubirola’s call: “At this stage, we are not proposing a new lockdown.” To which Prime Minister Jean Castex added that it would be “a last resort” to go for a lockdown and that “The situation must really be at its worst to close the schools.”
Castex and Attal show how little the Macronie understands what is needed to deal with an epidemic in the modern world. When a killer virus is on the loose, lockdown is the first step, not the last, a government should take. But it can only make sense to a bored, exhausted, sidelined and frustrated public if the leeway it offers is used to deliver a crash programme creating the means to defeat the virus, one driven by the involvement of the population at all levels and fuelled by openness of information and decision-taking.
That is to say, a hard lockdown must not be used as the sole means of beating the epidemic, but as a measure brought in to give time to build the defensive system required. The restrictions must not there just to string out the pain. They will only secure public support when they are clearly used as a key step on the way to bringing the epidemic to an end.
Experience shows this is not at all what Macron and his ministers have in mind. All their eggs are currently in the basket of the vaccines. Yet the French vaccination programme is in worse shape than most, taking much longer to get off the ground. We do not need the WHO to warn us that there will be no “herd immunity” this year. We can just look at the limited numbers French ministers claim will be vaccinated.
The testing system has neither the public willingness to be involved nor the technical capacity to deliver both an adequate level of tests across a whole community or quick enough results. It has tried and failed, securing less than 20 per cent participation rates early in December. With the variant now present in schools in the Paris suburbs it faces an impossible task because the government failed to use the last year to put in place sufficient resources.
The tracing system has also never got off the ground. We hear daily radio slots urging us to use the tracing app on our phones, but they still tell us that no more than 10 million have so far downloaded it, that is 10 million out of 65. Since early summer, experts have been pointing out that, if the rate of daily recorded infections is running at over 5,000, then the resources put into tracing could not cope. That is a level way, way below the rate of recorded infections for the past months.
The treatment system is still in great difficulty. Astonishingly, the French health service is still proceeding with plans to reduce its number of beds.
The political decisions and administrative practices behind these failures have been pilloried in a series of internal unpublished, but leaked reports and by inquiries carried out by parliamentarians. There is also now a growing body of specialist literature from sociologists, epidemiologists and others supporting these indictments. What stands out is the refusal to engage in a simple process of foresight linked to an aversion to taking decisive, over-arching action.
What is it about Vietnam?
One could stop there and just blame all of this on Macron’s personality and the way that personality has played with the highly centralised and hierarchical system of France’s presidential system. The very latest of the legion of books on Macron gives just such an argument.[i] The author writes of his “taste for domination” and of how he “wants to work on issues himself”. They cite a key colleague: “He likes to keep all options open, persuaded that, in the end, he will sort things out.”
There is little point in exploring for deeper explanations if we do not start from the assertion that it would have been possible to cut the epidemic off at the beginning. To understand what is possible is a necessary condition for having the capacity to act and to see why such a capacity was put on one side.
When travelling now from France to Britain, the relevant pages of the British government website giving you the rules to follow include an alphabetical list of those places from which you can arrive without immediately going into quarantine. The last one on the list is Vietnam. The argument is that you are so unlikely to pick up the virus there that there is no need for you to go into isolation for the time that any infection by SARS-Cov-2 might take to reveal itself.
When going in the other direction, from Britain into France, the equivalent list of exempted countries does not include Vietnam, the former colony whose people booted out their French would-be rulers in 1954 after a bloody attempt by successive governments in Paris to overturn the Vietnamese declaration of independence in 1945. New Zealand is there in the list of exempted states for entry into France as it is for Britain, but not Vietnam.
Thirty-five deaths in total in a poor country of 95 million as against 67,000 in France, a rich country of 65 million, takes some explaining. The figures are as of 11 January 2021 and come from the WHO website at https://covid19.who.int/table. Anyone in government with half a conscience should take a daily glance at this site so that they keep at the forefront of their minds the fact that some have succeeded and saved lives (and their economy) while others have failed and, as a consequence, killed.
Is the poverty and youthfulness of Vietnam an “advantage” that explains these different totals? Or has past exposure to other coronavirus infections developed some degree of immunity? Or is it because the country has an authoritarian political regime, one that can impose choices from above and demand obedience from those below?
Certainly, one of the great disappointments of the 20th century has been what followed in Vietnam after the defeat of the US in 1975.
When I stood at the edge of a ditch in My Lai in May that year, the ditch where reputedly many of the corpses of the victims of Lt. Calley’s platoon had been photographed in 1968 – a cartridge casing from an M16 rifle that my sandal scuffed up from the dusty ground is still on a shelf beside my desk as I write – or when I wandered with late night crowds of women in Danang out and about for the first time in their lives, they told me, free from the fear of rape, the last thing I imagined was a government that would, 45 years later, be jailing some of its milder critics.
New Zealand has only some 5 million inhabitants and cannot compare on size, but it has fewer deaths, though somewhat more recorded cases, than Vietnam. No one in France has yet challenged Jacinda Ardern’s democratic credentials. For both countries, the WHO tabulation speaks of “clusters of cases” rather than the “community transmission” it records for France or Britain. That is to say a virus present, but controllable, as opposed to a virus rampant everywhere. On the anniversary day there were four new cases in New Zealand, and one in Vietnam as against 20,034 in France and 59,937 in Britain.
A better argument for the success of Vietnam or New Zealand is that the authorities and the population there have learned from the dangerous experience of earlier potential epidemics or have seen what was happening to others and acted with authority, public involvement and official determination. They have tested, traced and isolated with determination and so kept that work manageable. They have shown that it is possible to stop the virus rather than just run after it.
You have to look hard across the French media to find any discussion of these two experiences. The favoured comparisons are with other failures in other European countries.
Here we enter the real argument: it is not Macron’s personality that explains why France is grappling with an epidemic seemingly without end, though it, and the particular foibles of the multiple layers of public administration in the country, do help explain some of the specifics of the French failure as opposed to those of other European countries. It is not personality, but political philosophy that lies behind the current murderous inability to deal with the virus.
Macron is trying to re-engineer France more fully in line with the needs of private finance and large-scale enterprise. That was clear from the outset, both in his work as an advisor to, and minister for, his predecessor as president, François Hollande, and in the programme he published during his campaign to get elected.
Unlike Hollande, elected on the back of rhetorical flourishes against high finance, or François Mitterrand, elected in 1981 with a programme of nationalisations and major social reforms, Macron has not needed a U-turn moment. Unlike them, he has not had to abandon a left programme in favour of one of austerity in public spending and tax cuts for firms and the rich. He did that from the very beginning.
His is the state that seeks not to administer things, not to help organise services, to foresee needs and to provide the means to meet them. It believes this work should be left up to the private sector, large or small, to get on with. It seeks to administer people in the interest of things and not the reverse. And its failures in the face of the epidemic are in line with these policy options imposed since Macron was elected.
The cruelty of this contrasts nastily with the public image of a courteous and caring president, but is apparent in all aspects of the Paris government’s response to the virus. As one recent French academic author puts it in the title of his book, this is a “fake state”, one that organises its own powerlessness in response to public needs, compensating for that by its organised powerfulness when it comes to public order.[i]
We can philosophise over the way this state engages in the practice of government in the context of globalised and transnational capital and helps prepare the ground for the politics of uprooted resentment, as represented in France by the racist Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen, at the same time as it hollows out each and every public service or democratic structure.
The more immediate question is the way this approach reveals itself in the choices it has made around the epidemic. Nothing was put in place or planned before the virus surged in late February and March. Those voices that suggested the time to act was before, not after, the epidemic accelerated were silenced and ignored.
Once action was forced on the government, the means chosen were private sector organisations not public sector ones. This has been, and remains, the case in every instance where that choice could be made – from mask production, the operation of telephone advice lines all the way to the use of private consultancies to advise on policy rather than relying on open debate through the accountable structures of French democracy.
The upsurge of popular concern, solidarity and activity during the first lockdown in March and April – not just the balcony applause for health workers, but the volunteers turning out masks in their living rooms, arranging food supplies for those in need, looking after elderly, isolated neighbours – that was left to fade away. It has not come back and Macron does not want it to.
Even on the prime policy option of vaccination, he did not pick up the option of establishing a publicly-supported, not-for-profit production line in France –indeed it may never even have occurred to him to think that way – so the country is currently reliant on Pfizer’s Belgian facility. There will be vaccines produced in France later this year. But the decision to do so has been taken by private enterprise because there is profit in doing so.
The road not taken
The answers are all out there, lying in wait for a government prepared to give humanity a chance to take control of its future: closed borders for a period; radically reduced movement and personal contact for perhaps longer; free protection for every individual whether it is masks, gels, clean air or decontamination of spaces and facilities; a crash programme to restore the hospital services and develop better treatments; a proper test, trace and isolate system that can quickly cope with millions, not thousands of individuals; and above all the mobilisation of social solidarity to help people feel cared for, feel part of a joint enterprise, feel that they understand what is being done and why.
These things are physically possible for one of the most advanced economies in the world. The problem from Macron’s point of view is two-fold. He would have to redirect public subsidies from the world of business to that of public and co-operative enterprise. He could not deliver such a programme without the involvement of people and their organisations from the bottom up. In the France of today, it would mean democratising the response to the virus, not imprisoning it in the closed corridors of power.