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 a 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.
But it can only make sense… if the leeway it offers is used to deliver a crash programme creating the means to defeat the virus.
That is to say, a hard lockdown must be seen not as the sole means of beating the epidemic, but as measures brought in so as to give time to build the defensive system required. The restrictions are not there just to string out the pain, but they are a key step on the way to bringing it to an end. The public must be helped to see that this is the case.
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.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.