For many people in France, the crisis over the Covid-19 outbreak in China was something mostly watched from afar.
There had already been the SARS crisis in 2003 followed by the crises over MERS, H1N1 and avian flu. Even with the alarming news coming out of China in January and February this year, probably most people thought this crisis would also be contained and would eventually disappear.
Perhaps the first signs that this would not be the case came in late February when along with other people across France I was asked to report my movements over previous weeks, particularly to regions reporting the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
I had been in Kuwait, Cairo and the United Kingdom, none of them seen as giving cause for concern. Colleagues who had visited northern Italy and certain other areas were asked not to come to work for 14 days. This was towards the end of February when Italy was reporting a couple of hundred cases of Covid-19 infection in the north of the country and when there were only a handful of recorded cases in France.
Things started to build from there. Even before French President Emmanuel Macron announced the first of France’s measures designed to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus, with the closure of schools and universities and certain other institutions being announced on 12 March, we had been told that there might be a need to work from home either temporarily or more permanently.
Schools and other educational institutions were closed on 16 March. Meanwhile, a second set of measures was introduced on 15 March closing bars, restaurants, clubs, leisure centres, gyms and non-essential shops – almost everything in fact apart from pharmacists, food shops and supermarkets – and everyone who could do so was told to work from home.
Anyone needing to leave their home would be allowed to do so, but only for essential purposes such as food shopping, medical appointments or individual exercise, in which case they would need to carry a document setting out their reason for being outside. The regulations that were introduced across France in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus thus mirrored those in place in Italy.
From 24 March, it has been illegal in France to spend more than one hour a day on individual exercise outside the home, with this being taken a maximum of one km away. On 17 March, the European Union closed its borders to foreign visitors, and on 15 March Germany’s border with France was closed. UK citizens are not allowed to travel to France unless they are residents of continental Europe.
The weekend of Macron’s second set of measures was perhaps the turning point for many people. Up until that point it might have still seemed possible almost to ignore the Covid-19 virus or to assume that it would disappear as SARS and H1NI had done.
I walked across the Alexandre III Bridge from Les Invalides in Paris on Sunday 15 March, hoping to take the metro after a walk up to the Place de la Concorde. The area was full of people, some playing team games on the grass, others picnicking in family groups or strolling with groups of friends. None of them seemed particularly concerned about the rules to stop the transmission of the Covid-19 virus.
That changed the next day. Public transport had been emptying out for days, and even in the morning rush hour there were far fewer people on the metro than usual. It felt like an early Sunday morning across Paris, with shops and restaurants closed and hardly anyone to be seen on normally busy streets.
Since then, people have been confined to their homes, aside from essential sorties outside. The lights are on in most apartment buildings, indicating that not everyone has left Paris for the countryside, even though an estimated one million people have done so. The parks are closed, as are the schools of course, and the absence of young people milling around has been striking.
While it may be difficult for older people to stay inside as the warm weather begins, how much more difficult must it be for young people or children? Parts of Paris have a very high population density, with many families being packed into tiny flats. One can only imagine how they are coping.
People have been scrupulous about following social-distancing rules, though possibly not in every district. Those who are outside wait in lines outside supermarkets standing two metres apart before entering to keep the number of people inside to a minimum. The shelves are full, and there has been little sign of the kind of panic-buying seen in the United Kingdom. Cashiers wear masks and gloves and are protected by hanging plastic screens.
There have been no masks, gloves or hand sanitiser to be had for weeks in the shops, and every pharmacy has a sign in the window saying it is out of stock. Post boxes have been sealed until further notice, and postal deliveries have been drastically cut back. Payments in shops are by card, and some are no longer accepting cash. The museums and cultural institutions that many people come to Paris to see are all closed to visitors.
How much longer will this continue – a life where everything has been put on hold while hoping to help combat the spread of the virus? As the terrible news continues to emerge from Italy and Spain, many in France fear that French figures, already high, will soon mirror those of neighbouring countries.
The figures announced last weekend indicated more than 2,300 deaths in France and French hospitals in some regions already overflowing with severe cases. Deaths in Italy went beyond 10,000, and in Spain they were heading towards 6,000.
Like in other countries, there have been shortages of beds, ventilators, protection equipment and doctors and nurses in France. Every evening at 8pm rounds of applause break out across Paris for those working to contain the crisis.
When it first announced the lockdown measures, the government said they would be in place for two weeks before they were reviewed. That has now taken place, with the measures extended to 15 April. It is possible to get used to this strange sort of life, of course, and to scurry back into the safety of the apartment after rare sorties outside.
But what stops any possibility of getting used to it is the terrible news that pours in from all directions, as the figures escalate worldwide and some governments seem to be having trouble comprehending the need for comprehensive measures. Not far away, hospitals are being overwhelmed by serious cases, and families everywhere are losing loved ones.
If the lockdown in France has been a challenge for many, with the French healthcare system struggling under the pressure of new cases of Covid-19, it is impossible not to think about the situation for people across the world who may not enjoy the privileged living conditions common in France or access to quality state-provided healthcare services.
Even in western European countries, many people are only steps away from penury as jobs disappear and markets collapse despite unprecedented state-led efforts to prop up the economy. Many fear that the crisis cannot continue much longer without the prospect of serious unrest, even setting aside the escalating death rates across Europe.
But the crisis will be a great deal worse in countries already experiencing high rates of poverty and with fragile or very limited healthcare systems. For the time being, it looks as if we are just at the beginning of an almost unimaginable crisis, with countries having comprehensive healthcare and social security systems facing enormous strains and those without, among them the United States, threatened by disaster on a mediaeval scale.
Everyone must do everything they can to help halt the spread of this terrible virus. In the meantime, we must live as best we may, day to day, in the hope that something better will emerge once we have seen the back of this crisis.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly