PARIS – The high-speed train passing in front of the historic battle sites of the First World War and crossing the chateau-speckled Loire Valley was carrying a delicate cargo: 20 seriously ill COVID-19 patients and the respiratory systems helping to keep them alive .
The intensive care unit transformed into a TGV is an element of the national mobilization of trains, helicopters, planes and even a warship in France, deployed to relieve crowded hospitals and to move hundreds of patients and of medical personnel in and out of coronavirus hotspots.
“We are at war,” President Emmanuel Macron repeatedly told his compatriots.
But as the 42-year-old leader masquerades as a warrior and harnesses the power of the military, critics accuse him of having waited far too long to act against this enemy. France, one of the richest countries in the world with one of the best health systems, they say, should never have been in such a deep crisis.
Macron had just emerged from weeks of damaging retirement strikes and a year of violent “yellow vest” protests against economic injustice when the pandemic hit. Now he’s struggling to run the home in one of the most affected countries in the world.
The Rungis food market south of Paris, the largest in Europe, turns into a morgue when the number of deaths in France exceeds 7,500. Nearly 7,000 patients are in intensive care, pushing French hospitals to their limits and beyond. Doctors ration painkillers and reuse masks.
The centralized state and the powerful presidency of France facilitate the coordination of the exceptional efforts to move patients, who have crisscrossed the country and even extended to overseas territories.
But the pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of the world-renowned state hospital system after decades of cost cutting. When the president visited a Paris hospital on the front line of the battle against the virus, an angry neurologist challenged him to reinvest heavily.
“When it came to saving Notre-Dame, many were displaced,” said Dr. François Salachas, a reference to the cathedral in Paris which was badly damaged by fire a year ago, causing immediate promise. and massive public and private funds for reconstruction. “This time, it’s about saving public hospitals, which are going up in smoke at the same speed as Notre-Dame. “
Many believe that Macron did not anticipate the severity with which the virus could strike and set a bad personal example. Similar criticism has been directed at other world leaders, including the presidents of Mexico, Brazil and the United States.
In February, Macron made a point of kissing the Italian Prime Minister several times during a visit to Naples to show that there was nothing to fear. At the time, the virus was already spreading rapidly across France, but limited testing meant health officials didn’t know it yet.
In early March, he visited a retirement home when he announced that families should no longer visit elderly relatives. The same day, he went with his wife to a Paris theater where the owner tweeted that the president wanted to show that “life goes on”. By then, the official number of virus infections in France would double every two days.
In mid-March, when COVID-19 ravaged neighboring Italy, France launched the first round of municipal elections nationwide. First Lady Brigitte Macron wandered the banks of the Seine, which were crowded with Parisians enjoying a sunny day despite recommendations for social distancing.
It was not until March 16 that Macron suddenly changed his tone, declaring war on the virus and announcing containment measures nationwide. A week later, he appeared wearing a face mask for the first time in a field hospital installed by troops outside of Mulhouse, the eastern city which saw an outbreak of cases from an evangelical gathering of five days.
The military has played a key role, as military and hospital authorities have developed the system to transport patients to less stressed hospitals and doctors to viral areas in need.
The first “medicalized” TGV made its maiden voyage on March 26. Doctors in protective gear pushed ramps along the almost empty platform of Strasbourg’s east train station as security warnings sounded from loudspeakers. Inside the double-decker cars, patients and bundles of tubes and wires were trapped in front of luggage racks and rows of seats. Once secure, the train flew to the least affected hospitals in the west.
While militarized mobilizations are widely popular, public debate has multiplied on issues such as the relatively small number of people tested for the virus in France and the shortage of medical equipment. Macron ordered all the facial masks requisitioned for medical personnel after it became clear that France had entered the crisis well below the supplies needed.
“The issue of masks is now the priority issue for the French,” said Jean-Daniel Levy of the Harris Interactive polling agency, adding that the public believes that the government “has not taken enough responsibility” for this. at the beginning.
France has had to send some patients for treatment to neighboring Germany, which has carried out massive national tests and confirmed more cases than France while registering a death number of about one fifth as high as now.
Macron, a centrist, caught fire at both ends of the political spectrum.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen told France 2 that “the government had lied about the country’s readiness”, while far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said Macron , a former investment banker, “used to think that the free market would meet the needs of the country, so his mental framework collapsed. ”
Among the general public, Macron “is considered relatively authoritarian,” said Levy. It hurt him during the protest movements but contributes to his popularity today because “we want to have a strong authority figure” to manage the crisis.
In the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, a fact-finding mission is looking closely at how the government is handling the emergency.
Macron, however, said during a visit to a mask manufacturing company that it was not yet time to focus on what was wrong.
“When we fight a battle, we must all be united to win it,” said the president. “And I think those who seek to bring people to justice when we have not yet won the war are irresponsible.”
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