How France ended up in the middle of a coronavirus disaster

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Emmanuel Macron opened his official visit to Italy on February 26 with a big two-cheek kiss for Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Then he left for a 20-minute round of contact on the streets of Naples, even though the Italian coronavirus epidemic was already big news there.

In Paris on March 9, the day of the confinement of neighboring Italy, Macron went for a walk with his wife on the Champs-Élysées, declaring to the owners of the restaurant that he wanted to “send a message of confidence to the economy French ”.

In retrospect, it was not such a good idea. France is now among the worst performing countries in managing the epidemic.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte made two close contacts at their summit in Naples in late February, as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded. Macron also undertook a series of handshakes on the city streets. (The Associated Press)

“In France, the French president is like a king. He’s a Republican king, “said Mathieu Magnaudeix, one of the best investigative journalists in France. “It is very clear that they did not understand how important the situation was. It’s a whole system failure. It is a failure of the French executive power and especially of the president. “

Sometimes the president has been challenged. During a visit to a French hospital on February 28, he was confronted by a doctor on how public hospitals were actually on fire like the famous Notre Dame Cathedral and needed his immediate attention.

Macron stepped back, saying, “Okay, so can I count on you?” The doctor quickly replied, “Oh yes, you can count on me, but the contrary has yet to be proven.” “

In a short time, France was drawn into a large-scale health crisis, with so many cases of COVID-19 that hospitals and certain retirement homes were swamped with patients. (MARTIN BUREAU / POOL / AFP via Getty Images)

There is a lot of anger against the French government right now, says Magnaudeix.

“We basically lost two or three months, three very important months, where we could have helped prevent this pandemic from getting worse in France,” he said. “After all this, the government will have to account for what it did or did not do. “

It was not entirely the government’s fault. On March 12, Macron finally announced on television that he was closing schools and calling for physical distance because France was now at war with COVID-19.

The next day, the public invades Parisian terraces and courtyards to enjoy the sun with their friends and relatives. Many people did not seem to pay attention to the possibility that France could share the horrible fate of Italy.

Mathieu Magnaudeix, an investigative journalist with the French online publication Mediapart, believes that France’s response to the pandemic is “a failure of the whole system”. (Mathieu Magnaudeix)

“We had the example of Wuhan before our eyes, and then we had the example of Italy before our eyes,” said Dr. Catherine Hill, a leading French epidemiologist.

“Instead of thinking that these are examples, people were just hoping for the best and they were talking about the Italian script as if it were a Western film made by Italians or something exotic. It’s ridiculous! The same causes tend to have the same consequences. “

Overwhelmed intensive care units

Eric Maury, an intensive care doctor at Saint-Antoine Hospital in Paris, said that there are thousands of intensive care patients in France that his healthcare system cannot handle. (Eric Maury)

Indeed, the consequences have arrived. A tidal wave of COVID-19 patients overwhelms French hospitals.

The intensive care doctor Eric Maury estimates that there are 5,000 intensive care beds in France.

“In fact, there are more than 7,000 patients requiring intensive care, so we really have more patients than France can treat in intensive care beds,” he said.

On Sunday, the death toll exceeded 14,000.

France has responded to the shortage with an astonishing mobilization of high-speed trains and planes to move patients from saturated hospitals in Paris and the east of the country to hospitals less frequented in other regions, or even other countries.

“They sent patients to Germany, Switzerland, Luxembourg because [the system] was overwhelmed, “said Maury. There were too many patients to care for and there were no more intensive care beds, no ventilators. ”

The comparisons with other countries are amazing. While France is reputed to have one of the best healthcare systems in the world, neighboring Germany has performed five times the number of COVID-19 tests per capita. Today, France has six times more deaths per capita in Germany.

A woman is carrying purchases to Marseille, in the south of France, just after the nationwide containment measures came into effect on March 17. (Photo AP / Daniel Cole)

France claims to have a strangely low number of confirmed cases, but epidemiologists like Hill don’t believe it.

“My estimate is that you have to multiply the published figures by something like 50, so there is a huge gap,” she said.

WATCH | COVID-19 disaster in France:

The excess of confidence shown by French President Emmanuel Macron while neighboring Italy locked himself up to contain COVID-19 was followed by a lack of respect for the recommendations for physical distancing and caused the epidemic the deadliest in the world. 6:05

There was a scandal in France when it turned out that a much discussed stock of masks and other protective equipment was much smaller than promised. Macron visited a mask production line and promised that others were on the way.

Critical care doctors like Maury say there is still no sign of relief.

“What I am saying to the government is that if there is no protection, we are not going to take care of the patients,” he said. “It is not possible to do that. “

Back to normal?

As France transports patients to other countries, the government announces its intention to return to normal.

Experts like Hill doubt that this would be possible without a significant increase in testing.

“Half of the infections are caused by people who don’t know they are infectious,” she said. “There are millions of people in France who are positive right now. How do you release quarantine? You really need to start massively testing to sort out and put them aside. “

And like Canada, France has a surprisingly high proportion of deaths in nursing homes.

A man runs across the forecourt of the Sacré-Coeur basilica at the top of Montmartre during a national confinement to counter the new coronavirus. (Photo AP / Thibault Camus)

This is something Macron didn’t seem to see coming back on March 6, when he joined the dinner table in a retirement home in Paris and paid no attention to the physical distance.

Today, the number of elderly COVID-19 deaths in France is around 5,000. Deaths in retirement homes are perhaps the most shocking element in France’s dismal record of coronavirus.

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