PARIS – The COVID-19 health crisis strikes the human race with incredible violence. Developed country governments were taken by surprise after China initially lied about the pandemic and its lethality.
China has announced a death toll of around 3,000, but independent sources claim that the number is between 40,000 and 90,000. The World Health Organization said the epidemic was a global health emergency on January 30 and a global pandemic on March 11, but the assessment of the death rate from viruses is still based on these false Chinese figures, which did not prepare Western governments.
When the pandemic hit hard in March, European countries faced a shortage of masks, tests, intensive care beds and respirators. France is a textbook case. The country’s health spending, as a percentage of GDP and per capita, is higher than that of Germany and well above the EU average. And yet, France is facing this crisis, equipped with only 5,000 intensive care beds, while Germany has 28,000.
An impending economic and political crisis risks being much worse than the health crisis.
In addition, this country destroyed most of its stocks of face masks between 2013 and 2017 and found itself unable to produce sufficient masks, tests and respirators, since it has undergone a massive deindustrialization process since over 20 years. The French hospital system is laborious, understaffed and overloaded with too many administrative layers. It can only cope with the pandemic – and again, with great difficulty – thanks to the heroism of its health personnel.
However, in the meantime, we are also facing an impending economic and political crisis that risks being much worse than the health crisis – a fact that our leaders do not seem to fully understand. With the closure expected to end on May 11, GDP will drop by at least 8% this year, the public deficit will be 9% higher than GDP and unemployment will increase by 1 million in real terms. Even with an economic rebound of 4%, the debt will be close to 120% of GDP, and the real unemployment rate will be above 12%. The political consequences of the presidential election in the spring of 2022 will be incalculable.
For people under 65 without pre-existing conditions, we must rather end the lockout before the end of April, even maintaining the ban on gatherings of more than 20 people outside of work spaces until the end of May, and maybe longer. Cultural and recreational sites, squares and gardens are likely to remain closed even longer. Schools are expected to reopen throughout May, while restaurants may reopen but under strict social distancing.
We must provide masks for public transport workers and perform 100,000 tests a day as soon as possible, while reserving 200,000 hotel rooms to quarantine those who test positive if they are not living alone.
The economic and social risks of extending the closure until May 11 – or beyond, as the Minister of the Interior seems to want us to be prepared for – are not taken into account.
I am measuring the health risks because my own family has been fatally affected by COVID-19. But I also know the effects of a serious economic and social crisis. Think of Germany in the 1920s, the United States and France in the 1930s. A brutal crisis in public finances could lead to a 10% cut in wages for civil servants and 20% in pensions.
It is difficult to weigh the risks between a health crisis and economic and social crises. But the French government’s excess of caution can become more terrifying than the virus itself.
* Christian Saint-Etienne is professor of economics at the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts.
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