The French experience of Covid-19 was that of high public service logistics and infantilizing low bureaucrats.
Its spring lockdown, one of the strictest in Europe, saved lives and protected overcrowded hospitals, but also punished people who left their homes without the right clearance form or jogged at the wrong time. The government was so worried about panic buying that even purchases of nicotine patches were limited. When President Emmanuel Macron’s administration began loosening the brakes in May, the French mille-feuille of government bureaucracy added a few more layers, with 101 plans for each of France’s administrative departments.
Now at the height of the summer tourist season, with increasingly frequent travel and Covid-19 cases reaching levels reminiscent of the early stages of the pandemic – albeit with a fraction of hospitalizations and deaths – the bureaucratic impetus is back. Prime Minister Jean Castex promised new measures on Tuesday, ranging from the wider adoption of face masks to more testing and information campaigns, saying the infection curve was going “in the wrong direction”. You could hardly call it a second wave, with daily deaths confirmed averaging 7 versus nearly 1,000 during the peak, but politicians have naturally thinner skin these days.
The government’s vigilance is commendable. It’s not an ordinary summer: the French are eager to wander after months of confinement, and more than two-thirds of holidaymakers stay in France. The coronavirus is also traveling with them, as evidenced by new clusters that are popping up across France. With growing evidence that sun worshipers are abandoning their guard over social distancing – and with cases on the rise in neighboring Spain as well – the Macron administration clearly wants to adopt a belt and suspender position ahead of the season back to school and the return of winter infections like the flu. Meeting these logistical challenges – plus one the historic heat wave, which can be fatal for the elderly, plays on the assets of the State.
But the danger is that, as stricter and more complex rules pile up, public trust is eroded. A typical example would be face masks: although already mandatory in closed public spaces like hotels, restaurants and public transport, cities like Paris this week have also made them mandatory outdoors in areas where distancing social is not possible. The results were worthy of the surrealists who flourished in the French capital a century ago.
The new Parisian map of areas forbidden to unmasked people, designed by local authorities according to state directives, is a mess. Canal St Martin is a hip area, as are popular hangouts on the banks of the Seine, but the city’s most famous shopping avenue – the Champs-Élysées – is not. (It’s long enough and wide enough to accommodate social distancing, apparently.) If you want to head to the heart of Montmartre, perhaps to pose for a portrait, bring a mask. For those walking near the central Les Halles shopping center with its 50 million annual visitors, no need. Forget about border closures – this is the epidemiology of sidewalks.
The confusing rules of Covid-19 are not just a French affair: People in parts of northern England are prohibited from meeting those from other regions inside, and Brussels has also imposed a street-by-street mask policy. But this attempt at Cartesian town planning remains clumsy.The inconsistent messages and the lack of clear street-level signs made the rules difficult for people on the ground to follow. They are unlikely to accept a fine of 135 euros ($ 158) when the police start enforcing them. Critics in the medical community have called the policy “incomprehensible” from a scientific standpoint, in part because the virus spreads much more efficiently indoors. There could be serious unintended consequences: People can manipulate their masks around every corner, especially due to the summer heat, making them less effective. Or they can ditch the outside and meet inside, creating more convenient spaces for the virus to mingle.
To be fair, Macron’s ministers seem aware of these pitfalls, and on Tuesday Castex called for new rules to go beyond the current setup and look at mask habits in the workplace as well.
Even an overly difficult approach to wearing masks outside could work as part of a layered ensemble: Research on policy responses to the 1918 Spanish Flu has found that several social distancing precautions such as quarantine, transport restrictions and masks have worked together over time to limit infection. . A single policy that makes masks mandatory everywhere, for example, might be difficult to enforce and might turn out to be too broad. Joan Ramon Villalbi Hereter, from the Catalonia Public Health Department, tells me that masks make sense in crowded public spaces and interiors – but less elsewhere.
Yet the Spanish flu and other epidemics are also teaching us that public confidence in health policy can be easily lost and that consistency is important. The French initially approved the lockdown, but turned on it in the end, angry at the lack of tests and medical supplies. These resource gaps have been partially addressed, but not fully.
If the Macron administration’s new policies opt to minimize layers of rules and top-down sanctions rather than individual accountability and better testing (and tracing) strategies, politicians will feel the heat long after summer is over. .
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Melissa Pozsgay at [email protected]