‘Thanks to vaccines, the end of the crisis is on the horizon.’ No, that’s not a bullish Boris Johnson speaking but French president Emmanuel Macron.
Why, then, is France entering its fourth national lockdown just as the UK, along with a more cautious Scotland, takes wary steps towards what Johnson calls ‘a semblance of normal life’?
According to France 24: “The EU’s troubled jab procurement programme has led to slow inoculation rates; France had given out a vaccine dose to just 12.96% of its population by April 1 – compared to 46.11% in the UK, where the vaccine programme has raced ahead.”
But there are other obstacles to overcome. In this ‘postcard’ from southern France, a doubly vaccinated Frances Allen meets the complex cultural attitudes of her adopted home: ‘a country which has a historic mistrust of vaccines.’
Liberté before fraternité
March 7, 2021. Yesterday, protected by my two doses of vaccine, I ventured back to the Saturday market for the first time for a year.
It was a glorious, sunny day and the town centre was packed with people joyful to see the spring weather. In front of the Hotel de Ville a crowd of baba cools (this area has been a home to hippies since the sixties) sold their wicker baskets and played their accordions and drums, juggled and danced.
All that was missing, sadly, was the cafe life. I looked for somewhere to sit, spotted two benches and then realised with pleasure that the other occupants were a group of (French) friends, with whom I used to enjoy eating at the little restaurant Chez Fatou. They greeted me with welcoming warmth.
Inevitably the conversation got round to Covid and vaccines. They were mainly too young to qualify for the current round of vaccines, [at that stage] still just for the over 75s plus those with underlying health issues. One person had had major heart surgery a few years ago. Shouldn’t he go for a vaccine? I asked. That was when as usual I sensed the lack of enthusiasm for the vaccines, even amongst these, a generally intelligent and educated group of people.
My heart sank, but nevertheless I launched into my usual attempt to persuade people that the vaccine was not just to protect them but the way out of the pandemic for society in general. Inevitably I heard the dreaded explanation: each individual should have the liberté to choose whether or not to have the jab. But surely, I argued, the individual only enjoys the right to liberté so long as it is not harmful to the rest of society. What about fraternité? But I was getting nowhere.
Look at the UK?
Look at the UK, I said, which made such a mess of things last year and has one of the worst death rates in the world. Through its vaccination programme it is finding a way to extricate itself from this nightmare. Ah, was the reply, the UK can do this because it is an island. We in France are in the centre of Europe, and whatever we do here, we cannot avoid the virus coming from other countries. Look at Dunkirk, for example.
The irony is that Pasteur was French. Yet this is a country which has a historic mistrust of vaccines predating the Covid pandemic. I struggle to understand where this comes from. Anti-establishment and resistance to anything dictated by Paris? Mistrust of medical institutions and a series of health scandals over the years? Fear of vaccine side effects from a population prone to hypochondria? Low value placed on actions for the general good as opposed to individual interests? (How often I have heard friends say “Ah you Anglo-Saxon countries have a far stronger sense of civic duty” – this often said with the same sort of inverse pride with which they shake their heads at Gallic disorganisation.)
Those who do want the jab have not been helped by the chaos since the start of the year: the lack of vaccines and the confusion as to who is organising the vaccination programme locally. Initially, all appointments were made through the online GP service doctolib and I think it is still used for the larger centres with the Pfizer vaccine. But, as I discovered to my cost, the system virtually collapsed in those first two months, not equipped for the disparities between demand and supply.
There now seem to be two other channels through which to get a vaccine: the local mairie and GPs. Our local commune, Bréau, has done a particularly good job of contacting all the over 75 year olds and where necessary helping them with transport to the vaccination centre. But I get the impression that it is doing more than most.
Two weeks later…a new hospital crisis
Given the rising number of cases in France, it was so inevitable that there should be a new confinement.
Today I chatted about Covid with Philippe, who does my DIY work and is currently painting my windows. Philippe, one of the group of disenchanted people on the left in this area, points to a mistrust of government – especially of Macron – and of public information (or the lack of).
He argued that there would have been no crisis if government had not been quietly dismantling health services over the past two decades. Now they are in a panic, having to impose confinements and to airlift patients out of hospitals no longer able to cope. I agree with him, but pointed out that this has happened to even greater extent in the UK. After our discussion I started to look at statistics. There are many and I tried not to be diverted to a fuller comparison of various government failings. Here, for example, are some figures I found on the site Statista.
Hospital beds in France and UK
France – In 2000: 484,279. In 2018: 395,670
UK – In 2000: 240,000. In 2019: 163,878
Philippe and I did not discuss the intermittent but nasty rows about who is or is not exporting vaccines to whom. I confess I find these as confusing as the current SNP Salmond vs Sturgeon accusations and counter accusations.
It is hard to know what was contained in the original contracts between first the UK and AZ and later the EU and AZ, and indeed whether the UK should hold AZ to its contract given the plight of the EU. But I do feel faintly uneasy when the UK firmly asserts it must look after its own people before considering the rest of the world. It fits uneasily with the professed distancing from vaccine nationalism, both on moral and pragmatic grounds – no point us vaccinating our entire adult population if the rest of the world continues to be a breeding ground for new mutations.
Hanging on for alternatives
I am equally uneasy about the UK – and any of the better off European countries importing from India, risking outpacing poorer countries, despite assurances to the contrary. I thought that AZ helped set up production in India specifically to meet the needs of non-western countries.
Just to finish this ramble: I have just read that France will limit the AstraZeneca vaccine to people over 55, on the grounds that the 25 people who have suffered from a very rare cerebral thrombosis were younger. That runs counter to the previous official acknowledgements that even if an illness or death can be associated with a vaccination, this still represents a minuscule proportion of the millions of vaccinations which cause at most a day or two of side effects. And of course illness and deaths from Covid itself far outnumber these.
All this is academic at present: in most parts of France it is still only the over 75 year olds who can get the jab, whoever manufactured it. I suppose France is just hanging on for alternatives like the one from Johnson and Johnson (not yet approved) to save the day. That is, if the government can persuade an already vaccine-sceptical population to have a jab of any sort.
Main image by Frances Allen, a screenshot from a video clip of ‘baba cools’ dancing in Le Vigan market place to ‘‘On veut continuer à danser’, this traditional lament on ageing has been adapted as a protest against lack of support for the arts during the pandemic, and the constraint of lockdown. The YouTube version went viral.