Looking at the rapidly rising Covid-19 numbers in France, it’s easy to imagine the country is careering to national lockdown.
According to the latest figures, released on Sunday afternoon, 19 people have died, and there are 1,126 confirmed cases of the virus, an increase of 177 on the previous day. More than 300,000 children will stay at home today because schools, colleges, lycees and creches in two departments — the Haut-Rhin and the Oise — have been closed for two weeks.
And 900 businesses have asked the government for permission to make up to 15,000 workers temporarily unemployed. The CAC40 (French stock market index) dropped 5.5% on opening yesterday.
On Sunday, Health Minister Olivier Veran announced that gatherings of more than 1,000 people are temporarily banned across the country.
The only, very French, exceptions are for protests and public transport.
I normally write about sport, so I took particular note yesterday when it was confirmed that the senior men’s France-Ireland Six Nations’ game, scheduled for Saturday, has been postponed; Paris Saint-Germain’s Champions League match against Borussia Dortmund will be played at an empty Parc des Princes.
Meanwhile, four hospitals in Paris have reported thefts of 8,300 facemasks and 1,200 bottles of hand sanitizer.
It all appears very grim.
And yet, on the whole, it really isn’t. I live with my wife and three children in southwest France, in a town about an hour east of Toulouse. This morning, my two older children grumbled their way to the free school bus, as normal. My wife started work, as normal. And I drove our youngest boy to his school.
When I’ve finished writing this, I’ll thread my way through the afternoon traffic to collect our youngest, while the older two will get the bus home. We’ll do any homework that needs doing, eat food, play, chat, watch a bit of TV. Do all the things that normal families normally do on a school night.
At the weekend, my oldest son and his team-mates travelled, in a coach, to Carcassonne for an U10 rugby tournament. My wife (also a journalist so knows what’s going on) was gobsmacked when everyone shook hands and did the ‘bises’ (kiss on the cheeks) — despite being told by the government not to do so.
Then, we went to the supermarket for our weekly shop. The shelves were full, the aisles busyish and precisely nobody was fighting over toilet roll.
We later took our littlest — a permanently overcharged fizzing battery of a boy — to an indoor play park and we sat and chatted with other parents over a coffee.
And, that’s really rather the point. It was all boringly average. Just another day. Another weekend. Life going on as normal.
France is currently on ‘level two’ pre-epidemic public health alert.
That means a bit more public awareness and a few restrictions. Our children have watched public hygiene films, and sanitiser is available in certain classes. Our youngest, meanwhile, is desperate for the police to arrest ‘Crona Veeroos’ because it forced the cancellation of a local Venetian Carnival.
It means daily news conferences detailing the number of cases, deaths and the location of clusters. It means social media updates — including, bizarrely, one yesterday rejecting rumours that cocaine was an effective cure. It means washing our hands. Properly.
At some point in the near future, maybe even this week, France will confirm epidemic levels of coronavirus. It may raise the public health alert level to its maximum, three. And still, there will be no panic. Because of lessons learned more than a decade ago.
In 2009, when I moved to France with my wife and daughter, the then-government was, quite correctly, lambasted for its handling of the H1N1 epidemic. It was secretive when it should have been open. As a result, rumours ran rampant.
With coronavirus, it’s ahead of the curve. It controls much of the narrative, with its agenda-topping daily updates and rapid response social media. We know what’s happened, because they have told us. We know what’s happening, because they tell us. And we know what’s going to happen, across a range of situations, because they warn us.
Repeatedly and effectively.
We know that, should the country move to a level three alert, public transport — which currently runs as normal - could be cut back.
We know that, in Covid-19 cluster areas, schools may close. And when it does happen, we shrug our shoulders and move on with our lives.