Can Europe Make It?

The balance sheet so far? Europe 0, Covid 200,000 and rising

Ten months into the epidemic and it is the virus and the right who are in control. The left can’t just wait in hope for the world after to be different.

Chris Myant
Chris Myant
13 October 2020, 8.49pm
Macron tours Storm Alex-affected Alpes-Maritimes areas.
Bruno Bebert/Pool/PA. All rights reserved.

President Macron is someone who touches the people of France. And he would say, rightly so. He is their carer when storms arrive, their leader in times that test, their guide when they need to be instructed on the great questions of the day, particularly on those which, for reasons few around him can explain, they appear to disagree with the edicts of the politician in the Elysée.

He touches them literally. On every occasion he can. In defiance of all the rules his government has outlined for dealing with this epidemic. We hear of overcrowded student parties raided by the police, giant conurbations denuded of their bars and bistros, places of leisure shut and silent. But for this President, unlike that mythical emperor parading naked before his people, there is not even a child to innocently ask: Why does he come among us, incapable of obeying the rules he would have others follow?

French President Emmanuel Macron during a visit to Breil Sur Roya on October 7, 2020. | Pool/PA. All rights reserved

There on the Elysée website or on tv screens and newspaper front pages we have seen him at work. In the devastated valleys where the Alps come down to the Mediterranean, there he was early in October comforting the victims of storm Alex with vague and contradictory promises of vast sums of cash. And a hand on a shoulder here, another on an arm there.

France had woken up then to hear that the daily total of declared Covid-19 cases was at a new record for any day since the start of the epidemic. True, this was partly because, at last, the number of tests are beginning to climb, but it was also because among the people Macron touches many have been following his lead. The jogger who physically pushed me out of his way on a crowded street the other evening was merely one among millions caught in patterns of behaviour that are officially sanctioned, sometimes even promoted, and who are never offered constructive substitutes.

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Why take seriously requirements that your President ignores? Better just follow in your own life the close up physicality of man-to-man reassurance that Macron makes his staple. As in those Alpine valleys.

The price we are paying

The experience of two very different societies, New Zealand and Vietnam shows the price we have been paying. Then there is the example of China, for all the initial hesitations, mistakes, corruption and censorship in Peking. On October 12, China launched a five-day testing drive to cover everyone in a city of nearly 10 million, Qingdao, because of a dozen positive cases locally. That is almost 2 million tests a day. Greater Paris, with just over 12 million inhabitants, is striving to manage 200,000 tests per week but was averaging 6,000 positive cases every day since 5 October. The contrast is telling.

Across France, hospitals are once again approaching saturation as they were in the first weeks of March. This time round there are fewer beds available because there are not the trained staff to support them. Nurses and doctors are exhausted and over-stretched (a union survey of 60,000 nurses has just had two thirds of them saying their department was understaffed and working conditions were worse) and, this time, the pressure of other urgent treatments cannot be put off.

The cries of alarm, even from Macron’s own Scientific Council, have been growing louder and louder as autumn came on. A detailed set of its projections given to Macron and his ministers on 22 September, and to the rest of us ten days later, declared “action is urgent”. The virus had been allowed to circulate among the young and was now touching all age groups. “Any delay will mean that, in order to have the same effect, the measures finally taken will need to be harsher and last longer than if they had been taken earlier”.

In the hospital serving the town of Creil to the north of Paris, where the epidemic in France really began at the end of February, three doctors and four nurses were down with Covid-19 in the second week of October. Why? Because the hospital had no means of ensuring rapid turn around of tests for the virus. Samples had to be sent to another hospital in Amiens 70 miles away and took five days to be analysed.

It is perhaps a metaphor for what has gone wrong since the start of SARS-Cov-2: nine months down the line and the French government has not been able to equip and run a testing regime capable of identifying who has the virus and who does not, across the population.

Nine months down the line and the French government has not been able to equip and run a testing regime capable of identifying who has the virus and who does not, across the population.

A government deal for the hospital system early in the summer promised limited pay rises and some investment. Many hospitals have seen neither the pay rises nor the investments. The coalition of unions and medical staff behind the hospital protests and strikes in the year before the epidemic is mobilising again amid deep professional anger over the fact that France is, to all intents and purposes, back where it was in early March.

Their first day of action was called for 15 October. Their argument is that Macron’s approach to beating the virus is back to front. The economic crisis and the social lockdowns France is experiencing stem from the crisis of the under-resourced hospital system, combined with the weakness of the public preventative health response.


Instead of announcing an emergency plan for the health system, Macron was scheduled to be on national tv the night before that day of action speaking of the need for further lock down measures. Yet every control measure being taken by the French government now could, and should, have been avoided. It would not have been easy, but different choices taken when the first news of the epidemic arrived would have put us in a very different position today.

Macron’s premier Jean Castex argued in his first major tv grilling on 24 September that the epidemic was “somewhat unexpected”. Which is the direct opposite of the case. Governments knew this was going to come. They had put in place measures to help deal with it. Their international agency, the World Health Organisation, warned and argued. Just take its pre-epidemic note to governments on 9 January, a draft “review tool for a novel coronavirus”. Give even a cursory peek at its advice and you have the basis for an action programme to counter the virus.

In Paris, as in London, it was put through the mental shredder. The Big Boys of this world had greater things to do. Trump, Johnson and Macron have more in common when it comes to SARS-Cov-2 than their differences in rhetoric and style suggest.

In Paris, as in London, it was put through the mental shredder. The Big Boys of this world had greater things to do.

A successful programme of action for dealing with an epidemic has to be put in place fast and comprehensively, “quick and hard” as some commentators put it, with the aim of cutting off the infection process as rapidly as possible and creating the context in which the follow up measures (test and trace, protective equipment for all, personal or regionally targeted lockdowns, provision of adequate hospital services, and eventually treatments and vaccines) can succeed in maintaining a momentum towards the elimination of successive chains of infection. If that is not done on day one, then harsher controls have to open the way for it later.

The second bedrock of an alternative choice back at the start of the year, should have been a combination of popular involvement in creating and delivering the solutions, total openness in information on what the epidemic and the countermeasures were doing and the organisation by public authorities of publicly-owned, or at least publicly-controlled and organised, production facilities to generate the material base for any such programme of action, and their distribution to all in need without charge.

But what might have been the consequences of such an approach? Public confidence for a start, which, in itself, is quite something. Confidence is created by openness and involvement combined with being engaged in finding and delivering answers. Instead, the watchwords have been complacency, mistrust of the public, denial of information and a lock, stock and barrel privatisation of the solutions. You could see it coming in the policies pursued over the previous decades, policies which fit that description to a T.

Public confidence

The problem for Macron is that public confidence, understanding and involvement can lead to changes in public political attitudes, ones that can come very quickly and in France, surveys continue to show that large majorities favour more egalitarian approaches to tax, to pay, to work and housing, for example.

They show that people have, by strong majorities, opposed Macron’s laws that weaken trade union rights and organisation, his tax deals for the rich and private enterprise and, again for example, his plans to drastically change the country’s pension system – a plan that his Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire announced at the end of September was going back on the table in order to reduce public expenditure – or the President’s changes to the unemployment benefits system, intended to cut what the unemployed get and push them into jobs at lower pay and with less security.

The problem has been transforming this generalised public sentiment into a practical movement to defend what is social and collective in the French set up and secure further advances along the same lines. For the Macronie, better to keep the French public as casual observers to a drama where the lines to be spoken are written by others. As in one large constituency just up the Seine from us, where the left held on to a seat in a by-election at the end of September, but on an eleven percent turnout.

For the Macronie, better to keep the French public as casual observers to a drama where the lines to be spoken are written by others.

There are four main reasons why all this is pertinent:

First, there is the scale of the human losses and the physical disruption to economies with a consequent explosion of poverty and inequality.

The US takes the headlines with now well over 210,000 recorded deaths, but for the European Economic Area – the EU, UK, Norway, Switzerland and Iceland – the total in recorded deaths is in the order of 220,000. The populations are not entirely comparable, some 350 million for the US and 520 million for the European side.

Far lower levels of infections and deaths in Eastern Europe mean a lower overall rate in the EEA. Restrict the comparison to Western Europe and the USA and the populations are much the same. The mortality rate moves much closer to the American, as it is in the richer countries across the west of the continent that the deaths have come: some 185,000 for some 350 million people.

All of those on the European side of the pond who sneer at Trump’s deliberate mismanagement of the epidemic need to keep some simple maths at the forefront of their minds. Had the authorities in Germany made as much of a hash of things as those in Britain, France, Spain, Sweden, Belgium, Holland and Italy, then the Western European failure would have taken more lives than Trump’s.

All of those on the European side of the pond who sneer at Trump’s deliberate mismanagement of the epidemic need to keep some simple maths at the forefront of their minds.

In contrast, Vietnam, with a population of 95 million, has had fewer deaths than the Channel Islands and New Zealand has had fewer than umpteen small towns across France. The issue in those two countries has never been that the virus was “circulating too fast” (Macron’s phrase when comforting folks in those devastated valleys) but that it was circulating at all.

Second, the epidemic is still accelerating across the world and no end is yet in sight.

The measures European states have taken this summer and autumn will not protect their populations from a return of the virus from South Asian countries, Africa and Latin America, let alone the USA over the coming year.

Third, the avoidance mechanism of sitting back and hoping that someone will come up with a vaccine will work for only so long.

Not because we will never have a vaccine or, if not, at least a treatment that works. Nor because, if any vaccines are developed, the earliest will not be available until late spring 2021.

The problem is much, much bigger. That vaccine then has to be produced in sufficient quantities for at least 70 per cent of the world’s population meaning it has to be manufactured at an affordable cost, stored, transported and given to nearly 7 billion people, probably each year. The world is simply not ready for that effort and there is no sign that any government is trying to get it ready. Instead, those with the most money to spend have been vying with each other to collar as much of any vaccine supplies as they can as soon as the production starts.

Adar Poonawalla who owns the world’s main producer of such things, India’s Serum Institute, says the production of enough vaccine for everyone on this planet will not happen at least until 2024. And he warns that the first vaccines likely to be ready will only have a 50 to 60 percent effectiveness, much like the annual flu vaccine many of us are about to start taking.

And he warns that the first vaccines likely to be ready will only have a 50 to 60 percent effectiveness, much like the annual flu vaccine many of us are about to start taking.

Fourth, things are not going to suddenly change by way of solutions when this epidemic ends.

Some argued after the 2008 crash that big capital would be doomed, left solutions would gain traction in public opinion and we could set out once again on an upward path. It did not happen, but the same arguments are being heard now.

Boris Johnson put his finger on the key driver behind the sorry performance of the British and French governments: “We must be clear that there comes a moment when the state must stand back and let the private sector get on with it.” Macron has never voiced that as a direct a statement but everything he is responsible for in countering the epidemic fits that bill. His plans for the future remain the same.

Can we see an alternative? Sometimes exploring the “If” in history does have a point when looking back at how the wrong choices made in previous years have left us adrift now. It is not a matter of nostalgia for a lost British or French past but a way of understanding the causes for the inability to tackle the epidemic and its social consequences and what could be done now to turn that round.

They come below in historical order and might form a basis for an action programme that those interested in a future based on people working together could propose:

What if our health services had been focused on active prevention, based around local health centres and health at work alongside hospital services? That was the way it was originally conceived. Instead it was from the start eviscerated, misdirected and underfunded. And what if those services had been supported by not-for-profit production of the equipment and drugs they needed?

What if the co-operative movement had not, at first, turned its face against the self-service principle and had sustained its position as the leading provider of food on Britain’s high streets backed by its presence as the leading force in daily door-to-door deliveries by electric vehicles?

What if local government had not been handcuffed, hobbled and hijacked as a transmission belt for Thatcher’s austerity but had been allowed to continue developing the range of local services people need, innovating and experimenting?

What if public broadcasters like the BBC had been allowed to continue unhindered in the development of its presence across the net, offering all real access to the advantages of the internet?

What if, as care homes began to develop, they had not just been handed over to business privateers as places where the most vulnerable could be forgotten as part of an institutionalised oblivion but instead became the crossroads of interaction between young and old, between new adventures and accumulated memories, memories guarded these days by all necessary medical and protective support?

What if the publicly-owned post and parcel delivery services instead of being slashed and privatised had been encouraged to develop a service like that which Amazon has come to exploit and dominate?

“We must be clear that there comes a moment when the state must stand back and let the private sector get on with it.”

What if the arguments of those concerned by the degradation of the planet had been listened to and we would not be driving environmental stress to ever-higher levels, pushing ahead with forms of food production that degrade the environment and the quality of what we eat, engendering the spread of new viral epidemics?

What if Cummings, Johnson, Macron and Trump had not regarded advice from the WHO as so much unreadable toilet paper useful for nothing more than being flushed away, like the lives of those their ideology has left to gasp their last, thanks to Covid-19?

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