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France Offers Another Glimmer of Hope on Covid

France Offers Another Glimmer of Hope on Covid

Saturday, 14 November, 2020 - 10:00

When Nobel Prize-winning economists Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee urged France’s Emmanuel Macron in September to impose a tough three-week circuit-breaker lockdown to halt the spread of Covid-19 in time for Christmas, they were politely ignored. Macron’s health minister, Olivier Veran, dismissed such planning as “pie in the sky” and said lockdowns were to be avoided.

Six weeks later, the economists look prescient. Covid’s second wave has been brutal in France with daily deaths now averaging around 500 versus 70 at end-September. The number of patients in hospitals is above where it was at the peak of the first wave, and intensive-care occupancy isn’t far off. France may not be alone in this struggle, but it has the highest total caseload in Europe and the third-highest death toll behind the UK and Italy (unadjusted for population). On Oct. 30, the country began a national lockdown.

There’s one crucial piece of good news about the French response, however. Macron’s softer, less draconian approach to stay-at-home curbs — notably by resisting calls, including by Duflo and Banerjee, to shut schools — looks like it’s possibly starting to pay off.

The latest official data suggest France’s daily case curve has been bending downward in recent days, with the virus’s all-important reproduction rate now estimated at 0.93. That means an infected person will, on average, spread it to less than one person. While still a glimmer rather than a full ray of light, there are also signs that the pace of hospital admissions is slowing, even if it has yet to peak. That’s despite the fact that schools, public services, construction sites and some workplaces have been kept open this time around.

These early hopeful signs are backed up by mobility data from Google, which shows the French are taking lockdown seriously. Retail and leisure traffic is down more than 50% from the pre-virus baseline, and the impact on movement in transit stations isn’t far behind. That’s reassuring considering the fatigue and economic destruction inflicted by the first lockdown. The new “soft” approach still forces people to fill out forms to leave home and respect a 1-kilometer limit when out for exercise, but it’s generally easier to bear.

A closer look at mobility in the Paris region as tracked by Facebook is even more encouraging. It suggests people actually began to restrict their movement when a 9 pm curfew was introduced in mid-October, well before the second lockdown began. That may be contributing to the positive signals in the virus data. Still, France was slow to take action compared with Wales or Catalonia, meaning it’s far too early to think about lifting these restrictions. Prime Minister Jean Castex said as much on Thursday, telling the press that non-essential businesses might be allowed to reopen on Dec. 1 at the earliest.

For all the upbeat signals, the next few weeks will be rough going. Hospitals have been overwhelmed and non-Covid operations are being delayed. Unemployment rose to 9% in the third quarter, and job postings have yet to fully recover from the first lockdown, according to Bloomberg Economics. Only about one-third of French people have faith the Macron administration can handle the pandemic effectively. That’s not reassuring given the population is being encouraged to “do its part” to contain Covid-19.

The longer this crisis drags on, the more unpredictable the public reaction will be. There have been protests from teachers and students who argue there’s not enough social distancing in schools — not just from those who think the restrictions are too strict.

So while curfews and “soft” lockdowns are making a difference — a potential comfort to New Yorkers right now — Macron already needs to be thinking of his next steps for France. Castex laid the seeds for this on Thursday evening by encouraging more work-from-home initiatives and better enforcement of travel restrictions. The situation doesn’t seem to warrant a return to shuttered schools, nor is there appetite for an age-based lockdown on the over-60s or 70s. But it's clearly necessary to better protect the elderly in nursing homes, where 764 deaths have been reported in one week. And to have a plan in place for when the lockdown ends.

Where Duflo and Banerjee had a point was in encouraging France to get ahead of the virus rather than simply keep trying to catch up to it. We’re not there yet, but at least things appear to be getting better.


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