Macron’s COVID-19 Advisor Underestimated Pandemic

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I watched last Wednesday’s French news bulletin with a quiet bewilderment that bordered on incomprehension. The head of the governmental scientific committee, and advisor to president Macron over the COVID-19 pandemic, publicly admitted that he (and others) had underestimated the severity of the coronavirus pandemic.

Jean-François Delfraissy, immunologist and chairman of the coronavirus scientific committee, admitted on national television to having acquired, in mid-February, “sufficient information concerning the situation in China.” In a mia culpa, following questions from viewers asking why the French government waited 15 days after Italy had enforced a lockdown before doing the same, he said that he, “didn’t fully realize the severity of the event.”

“We can rewrite history,” he continued, “but the problem isn’t there anymore.” Maybe it isn’t, because the problem now is how to avoid a human and financial catastrophe. But once this is all over – and I am convinced that it will be over – those who decide how healthy we should be, and for how long, must face up to our questions.

On 24th January, France confirmed a third coronavirus case on its territory. The health minister at the time, Agnès Buzyn, reassured the whole country by stating,

The risk of the coronavirus spreading in the [French] population is very small. – Agnès Buzyn (January 2020)

Just over a week later, although there were now 20,400 cases and 435 deaths in China, the French authorities continued giving assurances that there was nothing to worry about. This, despite there being a few cases on French territory.

There is no epidemic in France, not even a chain of transmission in our country and no circulation of the virus on the territory – Professor Salomon (General Health Secretary)

Telling words, and a prophecy if ever I heard one.

The situation is now quite simple. Italy is in a lockdown that, up to now, is not working as planned. France is in a lockdown that most French people don’t have the moral capacity to follow. As for the UK and The Netherlands, both are playing with fire. 

Boris Johnson doesn’t want to mention the concept of “herd immunity” any longer, but still believes in it. The Dutch, in true Dutch style, have compromised by enforcing a “liberal” lockdown. It couldn’t be any other way in a country that has tackled drugs and prostitution like no other.

It’s easy to criticize with hindsight, but France and Italy should have immediately imposed strict sanitary border controls, as an alternative to closing them. Isolation measures could have been locally applied, and public hygiene measures applied to the country as a whole. Encouraging people not to shake hands, and raising public awareness on hand hygiene would have had no negative impact on the economy.

Instead of preparing the country for the worst, the French president and his wife went to the theatre, to prove that with or without the coronavirus, life goes on.

Life goes on. There is no reason, apart for the vulnerable population, to change our outing habits. – Emmanuel Macron (March 2020)

In an interview published in Le Monde, Agnès Buzyn accused the government of not having listened to her advice to cancel the local elections that took place on 15th March. The second round of the elections has been cancelled, but in his television address to the nation, Macron reiterated that there was no reason to postpone the elections.

It is important to assure the continuity of our democratic life and our institutions. – Emmanuel Macron (March 2020)

Needless to say that Buzyn’s answer that this decision was “lunacy and pathetic,” didn’t go down well.

It is rather disturbing, however, that the French prime minister, Edouard Philippe, confirmed that his health minister had warned him that if the peak of the epidemic coincided with the local elections, the latter would have to be cancelled. Even more disturbing, is that following leaked emails concerning the private life of Benjamin Griveaux, who was running for mayor of Paris, Buzyn resigned and took his place. 

I’m not quite following the political plot here. We have a prime minister ignoring the health warnings coming from his health minister – a haematologist by trade – advising him to cancel elections, the same elections that, as an ex-health minister, she subsequently participated in.

Agnès Buzyn is going to redeem herself by taking off her political mantel and wiping the dust off her doctor’s coat. “The hospitals will need me,” she says. “There are going to be thousands of deaths.” 

That’s a prophecy that might just turn out to be true.

How France has managed the coronavirus pandemic bemuses me. We have a scientific advisor who ignores the fundamentals of virology, a prime minister who doesn’t listen to a haematologist, and a president who insists on going to the theatre, and organising local elections, just before everybody else gets locked up. But let us forget about these metaphysical problems and concentrate on the nitty-gritty of saving people’s lives. As for those of you, in France, who are stuck in your homes, you’ll be better off cultivating your garden, according to Voltaire. If you have a garden, and enough strength to cultivate it.