People infected with COVID-19 occupy the entire bed in the intensive care unit ward of President Emmanuel Macron’s hometown hospital in the northern medieval city of Amiens. Three died in the past three days. The expansive medical complex has been deporting critically ill patients from small neighboring towns due to lack of space.
With France now the latest region in danger of the virus in Europe, Macron on Wednesday ordered temporary closures of schools across the country and new travel restrictions. But he has resisted calls for a strict lockdown, and instead adhered to his “third way” strategy that seeks a path between freedom and confinement to keep both infection and a disruptive public under control until mass vaccination takes place.
The French government refuses to admit the failure, blaming the delay in vaccine delivery and the disobedient public for the high infection rates and the saturation of hospitals. Macron’s critics, in turn, blame arrogance at the highest levels. They say France’s leaders have ignored the warning signs, preferring political and economic calculations to public health – and lives.
“We feel this wave is coming with a lot of force,” said Romain Bell, a hematopathologist at Amiens Picardy Hospital. “We had families where a mother and son died at the same time in two different ICU rooms here. It’s unbearable.”
Hospital doctors watched as the variant sweeping Britain during the winter leaped onto the canal and formed south across France. Just like in Britain, the alternative is now leading younger and healthier patients to French emergency rooms and critical care departments. The Amiens paramedics did their best to prepare, bringing in reinforcements and setting up a temporary intensive care unit in the pediatric ward.
After the death toll rose in Britain in January, after the new variants criticized European countries from the Czech Republic to Portugal, France continued to flaunt its “third way”.
Predictions by French scientists – including from the government’s virus advisory board – foretold problems in the future. Charts from the National Research Institute Inserm in January and again in February predicted hospitalization rates due to the virus would rise in March or April. Concerned doctors are urging preventive measures other than those already in place – a 6 p.m. curfew and the closure of all restaurants and many businesses.
Week after week, the government refused to impose a new lockdown, citing France’s stable infection rates and hospitalization, and it hopes they will remain that way. Ministers stressed the importance of keeping the economy afloat and protecting the mental health of a population exhausted by a year of uncertainty. A relieved crowd has given Macron a boost in the polls.
But the virus was not gone. The infection rate has now doubled nationwide over the past three weeks, and Paris’ hospitals are preparing for what may be their worst battle yet, with the intensive care unit overcrowded expected to outpace what happened when the epidemic first shattered in Europe.
Aware of the challenges, Macron on Wednesday announced the closure of schools across the country for three weeks, a month-long domestic travel ban and the creation of thousands of temporary intensive care beds. Parliament approved the measures on Thursday.
While other European countries imposed third lockdowns in recent months, Macron said that by refusing to do so in France, “we have gained precious days of freedom and weeks of education for our children, and allowed hundreds of thousands of workers to keep their heads. On water.”
Meanwhile, France has lost 30,000 more people to the virus this year. It has reported more virus infections overall than any country in Europe, and has one of the highest death tolls in the world – 95,640 dead.
Macron’s refusal to issue a house-lock order frustrates people like her mother Sarah, when she visits her 67-year-old mother in an intensive care unit in Amiens.
“They managed this badly all the time,” she said, recalling mistakes the government made a year ago about masks and tests, and denouncing the logistical challenges of getting vaccinated for elderly relatives. While she is still proud of the world-famous French healthcare system, she is not proud of her government. “How can we trust them?”
Pollsters have noted growing public frustration in recent days with the government’s reluctance to crack down, and the potential impact of Macron’s current decisions on the presidential campaign landscape next year.
Government officials argue that softer restrictions are more likely to be respected. Instead of shutting down, Macron told his ministers he was focusing on a “speed race” to vaccinate the French people.
However, officials from the World Health Organization on Thursday expressed regret at the slow pace of vaccinations in European countries such as France, saying they were “unacceptably slow” and risk prolonging the epidemic.
Macron last week defended his decision not to restrict entry to the country on January 29, a moment that epidemiologists say could be a turning point in France’s battle to prevent troop surge No. 3. “There will be no guilt on me. I have no remorse and I will not admit failure.”
Instead of emulating European neighbors whose strategies appear to reduce the number of casualties, French government officials are avoiding questions about the growing death toll by comparing their countries to the places where the situation is worse.
At Amiens ICU, things are really bad enough.
“We get the impression that residents are doing the opposite of what they should be doing,” said Sannier, the nurse’s aide, before heading on her tours. “And we have a feeling that we’re working for nothing.”
Trainee Osama Nanai admitted that the drums of the gloomy virus numbers left many people feeling numb, and urged everyone to visit the intensive care unit to put a human face on the numbers.
“There are ups and downs every day … Yesterday afternoon I couldn’t do it anymore. The patient in (room) 52 died, and the patient in (room) 54,” he said.
But sometimes their work pays off. He said, “Two people who were in the most dangerous condition for 60 days left on their feet and sent us pictures.” “This boosts our spirits and makes us aware that what we are doing is beneficial.”
Sylvie Corbett from Paris and Mariah Ching contributed in London.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the pandemic:
Copyright 2021 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.