We are at war. Anyone who’s ever faced a medical emergency knows how it can reshape friendships. Sometimes people you expect to come through don’t, and ones you didn’t expect to show up for you do. China sent a planeload of respirators to Italy, much to the delight of Italy’s far-right League party, which made the case that China is helping Italy more than Europe is. In a recent video message, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, tried to show her solidarity with Italy, saying in hesitant Italian, “We are all Italians.” She didn’t sound so convincing. The president of Serbia, meanwhile, lashed out at her, after Serbia (which is not part of the EU) was told that it could not import medical equipment from the bloc. “European solidarity does not exist,” he said. “That was a fairy tale on paper.” He said he wrote a letter to China’s Xi Jinping, and addressed him “as a brother.” “I believe in Chinese help,” he said.
We are at war. In France now, we cannot leave home without filling out a form, swearing on our honor and stating the urgent reason for which we must be outside. (Italy has a similar form, called an auto-certification.) To enforce this new confinement, France is deploying 100,000 police officers to make sure that people are leaving their house only for genuinely pressing needs. (Not since terrorist attacks in 2015 have so many police patrolled the streets.) At first the fine will be 38 euros, but it could go up to 135 euros. “We don’t want to punish people, but we want everyone to have a sense of responsibility,” the interior minister, Christophe Castaner, said today. Responsibility. Sacrifice. War. This is the new vocabulary in France.
We are at war. Anyone watching Italy closely, as I have been, could have seen this war coming in France, and Macron could have mounted the counteroffensive days earlier, to greater effect. Other governments worldwide should learn from Europe’s mistakes. Here in France, the government and media, always cozy, were slow, and therefore so was public perception. Just a week ago, after the Italian government placed the entire country on lockdown to contain the spread of the virus, I went to a supermarket near my house and bought a supply of bleach wipes and disposable rubber gloves in my size. The cashier looked at me, puzzled. Even a few days ago, a neighbor decried the “terrible psychosis” of the Italians—as if they were just emotional and overreacting, lacking French sangfroid.
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This snobbery could have been cut short much earlier. Hospitals in the Grand Est region of France had been seeing a steep rise in the number of people needing urgent care for respiratory problems, but this wasn’t prime-time or front-page news until just a few days ago. In Le Journal du Dimanche this weekend, Eric Caumes, an infectious-disease specialist at a leading Paris hospital where some of the first COVID-19 patients in France were treated, sounded the alarm. “We’re counting hospital beds and respirators, just like in Italy,” he said. “We judged what was happening there with too much arrogance.” In a scathing interview in Le Monde today, Agnès Buzyn, a doctor and the country’s health minister until last month, said she had seen this coming in January, and had even wanted France to postpone the municipal elections it held Sunday. (Stay at home, but also go vote was not great messaging.) “When I left the ministry, I cried because I knew the tsunami wave was headed our way. I left knowing the elections should never take place,” Buzyn said. (She left her post to run for mayor of Paris with Macron’s La République En Marche party, after the previous candidate stepped down because of a sex scandal.)