Scroll to top

As Paris Tiptoes Toward Normalcy, Infections Are Sharply Down

2020-05-22 07:00:36

PARIS — Coronavirus infections have dropped sharply in Paris following a strict two-month lockdown and a growing contact tracing effort, health officials say, and they have remained in check since the city began a halting return to life nearly two weeks ago.

“The drop is pretty spectacular,” said Renaud Piarroux, head of parasitology at one of the main Paris hospitals and organizer of the city’s mobile contact tracing teams. The decline has been sharpest in what were the city’s viral hot spots, in the less affluent northern neighborhoods. “For right now there are very, very few cases,” he said. “It’s just a small number that are testing positive.”

But if the initial signs are hopeful, the reopening of Paris has been muted, in keeping with the national mood: fearful of what lies ahead, and angry at the government.

On the streets of Paris, shops have reopened, though many still lack customers. The police no longer check self-signed permits to leave home, yet streets in normally crowded neighborhoods like the Marais remain quiet. Table service at cafes and restaurants remains forbidden, a source of despair for chefs and cafe owners.

Even the ceaseless infighting of French politics is reclaiming its central spot, an unmistakable harbinger of normality. This week President Emmanuel Macron lost his absolute majority in Parliament as seven of his party’s representatives joined a new parliamentary group, along with others, some of them previous defectors.

It was a blow to Mr. Macron, symbolizing the erosion of his political standing after three years in office. Still, allies predicted that he would have no trouble passing his bills as affiliated parties continue to back him. But the signs of disenchantment are unmistakable.

A pensive-looking Mr. Macron was on the cover of the weekly Le Point under the headline, “Will He Really Pull Us Out of This?”

New polls suggest that for most French, unreasonably or not, top officials have not met their expectations in the crisis. Sixty-two percent of respondents in a recent poll conducted for BFM television said they were not confident that Mr. Macron was up to the challenge.

The French, more critical of their government than other Europeans, mostly disapprove of his handling of the crisis, though it has been no worse, and somewhat better, than that of most other Western leaders.

Indeed there are signs that the confinement ordered by Mr. Macron on March 16 was bearing fruit.

At the height of the epidemic at the end of March, the Paris public hospital system was encountering more than 1,000 infections a day. On Sunday it found a mere 22, and often over the last two weeks the number has been under 100. The dense 18th, 19th, 20th and 13th arrondissements have gone from being large dark blobs on the hospital system’s outbreak map to small light-colored circles.

“We have virtually reached a total halt to the circulation” of the virus, said François Bricaire, an infectious diseases specialist at the National Academy of Medicine.

Two factors have contributed, Mr. Piarroux said: the well-observed and enforced lockdown, and the contact tracing effort, where teams have been going to the homes of those infected or suspected of being infected, to help organize confinement and to trace possible chains of transmission.

“Confinement contributed enormously to the progress we’re seeing in the situation,” Mr. Piarroux said.

Hospitalizations have continued to drop, as have the overall number of patients in intensive care. With more than 28,000 deaths, France has a per capita death rate lower than that of Britain, Italy and Spain, though higher than that of Germany or the United States.

“The number of risky contacts has diminished, and that’s very good news,” France’s national health director, Jérôme Salomon, told journalists Tuesday evening. “Objectively we’ve got the French very mobilized, and rigorous in applying defensive measures.”

Mr. Piarroux credited the mobile tracing units. “We’ve got enough teams on the ground to break the chain of transmission, and to reduce the size of the epidemic,” he said. “And that’s what we’re doing.”

Still, all urged caution, saying it was too early to measure the real effects of the end of the lockdown.

“We’re not seeing any new growth in the circulation of the virus,” France’s health minister, Olivier Veran, told reporters on Wednesday. “But that doesn’t mean the virus isn’t circulating,” he said. “We’ll see in a few days the impact of deconfinement on the epidemic.”

Mr. Bricaire suggested that perhaps just as important as the active measures France has taken is what he characterized as a natural decline in the intensity of the epidemic. “Maybe we are simply seeing a natural drop. It is the intermingling of a natural phenomenon, and the lockdown,” he said.

Still, the poll conducted for BFM television by the ELABE polling firm found 62 percent proclaiming “unease” with the end of confinement. The country both yearned for it and was afraid the government had moved too quickly.

“People are being very timid,” said Philippe Bonaventure, a leather-work artisan hanging out in the normally buoyant food-shopping neighborhood around the Place d’Aligre. Shoppers crept about timidly as if they didn’t quite believe their new freedom.

“Personally, I find this situation absolutely sketchy,” said Mr. Bonaventure. “Sad. Desperate,” he added, explaining that he remained “pessimistic” about the future. “Half my existence is in the cafes,” he said. And the cafes remained closed.

Dozens of legal and criminal complaints have been filed alleging administrative negligence. Support for Mr. Macron was already low before the virus hit.

“You can’t ignore the context,” said the political scientist Bruno Cautrès. “This crisis comes after a whole series of other crises,” like the Yellow Vests and the furor over pension reform, which set off months of strikes. “There has been a mixture of pessimism and disappointment in Emmanuel Macron.”

Here and there, glimmerings of exuberance have been quickly tamped down by the authorities. To celebrate their liberation, young people congregated joyously on the banks of the Seine and the Canal Saint-Martin with six-packs of beer. In response, officials, worried about crowds, moved to ban alcohol at these gatherings.

Just to make sure Parisians didn’t enjoy their new freedom too much, Mr. Macron’s government kept the city’s parks closed, to the fury of the Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo. “It can be all too tempting, with the sun out,” Mr. Véran, the health minister, explained.

Ms. Hidalgo insisted that cooped-up Parisians desperately needed the outdoors. “We’ve got to loosen the vise,” she said, pointing out that Paris is one of the world’s densest cities. A doctor’s group agreed with her to no avail.

Elsewhere, pessimism was the order of the day, with the restaurant industry, vital to both Paris life and the tourism business, warning of widespread bankruptcies.

Aimé Cougoureux was slumped in a corner of his cafe’s terrace on the Place des Vosges, lamenting the lost revenue and missing Americans. Normally packed with tourists and Parisians, it was so quiet recently in the iconic early 17th-century square in the Marais you could hear the birds singing in the newly leafed-out trees.

In the half-light inside the closed Ma Bourgogne, Mr. Cougoureux’s tables and chairs were stacked up, gathering dust.

“It’s only now that people are realizing how important conviviality is,” Mr. Cougoureux said sadly. “We didn’t even realize how good we had it, before,” he said. “Now, the Frenchman, he’s out there in the street, and he’s looking around like a lost cat. And I’m looking around, and I’m saying, ‘Good God, what the hell is going on?’ ”

Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting.


Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *