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Note to Australia: be more French in the COVID-19 war

I am currently stuck in rural France on Day 6 of a total national confinement, about to enter a period of unknown duration in which it will be impossible to return to Australia. All passenger flights, as far as I know, cease in the next few days, for a month at least. That will likely coincide with the initial peak of the COVID-19 epidemic in France, making it a bleak time.

Total confinement is pretty close to being under house arrest. So I thought I would share what it has been like here, and my thoughts about what Australia can take from it.

France moved to wartime conditions

Like virtually all countries, France was caught short by the exponential spread of COVID-19 through its population. But shaken by the Italian experience, which increasingly resembles a horror movie, it has taken the most decisive actions in the western world. Macron has realised quickly that this is a shift to essentially wartime conditions.

It was just 8 days ago that all cafes, bars and restaurants in France were closed on Saturday night, with just 4 hours' notice, in the interests of social distancing. We were in a favourite restaurant at the time of the announcement and it is fair to say that everyone, patrons and staff alike, were stunned. However, like Sydney's Bondi Beach experience, the change in behaviour was slow to take effect - the parks and Seine in Paris were crowded with people the following day in beautiful spring weather.

On last Monday a total national confinement of at least 14 days was announced in France, taking effect Tuesday. All shops were closed, excluding supermarkets and other food stores, petrol stations, medical (including vets), and tobacconists (this is France after all). Virtually everything else is closed too, including open public spaces such as parks. Schools and universities were closed two weeks ago, and I suspect will not re-open until after the northern summer holidays.

We're now on day 6 of the confinement, and in theory there are only 8 to go. But most expect that it will be extended by another one to two weeks beyond the original 14 days.

During this period, you are expected to stay home and remain indoors pretty much all the time. It's not much different from house arrest. You can leave the house, but only for very specific reasons:

  • To go to work (if you can't work remotely)
  • To buy food
  • For medical reasons
  • Urgent family needs
  • Individual exercise (but must be within 2 kilometres of your home) or walking your dog.

Every time you leave the house for one of these purposes, you must complete a government form relating to the above, and carry it with you along with ID. There are police roadblocks across France checking drivers for compliance, and patrols of cities and towns checking pedestrians too. Non-compliance brings a fine of at least $60. A huge number have already been issued.

My day looks like this too. I take the dog outside first thing. I exercise morning or night. I might walk to the supermarche or boulangerie. I take the dog around the block a few more times during the day, and we take a long walk together before dinner - carrying our form and ID each time. The rest of the time I'm inside. I haven't been stopped in a police check yet but it's probably just a matter of time. Or maybe they know to ignore the local Australian with bad French (their English is worse).

It's draconian stuff so it needs to work given the devastating impact on the economy. Macron figured this out pretty quickly too. France started the now widely-accepted (in less than a week, can you believe) approach of the government picking up the tab for a large part of wages etc to try and keep things afloat.

It's too early to say if it's going to work in halting the exponential increase in COVID cases. The data for the past couple of days has stabilised at a bit under 2,000 new cases a day (terrifying in itself). The stablisation is encouraging but it might be a blip. Hopefully we see the numbers start to decline next week.

French support for the lockdown

But the population is clearly behind the approach, the often bolshie French have largely answered Macron's call and stayed home. There is a lot of wartime-like solidarity, for now at least.

Some other observations:

  • There are no food shortages, other than exotica from overseas. There's plenty of meat, fruit, vegetables, and of course cheese, and ample pasta, rice etc. There was an early run on potatoes, but they were restocked in two days. Combined with the restrictions on physical activity, putting on weight is a considerably higher risk than starvation.
  • There is plenty of toilet paper - not all brands are in stock but there is plenty of basic stuff around. Same for tissues, pain killers etc... but as with virtually everywhere, hand sanitiser and wipes are impossible to get. One of the benefits of the confinement is very few cars on the road; cargo trucks have the French motorways largely to themselves and are flowing smoothly.
  • There is no panic buying or queues at supermarkets, pharmacies or anywhere else. In fact, it is quiet. At the well-stocked Grand Frais fruit market you are issued with disposable latex gloves on entry for handling fresh produce and no-one complains.
  • People are religiously observing the one metre of personal space. They are friendly but cautious, knowing COVID-19 is circulating in this area.
  • Official government public health communication and advertising has been good - very regular, consistent, logical and clear.

The French are making the best of it. Whether Macron's strategy proves right or wrong, time will tell very soon, but at least it's super clear and pretty much everyone understands it.

I don't pretend to understand the panicked behaviours of Australians that I have watched from the other side of the world. Australia and France are roughly analogous in producing more food than they need and make plenty of the basics of life. Neither country is going to run out of either. I'd be much more worried about the UK which imports large quantities of almost everything.

The worst of both worlds

I do worry however, that Australia - and the UK for that matter - could end up with the worst of both worlds; ie laying waste to the economy but not dampening down the spread of the virus enough, because the public health measures are half-way houses with too many leaks. I hope my worries are misplaced. But at this stage, I'd back the French to bring COVID-19 under control quicker with their severe, but widely understood and supported approach.

Hopefully we get through this sooner than later. Notwithstanding that I am bunkered down safely and well provisioned in France with Charlie the dog, it's a little unnerving knowing that you cannot flee to the safety of home for a time. It feels like we're about to disappear around the dark side of the moon. We'll just have to ride it out, come out the other side, and trust for a resumption of international movement (no doubt on a more limited basis than we have been used to) which will allow many families to be reunited.

Bon courage a tous!

Footnote: France has announced that the confinement measures will be tightened further, and are likely to be extended for at least a week. Most of the world seems to be moving to a model of three weeks tight lockdown. But it's real tough on a family with three kids in a small apartment!


Andrew Baker is a Global Partner (UK & EMEA) at NMG Consulting.


Bob G
April 13, 2020

I think a crucial point is the use of disposable gloves when food shopping. I’ve seen people pick up fresh produce with their bare hands and then put it back. What are they thinking? Are they stupid. Any food outlet should be providing disposable gloves and strong signage about what you can and can’t do.

Noel Mckay
April 02, 2020

I expect when the final figures are in we will know the quality of the Australian response. At present the figures for total cases, deaths and new cases, adjusted for population look much better than France . We also have a much higher test rate. I sometimes feel we are rather too quick to bag our own country.

John Davidson
April 11, 2020

I totally agree with Noel McKay, have a look at the statistics @ 10th March. I know where I prefer to b

Jerome Lander
March 29, 2020

Hi Andrew
I think your point is very valid. A hard lockdown is essential to get control of the growth rate. If some people are sacrificing while others run around spreading the virus, little is achieved. Contrary to some of the comments, you can't catch the virus if you are not in contact with other people or keep your distance from them and what they touch. Bonne chance.

March 29, 2020

"A hard lockdown is essential to get control of the growth rate.":

Vaccination would be better. Inoculation next best. Chemoprophylaxis next to that.

Inoculation might be happening through natural spread of infections with a mild strain. But seems that no one is surveilling for that possibility.

March 30, 2020

You have taken this comment out of context.

Peter Coghlan
March 27, 2020

Listening to the Prime Minister today reporting on his National Cabinet meeting I personally felt very proud to be Australian. I agree with him that the only place I want to be in present times is right here. I was in Europe three weeks ago and saw the need to get back home quickly. Luckily I managed to get a flight back, went into 14 days quarantine and happily came out symptom free.
I do feel that every Australian should be behind both State and Federal governments right now and avoid the temptation to criticise. For the most part, even the Opposition is managing to do this.
Best wishes to everyone

March 28, 2020

There was no need for the virus to be in Australia - how hard would it have been initially to quarantine flights like the rest of the world was - instead of posting a sign "if you've come from Wuhan and have symptoms please get it checked out".

Even now we're still bumbling around deciding what businesses stay open, how long you can spend at the hairdressers, how many can attend a wedding, funeral or boot camp. It's an embarrassment.

March 27, 2020

Forget France, look at the UK. Everyone goes home except essential workers on 80% of their wage, Government pays for it.

Australia, being the land that prides itself on the "sickie" and generous social welfare, is way behind the times in this regard.

March 27, 2020

Unfortunately it is the nature of our federation.

And of course our reliance on our politicians.

March 26, 2020

Avoiding the diseased while buying food, consulting doctor, emailing family, walking familiar tracks.

What is different from a normal day for the retired.

Mary McKay
March 26, 2020

Maybe the Prime Minister will order lockdown tonight? ( long after the horse has bolted). It appears Australia is more interested in commerce than health. Queensland border is closed, many people, backpackers, migrant workers and grey nomads are travelling to NSW, many may be infected?
At times like this shouldn't there be one strategy for the whole country? I despair, everyone should be self isolating.

March 26, 2020

You (and you alone) are responsible for your well-being and by extension, the well-being of others. Now, what are you going to do about it?

Appreciate the article, but to be honest I think guys like this are part of the problem. Hanging laps around the neighbourhood with the dog sound swell and all, however, Mother Nature does not care about it being "real tough on the family". Bunker down, head out for essential supplies when required and repeat. There is no need to wait to be told what to do.

And as far as I can tell, initial lockdowns in Italy began on 21 Feb. How one rationalises a holiday to France in light of this who knows. Perhaps southern Italy is out of reach? Perhaps the holiday was already paid for? (See: Mother Nature). Perhaps it was already underway and couldn't be avoided - warranted. But this was not the only mistake. There was also a failure to correctly evaluate the decision to leave and return home (if there was such an opportunity). [My understanding is that the author lives in the UK].

I'm not just having a crack at the author here. It seems that people just do not get it. I have met health workers here in Melbourne catching public transport to work because they have not been told otherwise. I have met neighbours of mine, medical professionals, who applauded the Scouts adherence to "social distancing", despite an increasing rate of kids being reported as infected at the local school (which remains open - a separate discussion, mind you). And don't get me started on the AFL.

Andrew Baker (author)
March 26, 2020

Dear "biggus",
Thank you for taking the time to make a comment. Regrettably the editor's description of this as a holiday trip was inaccurate; it was in fact a long scheduled return to Australia from the UK, via France. There was no discretion around the timing of leaving the UK; retreat was not an option; nor was three any discretion around the timing of re-entry to Australia, which is being driven by Australia's own quarantine requirements around animal movements. No flexibility has been offered around this, COVID or not.

As a result most of your assumptions and assertions are inaccurate (and a little prejudicial); this was not a reckless jolly into a known virus hot zone. Events unfolded very rapidly after our arrival.

This article was also in no way a request for sympathy! It narrates an unfortunate set of events to be sure, but many Australians are similarly caught in foreign countries and experiencing much worse than me. Its main purpose was to describe objectively what life in a very tight lockdown looks like, and by implication comparisons with what Australia has done so far.

Nor am I criticising what the Australian federal government has done so far. The French president has far greater powers than an Australian prime minister to implement policy, for a start. And the economic cost to France, its people, and society of its confinement totale policy will be certain and astronomic, while the benefits are uncertain. It is an exceptionally tough trade-off to make.

Graham Hand
March 27, 2020

Hi Andrew, thanks for commenting, I have changed the description from a 'holiday'.

March 27, 2020

Thanks for the response Andrew. (Graham and Chris also).

I do not envy anyone with difficult decisions to make. Medical practitioners, business owners, politicians, people that keep things going for the rest of us, etc. And I think the truth is no one really knows how this will play out; what will work, what won't. What (and who) will survive and won't. From the information available, it just seems as if "we" (society) are going to be entering into a very difficult time. And of course I have the deepest sympathy for those who are currently subject to misfortune, and for those who may encounter it in the future. It's clear that a lot of people are doing their best with what they've got.

While blog commenting is not my preferred form of discourse, I suppose my intent was to highlight the responsibility we (can) have over our own predicament. Now, of course context matters - being caught in transit is very different to being on a holiday. And I would suggest that we perhaps have less control over things than we'd often like to admit. I'm sure the gods would attest. But we certainly have agency as individuals, and this in turn will influence our fate. That is my appeal.

I wish you and your family all the best (and Charlie the dog).

March 27, 2020

Biggus, re: AFL; the masses don't have their bread and circuses, that's what the politicians don't realise they need to keep them happy.

March 26, 2020

I spent some time in France last year and l found the French people l met polite and also had a sense of their place in the World, that they were part of something bigger than themselves. As one gentleman told me proudly, ‘We brought diplomacy to the World’. I think these traits will help France get through this. Australians seem to think that our actions are without consequence and fail to see the bigger picture, ultimately everything is interconnected. We rely on each other to survive.


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