Antiviral France


Before dinner at my friend Philippe’s apartment the other night, no one shook hands. No one attempted to “faire la bise,” or kiss, either. As soon as I entered, I was directed to wash up before greeting everyone. Uncertainty in the wake of a new coronavirus has required a new standard of social etiquette.

Still, I think I was the only one among the guests to have had a flu shot (I realize that the Corvid-19 and the seasonal flu are not the same), even though the flu strikes and kills many more people than this new virus has so far. It’s the unknown that causes fear. A low-level panic has set in. Even the decidedly non-sensationalist early-evening discussion show, C’est Dans l’Air, or it’s in the air, devoted every single program last week to the virus, the government’s response and, of course, the part that the media and social media play in spreading true and false information as well as alarm. This news show was only serving the public. The French love to complain. It’s in the national character. But the French are like everyone else in that they love to worry.

The Louvre is closed. Its staff fears further propagation of a virus that has infected about 200 people out of a population of almost 67 million in France, and the Louvre is a crossroads of potentially infected visitors from everywhere. A couple of large sporting events in France were canceled. My friend Jean, who works for an organization that helps train young people to enter the job market, had to meet at the Toulouse airport a returning group of youths whose planned internship in Italy was curtailed because of the virus. Their re-entry spurred alarm among parents in his small provincial city, everyone fearing they’d fall ill and die by coming into passing contact with one of the returnees. But in Paris my gym was as busy as usual. The metro the other morning was as filled as it always is. Still, there’s a feeling that anyone might be a carrier. It makes me wonder what it must have been like back in the 1930s and ’40s, when French neighbors suspected each other of being collaborators or worse.

Over dinner last Saturday, the coronavirus was, naturally, a topic of conversation. France might even be at greater risk for infection than other European countries outside of Italy, I said, citing a survey published last week by the French polling firm Ifop, that found that a third of French don’t wash their hands after using the restroom and half don’t before eating. On my mentioning this, my friend Pierre said in a huff that there were probably lots of people in middle America who didn’t bathe or wash their hands regularly. That may be true, but it wasn’t the point.

French personal hygiene aside – although the lack of cleanliness in Paris is a major topic of the mayoral elections coming up in a couple of weeks – I get a sense of impending disaster in the air. This might be the combination of a very real threat of a pandemic, coupled with a lack of control everyone feels about how their lives are playing out as people in office bicker for personal gain oblivious to the real hardships that ordinary citizens face. The government is pushing through a reform to the pension system, despite resistance from a majority of the French, and there’s another threat of crippling transit shutdowns. But government arrogance and workers’ strikes are almost common in France. The Corvid-19 may be beyond anyone’s control.

No one shook hands or kissed goodbye the other night. But I did make sure to wash up when I got home. I’m not one to panic, but you can never be too sure.

One thought on “Antiviral France

  1. the same thing is happening already in the USA. Folks not shaking hands, looking in askance if someone coughs or sneezes, canceling vacation plans abroad and on cruises. A friend of mine said, this is what it was like to live in the 14th century: 2 popes and a plague.


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