• Philip Ammerman

LETTER FROM PARIS

Updated: Sep 18

This evening the looming disaster of the coronavirus took on a new dimension for me. I’ll illustrate this with a series of anecdotes. All names have been changed.



At Josephine’s place of business, three people have tested positive for COVID-19. According to French law, Josephine is now required to have a mandatory test. She has been twice to a testing centre, and each time has been turned away because there is not enough testing availability. She plans to wake up tomorrow at 05:00, so she can be in line by 06:00, in order to be tested.

The fear and irritation this causes are, obviously, intense. It’s difficult enough to work 10 hour+ days. It’s worse doing this and not being able to access public healthcare that is dearly paid from by your salary, and was supposed to have been reinforced months ago.

Josephine lives in an apartment with her parents, who are both over 70 years of age. Her father suffers from diabetes and other health complications, and is high risk. So she needs to isolate from her parents.

She lives with her daughter, who is 12. She needs to keep her distance from her daughter as well. Most Parisian apartments are not terribly large, and people tend to use the same bathrooms, even if they can restrict themselves to certain other rooms.

Her daughter takes public transport every day from school. The first cases in schools have already been reported, yet so far schools are insisting that afflicted students stay home, and classes resume a normal schedule.

Her nephew had violent symptoms of illness today—fever, cough, etc.—and has not been tested yet. The family considers it certain that he has the virus. He has immediate family members who are also high risk.

I’ve had business meetings in Paris this week where full restrictions are observed: distancing around a boardroom table, masks, antiseptic.

Yet outside, the restaurants are full, particularly at night. The good weather this week means that cafes and restaurants outdoors are packed from about 18:00 onwards. There is no real distancing. Masks are not being worn in restaurants and cafes, as per regulation. People are huddled together over mobile phones and telling jokes to each other.

Riding on public transport has become an exercise in courage. On one recent metro ride, everyone was wearing a mask and protected, except for one woman, who spoke into her mobile phone for about 6 stops. That was in the metro car.

The bus system is widely used. Temperatures this week have been above 30 degrees. There is no possibility of distancing on the bus, and people are sweating and massed together during the ride, and around the doors for entry and exit. I hesitated using the support bars, but it was impossible not to. I regretted not wearing gloves.

Young people are actively ignoring instructions to self-distance. Many are living their lives as per pre-COVID times: going to clubs; meeting at cafes; etc. More and more young people are contracting the disease.

In order to calm nerves, the government passed new regulations that people must self-quarantine for 7 days after being tested positive for COVID.

This is in contrast to most countries which require a 14-day self-quarantine. COVID antibodies are found in humans to more than 21 days after the first detection of infection.

I flew into Paris via Lisbon. The plane was predictably full: every row occupied, every seat occupied in each row. It is impossible to understand how the virus will not spread in these conditions.

Airlines are touting how well they clean their cabins, but the seat back in front of me was dirty and uncleaned, and the cabin window was smudged where someone had leaned their forehead, leaving sweat on the glass.

It doesn’t take a genius to see the planes aren’t being cleaned properly: they never have been. Claims that the air is clean due to enhanced circulation are also probably bullshit.

In economy class, you travel shoulders touching with the passenger next to you, and less than half a meter from people’s heads behind and in front of you. A flight lasting 2.5 hours is an incubator for disease.

There are no tests upon arrival in Paris. The Passenger Locator Form is filled out by hand, not online. I sincerely doubt it is even useful, or is properly kept. The stewardesses are instructed to collect them during the flight. What happens to them afterwards is unknown.

I see no police presence on the streets at all. No health inspections of premises. No mask enforcement. No anti-terrorism police patrols. It’s like they have disappeared, in contrast to every other visit I’ve done to France (I visit 6-8 times per year).

This week, there have been 10,000 new cases discovered on several days in France. The number must be far higher, but there is an absence of testing capability.

The only bright spot is that the number of deaths is vastly lower than at the peak of the virus last spring. According to Worldometers, on 16 September there were:

· 9784 new cases

· 64 deaths


It’s very hard to judge what is going on today, or how the situation will evolve in the next few months. What I see is that:

  • Companies are trying desperately to protect their employees and customers: I see measures taken consistently everywhere I go;

  • The government has been trying to deal with the situation using partial lockdowns and measures to avoid further economic damage. However, it is not enforcing them;

  • Despite repeated and urgent government warnings, young people and people up to middle age are ignoring protocol, particularly after work and before returning home for the evening. There is a feeling of “liberation” or reprieve from the threat;

  • It is inconceivable how a modern transport system can be shielded from COVID: the metro, public buses, airplanes are all incubators and transmission points. The fact that many people ignore protocol while on public transport is regrettable.

The mortality rates we are seeing are low. Theoretically, they should move upwards after a 2-3 week interval as the number of new cases increases. However, at the present time they are extremely low and people appear to have accepted the risk and internalized it. After all, 64 deaths on a day where 9,784 new cases are discovered is “not bad”, at least in perceptions of numbers.

There are two key questions in my mind:

1. At which point will panic spread, causing more people to observe health protocols more closely? The panic one feels at the family level is pronounced. The panic one feels at the social level, when one passes a corner café and sees 75-100 people sitting on chairs with no masks or distancing, is apparently not present at all.

2. At which point does the lockdown create more damage than the virus itself?

Neither of these are particularly brilliant questions, and I don’t have an answer for either.

We are heading into a very volatile autumn.

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Philip Ammerman

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