Patrolling the Champs-Elysees avenue in lockdown Paris (Photo by MARTIN BUREAU/AFP via Getty Images)

Lessons from lockdown France

In Paris, the institution of a lockdown triggered a great deal of scoffing and appeals to liberty. Now it’s New Zealand’s turn, and we have to decide whether we’re going to give it the seriousness it demands, writes Jack Goldingham Newsom, a New Zealander just returned from Paris to another national lowdown.

France confirmed its first case of Covid-19 on January 24. Two months later, the country is in lockdown. Residents can leave their for five reasons: to travel to work that cannot be done from home, to visit a medical professional, to buy essential groceries, provide aid to someone in need, or brief personal sporting activity. You need to print and complete a form each time you want to leave your house. Without a form, you risk being fined 135 euros. The fine rises to nearly 4,000 euros if you’re a repeat offender.

Spot checks are being done across the country, with some 100,000 police tasked with enforcing the rules. Within five days, 90,000 fines were issued. The French ideal of liberty is seen by many as in danger. Politicians are split about increasing the severity. One option is to issue a weekend curfew, where absolutely no one is allowed to leave their homes. Another option is to narrow down the justifications for leaving home. What is clear is that the restrictions do not seem to be working as well as intended.

When Covid-19 surfaced in France, I admit there was something almost exciting about it, at least at first. That excitement was based, I think, on two things. Getting a front-row view of a response of a huge and important country to a global pandemic. But also I wasn’t deemed “at risk”.

Then we learned more about the virus. We learned that you could have the virus for as long as 12-14 days without showing any symptoms. We learned that you could spread the virus to older people, more likely to die, simply by being in close proximity to them. We also learned that Italy was in crisis, and had begun to shut down. France was going the same way – but we didn’t change our behaviour enough. A defiance of government and health professionals in the service of freedom.

It didn’t matter that we were told to stay at home. It didn’t matter that all the cafes and bars were closed. We just hung out in the parks instead. We brought our coffee from home, our baguettes and our wine from the supermarket, and continued to apéro on the banks of the Seine, or the canal. We weren’t one metre apart from each other, and we kept doing bisous – pecking one another on the cheeks – because, well, it’s the culture. It’s what you do.

Last Monday, President Emmanuel Macron addressed the nation. I’d just caught up with a friend and grabbed a kebab from a place that probably wasn’t following the guidelines to both cleanliness and legality of opening (it was one of a very few shops that were open – even McDonalds was forced to closed). Why did we do it? Because we didn’t know when the next one would be. We didn’t know when we would next be able to meet and sit on a park bench one metre away from each other and eat a greasy kebab. It wasn’t even very nice.

On the way home, a woman was in shock. We overheard her exclaiming “quinze jours!” in astonishment at the two and a half week self-isolation. It was as if we were to be locked up. Suitcases began rolling down the streets, people were packing their cars to go to the countryside if they were lucky enough. Everyone who had the virus without symptoms in Paris would now bring it to the regions, where the medical support is significantly less.

I got home and opened my computer to listen to Macron’s speech. “Going for a walk in the park is now forbidden,” he said. The situation sunk in even more as he repeatedly told the Nation, “We are at war.” I could feel myself slipping deeper into the chair. I would have to stay inside a very small apartment, unable to see anyone.

The lockdown started at noon Tuesday. I spent the morning walking the neighbourhood. I jumped on things and I spun around and loitered by the river. I couldn’t believe what was happening, both to me, to the country I was in, and to the people I knew.

Lockdown began. I didn’t leave my apartment until the next day, when I went for a run with a handwritten form because I don’t have a printer. What I saw really shocked me. Paris was quieter than normal, but people were still everywhere. They were talking to each other, they were working out together at the outdoor gyms by the canal, and nobody seemed inclined to follow the government’s advice. The number of people running who looked like they hadn’t run in a long time was astronomical. The people of Paris would still go out – only now they needed a form.

I realised that I had a choice. I could continue to adopt a mindset of “I’ll keep doing what I want”, or I could stay home, locked up in a little apartment. There was a third option: abort the mission altogether. I headed home to New Zealand.

I was lucky to be able to do that. And the people of New Zealand, I believe, are lucky to have had a firm decision. We now have a choice to make: are we willing to properly stay put and avoid contact for the next four weeks?

Because the choice is this: act like we did in France, and trumpet our liberties over government advice, with the obvious result that restrictions get stronger. Or adhere to the measures for what will be an agonising four weeks, stamp out the virus while we have the chance, and return to relative freedom in a shorter period of time. We can still go outside individually to take in the air. We are surrounded with natural beauty. Most of us are not confined to tiny apartments. Our Covid-19 lockdown is kind.

My advice from lockdown Paris is this: Have compassion for everyone who must now stay at home. Have compassion for the thousands of New Zealanders who are now returning home, and, inevitably, bringing the virus with them. They probably were faced with a similar choice to mine, and it’s not an easy situation to be in. And look out for those who are vulnerable.


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