When President Emmanuel Macron’s televised speech, given Monday evening, was announced several days ahead of time, the French took the news as a bad omen. He had already lowered the lockdown hammer three times since March of 2020. What would he do now, with the Delta variant dominant and his vaccination program losing steam?
Twenty-two million watched his speech, and then, in the next three days, 2.6 million saw the light and signed up for their first vaccine dose. For Macron, it was a home run. That’s almost four percent of the total population.
For the vast majority of these new appointment holders, who are less than 35 years old, the kicker was surely Macron’s proposal that the French show a health passport to enter bars, cafés, restaurants and large shopping centers. That means you will either have to be fully vaccinated, be able to show a recent negative test result, or have proof that you had Covid-19 and are recovered. As additional encouragement for the vaccine hesitant, free Covid testing for the asymptomatic will be discontinued next month. Pricing for French residents has not been announced, though a maximum of €49 has been set for non-residents, such as American tourists who need a test for their return flight.
As John Litchfield wrote for The Local on July 13, “To have any fun, you will have to be vaccinated.”
And to work in restaurants and cafés, vaccination will be required as well. The proposal will be debated in a special legislative session this week, with the expectation that the law will go into effect early in August. Macron also announced the start date of September 15 for the anticipated requirement for health workers to be vaccinated. By then, all those who work in facilities where they are exposed to the vulnerable, elderly, or disabled will have to be vaccinated.
After the speech, Health Minister Olivier Véran reinforced the message: unvaccinated health facility personnel “will not be able to work and will not be paid.”
In scientific nomenclature, the Greek letter Delta often signifies change, and the Delta variant, now showing up in the majority of positive cases in both France and the U.S., has certainly changed the risk level for the unvaccinated. New case counts have doubled in recent weeks in both countries, and Macron and his public health team seem keen to learn from the object lesson of the English. In the U.K. the more contagious Delta variant is now responsible for virtually all new Covid cases.
Even though about half of the French have had their first dose, and in the States almost half are fully vaccinated, vaccination rates are trailing off. In June, France had a 50% decrease in vaccinations over just a few weeks, while in the U.S. vaccinations fell by half in May.
In France, there is opposition to Macron’s public health measures. Thousands were in the streets yesterday across the country, claiming that the expanded use of the health pass amounts to a vaccine mandate, a violation of their civil rights. But these were mere thousands, compared to the 2.6 million who made vaccine appointments. The opposition here appears to be based on the French principle of La Liberté, not on cultish political partisanship and false information that appear to be the root of vaccine hesitancy in the U.S.
So for French health authorities, the dramatic response of vaccine seekers after the president’s speech must be a call for optimism, as are recent polls showing that the number of French who are willing to be vaccinated has nearly doubled since the beginning of the year. Macron’s tough love approach may be just what the doctor ordered.
In the U.S. optimism is harder to come by. The Biden administration is not expected to push for a federal health passport, leaving the responsibility in the hands of the states or private companies. Extremism and disinformation are superseding public health imperatives, pushing the country into what CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky called a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” at a press conference on Friday. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll revealed that 47% of Republicans say they will likely not get vaccinated, compared to six percent of Democrats.
The differences in how the two countries have approached their public health crises have been striking in the past — my encounter with two mounted policemen in Paris comes to mind, when I was asked to hand my paperwork up to a gloved rider during the first lockdown of spring 2020. But now the differences may steer the countries toward vastly different outcomes. I hope the French will continue to change their behavior for the better, based on the science the pandemic presents. In the U.S., where some areas have less than 20% of their people vaccinated, so-called unvaccinated hot-spots and Republican states could witness changes no one wants to see: a tragic, self-imposed Darwinian experiment, in which those who hold truth to be self-evident survive, and some of the others do not.
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