No. 34 ~ St. Colomban ~ Aug. 17, 2021

U.S. declares France Level 4. I try to stay level-headed.

Reading the news since my previous post, Chronicle No. 33, I’ve learned that I was a bit breezy in that message about the unvaccinated and about the protests in France. It’s inaccurate to paint the unvaccinated with too broad a brush. For example, many in the U.S. are in danger of being evicted from their apartments, or surviving without enough food, or both. Some hold multiple jobs, and struggle with adequate day care for their children. For many of these, taking time out to get vaccinated and to recover from possible side effects is just too big an ask.

And last time I underestimated what was to come with the protests in France against the extended use of the health pass. The nationwide protests, largely peaceful, have had attendance at unusually high levels, especially for the vacation season. (I wrote that 2.6 million had signed up for a shot after President Macron’s announcement to require the health pass for entry to restaurants; in fact, 10 million have received their first dose since his speech. )

So now that a fearless reader has shared with me last week’s “Health Alert” issued by the U.S. Embassy in Paris, I’m trying, on one hand, to hold close this lesson of nuance, while on the other, I’m having a little trouble jibing what’s happening in France with the remarkable language in the Alert. Far be it from me to criticize the brass at U.S. State and the CDC. I’m just your man on the street, and, as I write this, hardly even that. Out the window over my left shoulder is the Place de la Chapelle, the small parking and street area that serves as entry to this village’s diminutive sixteenth century chapel. There certainly must be nuances that are out of my reach here in Brittany. As further disclaimer, let me admit that we do not live as tourists here, at least most of the time. Full-time tourists are necessarily more exposed to possible virus transmission than we are. 

Proceeding with caution, let's first consider the timing of the alert. It’s dated the 10th, but its introduction says, “On August 9, the Travel Advisory for France went from Level 3 – Reconsider Travel, to Level 4 – Do Not Travel… The CDC returned France to Level 4…” because there is a “very high level of Covid-19 in the country.”

August 9 was the first day of France’s extended use of its health pass. As of that Monday, patrons of restaurants and bars (including outside dining areas) have to show proof of vaccination, a recent negative test for Covid-19, or proof that they have recently recovered from the disease. The pass had already been required for larger venues. Now it is also required for some shopping centers and department stores. The public health measure was passed by Parliament and approved by the Constitutional Council. 

Could this merely be a coincidence? In these cynical times, I’m having trouble not being, well… cynical. I cannot help wondering why the U.S. declared France unfit for travel on the very day that France instituted a national public health program that is beyond possible in the U.S. Now, in France, when we sit down at a restaurant table and take off our masks, we know every person around us (including staff) is either inoculated or tested negative as far as Covid-19 is concerned. In the U.S., this is happening only venue by venue, and some businesses are hesitant to do anything to discourage patronage. Could it be that the U.S. just wants to pop France’s health pass balloon? 

(The U.S. Embassy Alert also announced a revised policy that seems to make it harder for Americans to convert their CDC vaccination card into the French health pass. I’ll deal with this as a stand-alone issue in my next post.)

A quick reading of the Alert could leave one with the impression that France is more dangerous than the U.S., vis-a-vis the pandemic. The numbers hardly support this notion. 

[Based on feedback, this paragraph was edited on August 18, to clarify the statistics language – ed.] Per day, France is now seeing 403 new cases per million population, slightly less than the U.S., at 427 new cases per million. The vaccination story, however, is different for the two countries. A recent comprehensive analysis in the New York Times showed how, in July, the European Union vaccinated people at four times the rate of the U.S. France has comparable ratings. In France, 69% of the overall population has received one dose; in the U.S., 60%. In France, 58% are fully vaccinated; in the U.S., 51%. In France, masks have continued to be required in shops and supermarkets.

Of course, it’s not my intention to downplay what’s happening with the spread of the Delta variant. Just last weekend, there was discouraging news out of Oregon, where the state’s hospitals are overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients. This, even though 67% of adults in the state are fully vaccinated. It’s still another example of how dangerous it is now to be unvaccinated, for whom travel is certainly a high-risk undertaking. One one hand, it’s not clear to me that France is a more dangerous place to be than the U.S., and on the other, whether or not to travel internationally is a decision each person has to make. 

So the motivation for the Alert remains a mystery to me. As Thomas Wright noted recently for The Atlantic, the Biden administration has banned Europeans from visiting the U.S., even though the E.U. has a higher vaccination rate than the U.S. He wonders if “Travel restrictions. . . are an easier option than taking action at home to stop the virus.” 

Or it could be about what Juliette Kayyem, also in The Atlantic, calls “shifting the burden” from the vaccinated to the unvaccinated. France, with its extended use of the health pass, is doing a better job of shifting the burdens of the pandemic to the unvaccinated than the U.S., where, in some regions, the so-called right to be unmasked and unvaccinated is paramount. Waving the Level 4 flag distracts from this difference in policy. 

To get back to the protests in France against the health pass extension, last Saturday was the fifth in a row of nationwide marches. There have not been huge numbers in Paris, but the participation nationally has been running over 200,000. This is unheard of during summer vacation time, and commentators are going back to 1953 to find comparable movements. 

Still – always hoping for the best – the Alert’s warning that protests in Paris can be characterized by “reckless disregard for public safety” seems a bit over the top. It’s true, the “Yellow Vest” demonstrations of 2018 in Paris were destructive, and the current protests do attract members of a violent group known as the Black Bloc. Recent protests, nevertheless, have been largely peaceful. On a recent Saturday there were 35 arrests nationwide. It’s worth noting that the number of protesters on Saturday was down about 20% from the previous week. There were reportedly about 14,000 in Paris. 

The Alert does not mention that it’s straightforward to avoid the protest areas. Affected Metro stations are temporarily closed, and the areas are commonly cordoned off by police. The protests are announced in advance. We subscribe to a newsletter by the mayor of the seventh arrondissement that lists the protests each week planned for our neighborhood. 

There’s no denying that travel in these times is not for everyone. More to the point – in my view – public health policy makers would do well to come up with more programs like the French health pass extension that encourage people to get vaccinated. Kayyem’s article mentions a survey indicating that a large portion of the unvaccinated may change their minds if airline travel were reserved for the vaccinated. 

And vaccination is the only way to get us there, no matter where we would like to be. 
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