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Fear, hoarding and Gallic shrugs as French brace for coronavirus epidemic

A sign reading "Protected area dedicated to coronavirus" is displayed at Lenval pediatric hospital in Nice, France on March 5, 2020.
A sign reading "Protected area dedicated to coronavirus" is displayed at Lenval pediatric hospital in Nice, France on March 5, 2020. © Eric Gaillard, Reuters

As France braced to raise its coronavirus alert level warning to 3 and President Emmanuel Macron warned the public late Thursday that an epidemic was “inevitable”, reports of the escalating outbreak were met with fear, hoarding and complete indifference. 

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Empty stores, stolen face masks and Gallic shrugs. France’s escalating coronavirus outbreak – the number of nationwide cases rose to 613 on Friday with nine dead – has met with very different reactions. 

Government spokesperson Sibeth Ndiaye had sought to downplay the crisis earlier in the week, pointing out that more people were infected with flu in a year than were currently infected with coronavirus.

But on Wednesday she conceded that the government would likely up the epidemic alert to a maximum level 3, leading to potential travel bans and a clampdown on public activities. 

Reports of the coronavirus outbreak has made some French citizens very fearful and sparked panic-buying among others. 

Photos of empty shelves in French supermarkets throughout the country were posted on social media earlier this week as customers stocked up on pasta, rice and toilet paper. 

In the northern Paris suburb of Seine Saint-Denis, shelves had been stripped of pasta and rice at a supermarket in Aulnay-sous-Bois. 

 

In their place read a sign that said: “These items are currently out of stock due to coronavirus.”

On Saturday, a supermarket in Nice was cleaned out of pasta and rice within a few hours. 

“People were also stocking up on water, milk and canned goods," said the management of the supermarket Leclerc à La Colle-sur-Loup, which urged its customers not to panic. 

“This is not the zombie apocalypse,” said medical historian Mark Honigsbaum, author of “The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria and Hubris”. “It’s probably a good idea to have six rolls of toilet roll at home but not 24.”

 

Honigsbaum felt the fear of coronavirus was “understandable,” given there is no vaccine for the virus and human beings have no immunity to it. 

He also thought that “a bit of panic is a good thing as it makes people more aware”.

“The penny hasn’t dropped for enough people,” he added. “Too many people are still shaking hands and hanging out in busy pubs or crowded bars.” 

‘More anxious than normal’

French pharmacies have been so inundated with requests for protective face masks that the government said Tuesday it would requisition all masks in the coming months, reserving them for healthcare professionals and those infected by the coronavirus.

Thousands of face masks have been stolen from French hospitals since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, French daily Le Parisien reported on Thursday. 

“Some customers are more anxious than normal,” said Erica, 31, a smiling, dark-haired pharmacist in Issy-les-Moulineaux. 

“We sell out of masks and hand gel as soon as they’re in stock,” she said. “If we receive 200 in a day, they’re all gone in a few hours.”

“We keep ordering more but we’re not receiving them because the laboratories themselves are out of stock.”

“People are asking us how they should protect themselves,” she said, adding that, she personally, was not particularly worried. 

“I would have liked to have bought a mask,” said Claire, 37, a project engineer who asked not to give her surname, “but I heard they had all sold out.”

“It should have been possible to contain the epidemic so that it would not develop in France,” said Claire, adding however, that she thought the government’s advice seemed “logical and in line with medical advice”. 

“I’m washing my hands regularly, trying not to touch my face, avoiding handshakes and door handles – and disinfecting my hands with hydroalcoholic gel.”

Some look for answers in 'La Peste'

The demand for hand sanitiser gel sparked calls for its regulation after reports that prices had doubled or even tripled. "I'm ready to regulate prices of masks and gels by decree if the abuses are numerous," Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on Twitter.

On Friday a price limit was slapped on hydroalcoholic gels for personal hygiene, regulating the price to €3 per 100 ml. 

Meanwhile, staff at the Louvre museum refused to go to work on Sunday and Monday, citing “legitimate concerns” over coronavirus. 

In a bid to contain the outbreak, Paris authorities cancelled the French capital’s book fair, banned the Paris marathon (a ban some chose to ignore) while fashion week parties were all but called off. 

Some French people have looked for answers in Albert Camus’s “La Peste” (The Plague), the story of an outbreak of plague in the Algerian town of Oran, with bookshops reporting a sharp spike in sales.

Others have turned to Steven Soderbergh’s medical thriller “Contagion”, now listed as one of iTunes' top 10 rentals. 

French anthropologist Frédéric Keck told FRANCE 24 that he thought the French government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak was very “rational”. 

“I think the crisis is rather well-managed in France, communication with the public is quite clear, quite transparent and quite rational. There is some common-sense advice and at the same time the government explains that there are difficult measures to be taken and why they are being taken.”

“There was an excess of precaution in 2009,” he said referring to the outbreak of the H1N1 virus, when the government bought two doses of vaccine per individual, more than 90 million doses when only 10 million people were vaccinated.

‘We no longer shake hands’

But many French citizens don’t seem to be unduly worried. Parisians in the northeast of the city shrugged off fears of coronavirus on Thursday evening, where supermarket stocks were perfectly replenished.  

“The empty stores – that’s in the huge supermarkets in the suburbs,” said Nicolas, the manager of French supermarket Franprix in the 18th arrondissement (district). “It’s true that we’re out of hand sanitiser,” he conceded, “but everything else is normal.” 

“I’m being vigilant,” Nicolas added. “I heard there was a case at the [nearby] Bichat Hospital. But neither I nor my friends are particularly worried.”

“We’ve sold a bit more pasta and rice than normal,” said the manager of health food store La Vie Claire on the rue Caulaincourt, who asked not to give his name. “We’ve seen a few less customers… but other than that, no real change.” 

“It’s true that it’s a bit quieter tonight,” said Frédéric Casado, 38, the bouncy owner of the Provencal-styled Marinette bar. “At this time on a Thursday night it’s normally packed,” he said, glancing around at the handful of clients. “We wondered if it was due to the news… but it could also be because it’s raining.” 

“We’re being careful," he added. “We’re not shaking hands, we’re not embracing anymore, we thoroughly disinfect the bar and restaurant every evening.”

Others laughed off the risk of coronavirus and said it was being whipped up into a frenzy by the media. 

“You’re more likely to get run over in the street than you are to catch coronavirus,” said Natasha, one of the managers at French supermarket chain Monoprix. 

“If people are buying a bit more toilet paper than normal it’s because it’s on special offer.”

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